Luke Altmann is an Adelaide-based new music composer, curator and gallery director, and runs the de la Catessen Gallery on Anster Street in the CBD.
In the chiptune community Lauren Tomczak and Sebastian Tomczak, as Hidden Village, are internationally recognized. They draw upon an eclectic collection of retro game consoles, such as the Atari 2600, Vectrex, the Sega Master System and Mega Drive, utilising recently developed sound software to create a performance duo. They endeavour to explore the use of relatively unconventional hardware and software in music making, such as the use of mobile phones as homebrew portable instruments and the construction of self-designed digital sequencing devices from scratch as performance.
Additionally, they have designed and implemented a number of physical interfaces for use in musical performance involving light and water as well as an interface for the Vectrex videogame console. They have performed at the Australian Computer Music Conference (2006), the Tyndall Assembly Concert Series (2007), and expanded to perform as Hidden City for the opening of the 2008 Adelaide Festival of Arts, alongside Stephen Whittington, Luke Harrald, Derek Pascoe and the Zephyr Quartet. The closing concert of AFUM 09 is one of Hidden Village’s major performances for 2009, and will feature a keyboard-controlled walkman-mellotron, singing bowls, and live VGA hacking.
Obviously, I had some questions to ask them ahead of this, beginning with a request for their definition of the under-represented art of Chiptune:
HV: Chiptune or chipmusic is the use of obsolete video game consoles and computers in music composition, production, and performance. The movement revolves around the use of sound chips. However, the meaning of the word has changed over time; originally, the term chiptune was used to describe a certain kind of Amiga music in the very late eighties and early nineties, so it was a very narrow use of the word.
Since then, the word has become broader in its application, and today includes music that was made using emulation, music that has its roots in inspiration (music that uses sounds that imitate sound chips rather than emulate), and music that uses traditional instrumentation to complement (or to be complemented by) chipmusic instrumentation. Currently, popular consoles and computers within the chipmusic scene include the Nintendo Game Boy, the NES, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga. However, a wide variety of consoles are in use today.
LA: Most activities of the growing international chiptune community are conducted online. Why are live performances so rare?
HV: Are live performances so rare? They are in Adelaide, but even in Melbourne and Sydney the numbers of concerts and shows featuring Game Boys and Nintendos are increasing. In the US, the UK and Europe, and parts of South-East Asia, live chipmusic performance is more common than here in Australia.
LA: Chiptune music, pervading areas of private entertainment otherwise closed to art music - namely computer and video games - has undeniable connotations of introverted escape. How do people respond to hearing this music in the context of a public concert in room full of strangers?
HV: The responses of people will undoubtedly change depending on the material that is presented as well as their own connection (if any) to these types of electronic sounds. For Hidden Village, chipmusic at its core represents an exploration of decontextualisation and an exploration of constraints - both technical and, as a result, timbral. So in this sense, it is hoped that people do no necessarily connect any feelings of nostalgia directly with our music but, rather, hear these sounds in a new light, in a new context.
LA: Do you perform as though playing a game, thus building a piece out of personal responses to unforeseeable dilemmas hidden from the audience, or do you largely compose pieces in advance with a focus on musical development in the more or less traditional sense?
HV: Our performances are a mix of through-composed music and improvisation in the sense that the structure and form of a work is not set but certain phrases and instrumentation are set beforehand. In our performance for the AFUM, we are combining aspects of chipmusic, live sampling, improvisation, and field recordings, with a healthy dose of humour and reflexivity, as well as some more serious minimalism.
LA: The late Tristram Cary was a pioneer of finding new musical uses for old electrical equipment - starting with discarded WWII navy surplus components - and also played a central role in the institutionalisation of electronic music in Australia. We now see Hidden Village taking a similar do-it-yourself approach as graduates of the Adelaide University's state-of-the-art Electronic Music Unit to which Cary contributed so much. Is this a consciously ironic reaction to the standards of academia or a warm acknowledgement and deep bow to your musical roots? Or both?
HV: I would have to say it's more of a deep bow to our musical roots. The use of DIY aesthetics and ideologies have been a part of electronic music for as long as music has been electronic - this sense still runs strongly through modern music technology academia. However, the use of hacked, modified or subverted obsolete technology - especially hardware-oriented applications - is something that is not so popular today in academic circles… we are all very good at looking forwards and never looking back. So perhaps in a sense there is a little sense of irony, or at least a sense of going against the grain.
LA: It's important to point out that your prominent use of otherwise obsolete and culturally era-specific thus nostalgic equipment does not represent a rejection of current audio technology, which in fact you constantly utilise and explore alongside the vintage models of - for example - Atari and Vectrex. Is this co-existence of old and new employed simply through a need to make various old interfaces compatible with contemporary technology while using their limitations as a structure for performance, or a need or desire to expand the language of musical expression through which you communicate to the public?
HV: We would have to say that the use of obsolete technology in our music and performances represents a need to use a different language of musical expression than what might be otherwise available, especially in the areas of timbre and texture. Technology from different eras has different characteristics and as a result different positive attributes. We don't see a need to exclude certain technologies based on their age or function but rather try to find a use for a range of different technologies in music performance.