River of Electrons returns to Dionysian Industrial Complex with an exercise in personal archive resurrection.
Chiptunes and retrocomputing references are now an established part of the electronic music scene. But Rapunzel is slightly different. As RoE explains:
These short sketches and exercises were composed on a BBC Micro using the MuProc (Quicksilva Music Processor) when I was a teenager back in the 1980s. Somehow I managed to still have a copy of the disks from that time. And, on finding an emulator for the BBC Micro that ran in my browser, it was actually possible to run the software and play back and rescue these tunes.
The fascination for me today, 30 years later, is to try to relate to and understand the individual who created these. These are obviously juvenalia. Sketches and half-baked experiments with harmony and counterpoint. Unfinished and unpolished. But what intrigues (and sort of terrifies) me today is the ambition. This is music made on software without the Faustian bargain of looping, or even copy-and-paste. And so every note is played by hand. And every bar is different. Motifs are repeated, but either due to ineptitude (playing the wrong notes) or design they continuously evolve and mutate. Time stretches and shrinks, tunes are harmonized against different counter-melodies or riffs.
I can identify the influences from the music I listened to then, perhaps more clearly today than I recognised at the time. A mixture of fragments of my very rudimentary classical music education, the minimalist 80s synthpop I listened to daily, some plangent folk melody, some slightly bluesy cadences. Not actually much “videogame music”. I played games with the music switched off. And at the time there was little sense of game music as a “genre” or something worth paying attention to. The biggest influence of all, though, is Russian ballet music. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s Firebird are the two examples I was listening to heavily at around this time. And so the odd idea of writing a ballet based on a folk-tale seemed quite natural. As did the short, spiky rhythmic motifs.
Back then, I was oblivious to what is now an obvious absurdity : trying to make orchestral ballet music on a chip that supports three channels of square waves and one noise channel. The sounds are simply harsh, high-pitched bleeps with little variation of timbre. For the current recording I’ve run them through some EQ, echo and reverb to make the sound just a little bit sweeter and softer and less tiring to listen to. And the echo gives everything a slightly twinkly, “Christmassy” feel.
The echo / reverb is probably overdone, but I decided that I’d apply one effect uniformly across the whole album rather try to vary it with the different pieces. This is not meant to be a new remix / remaster or recreation of the original. But a neutral rendering of it. Just made slightly more listenable.
Finally, I should note that about 60% of the music here was explicitly for a ballet called “Rapunzel”. The rest are sketches from around the same time that seem to fit the right mood. I’ve pieced the various fragments together to make what starts to feel like a more coherent whole. So this is, in some ways, a modern reconstruction.
Listening today, in 2018, Rapunzel is an alien music from a distant and disconnected past. Even if only a personal one. This music is uncanny because it is both so very like, and so very unlike, our idea of “game-music”. The chiptune quality of the sound is inescapable. But there are no manic arpeggios hyper-sequenced impossibly fast. This is not the sound of Nanoloop ravers like Droid-On. Nor even the hipster glitch aesthetic of, say, Super Madrigal Brothers.
Instead this is naive and plaintive romanticism. A music of moping and mournful sighs. The theme of a girl (or solar goddess) locked up in a tower by a witch (wicked? or just very protective?) is surely the archetypal teenage boy’s fantasy. A Gothy, angst-ridden saga.
But today we note that it’s also a classic trope of the 80s videogame. What, after all, is Jumpman’s fight with Donkey Kong, or Mario’s quest in the Mushroom Kingdom, but an update on the mediaeval theme of “Attack on the Castle of Love”?