Improvisation for killers

A while back, I got hooked on playing Grid Wars 2, a freeware PC ripoff of an Xbox game I’m not familiar with. I’ve never been much of a gamer, having very little patience for the gigantic time-wasting MMORPG’s so popular these days. My taste in games runs two ways– open-ended and self-directed wonders such as Armadillo Run, or classic arcade action where you can play until you’re sick of it and then just switch it off and forget it for the next six months. Grid Wars 2 is a perfect example of the latter.

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A few weeks back, I decided to replace all of the sounds in my copy of Grid Wars with various sound samples so I could use the game as a musical source for improv work. After trying a variety of different sounds from around the net– guitars, bass, vintage drum machines, other video game noises– I ran into a webspace of the South Holland-based gamelan group Marsudi Raras, who offer public-licensed and full-resolution gamelan samples.Kyahi Paridjata gamelan, a 200+ year-old holding of the Museum Nusantara in Delft, is played by Marsudi Raras each Saturday… on the off chance I ever make it to Delft, I’m going to have to check this out.

Anyhow, back to Grid Wards. After checking out over 250 individual samples of Kyahi Paridjata, I settled on 36, all I needed to replace the original sounds. Technically, 37 sounds are needed, but I discovered early on that whatever sound was assigned to the “auto-fire” function would quickly grow annoying, so I had begun using a file of audio silence for this purpose.

Commonly, improvisational music is thought of in terms of constructive teamwork. An improv ensemble works together to build upon one another’s soundings, with listening being a key ingredient for players who wish to contribute something worthwhile. It is a rare work, such as John Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” or Al Margolis’ more recent “An Innocent, Abroad”; where sound elements and players are unaware of one another– it is far more uncommon that the players to be directly antagonistic.

But that’s how it was with my improvisational “partner,” the Grid Wars engine, constantly putting out a stream of cold-hearted villainous space creatures focused entirely on my destruction. How odd it was to find myself locked into this strange duet– with one half of my brain calmly allowing numerous enemies to sound into existence to create a more interesting ensemble, and the other half screaming “KILL! KILL! KILL!”

And of course, I had to pay attention to both. My enemy had to be listened to, and often, allowed to continue existing for the sake of the piece. On the other hand, if I wanted the piece to continue, I had to slaughter parts of the ensemble in order to survive.

In short, not exactly your usual performing environment.

In the end, I was pleased with many of the results, and decided to share my favorite recording with you– an 8-minute gamelan-sampled adventure pitting man against machine hilariously* titled “Game-lan”. Enjoy!

* Actual humor may vary.

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3 Responses to “Improvisation for killers”

  1. Geert Jan van Oldenborgh Says:

    Interesting use of my samples, one I never thought of.

  2. i, squub Says:

    Wow, man. How’d I miss this entry?

    I love the audio track that game out of this; kudos on the choice of samples. Just as much, though, Kudos on the idea and execution thereof. Brilliant way to generate an audio track.

    I think there must be a sharp contrast between the game and the sounds you’re using here; this is a fairly relaxing track. I haven’t played the game myself, but from the screenshot there it looks like it’s anything but calm.

    Finally — this’d be cool to do with some games where there were lots of firing options, or control options, or something. Something like 8 keys for 8 types of weapon, so that you could end up choosing forms of attack based on sound and composition as much as on what shot you need for the game situation.

    anyway, cool stuff.

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