Archive for January, 2015

Vinyl size

It’s been a while since I’ve picked through the mechanical innards of robot music, but there are enough servos whirring around this sub-genre to justify a revisit. While the mechanical prowess might not have advanced all that much since sensational acts like Compressor Head made their debut, the artistry has definitely shifted to a different level.

It’s hard to pitch a series of Meccano, steam engine-based instruments against some of the more hi-tech productions out there, but Morten Riis low-fi music boxes do create a weird, ambient soundscape unlike any other. Not only that, but there’s something wonderfully intricate and understated about how he presents his work to the world.

In a more computerised vein, electronic composer/producer Squarepusher also took his own machine music in a fresh direction via a partnership with Japanese robotic artists Z-Machines. The result was a painstaking album recording that resembled a computer game soundtrack. Yes the hands of the composers were ever present in the coding, but the use of real world instruments – as opposed to synthesized sounds – definitely created something more organic. It’s an approach also exploited by Mason Bretan over at Gerogia Tech, with the added nuance of the robot performers improvising in reaction to the aural noodlings of their programmer.

So, steam instruments, robot music, robot improvisation and now, taking the sounds even further ‘out there’, a bio computer listening and reacting to composer Eduardo Miranda at this year’s Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth. The organic components, grown from a many-headed slime mold, act like ears that listen to the pianist and react by generating sympathetic electromagnetic vibrations through the piano’s strings. Combined, the symbiotic musical relationship creates something that sounds like a contemporary classical piece, coupled with something more ambient.

We’re all wired for sound then, right? Well, obviously, that all depends on personal taste. From my perspective, there’s still a way to go until a captivating performance is perfected. Whatever you think, though, none of these robots would emerge victorious in a dance-off against the Public Service Broadcast!

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Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry’s been stalking me of late. Maybe it’s the result of listening to more BBC Radio 6 Music. Maybe not. Either way, the tracks of Blondie have been creating an aural backdrop to my recent life. No surprise then that this has led to a bit of site related research, and yet another network of uncovered skiffy connections.

The song ‘Rapture’ is the closest pass to the genre during her time with Blondie – its proto rap about an all-consuming man from Mars being an obvious example. Beyond that though, there are enough additional crossovers to pinpoint her sci-fi identification throughout the 1980s.

Film wise there’s the inevitable inclusion of Nicki Brand from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Harry’s portrayal of an overstimulated radio DJ who becomes a disciple of the ‘new flesh’. Before this however, there’s a stranger unification that occurred at the start of her solo career and the 1981 album Kookoo. Teaming up with Swiss artist H.R. Giger she created a series of avant garde videos which wouldn’t look out of place to contemporary Bjork or Fever Ray fans. Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight that same year – and sporting a haircut that seems to prefigure Gigi Edgley’s in Farscape – she explains her desire to establish herself as an artist rather than a pop star. There is, however, another link that she didn’t discuss openly until last year when she admitted that she turned down the role of Pris in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

She’s always had that nerdcore level of respect – posing for Andy Warhol to generate a live digital portrait of her on an Amiga 1000 in 1985 being just one case in point. But creating sci-fi rap before Dr Octagon, appearing in a meta video nasty, turning down an iconic femme fatal… And she’s still rocking it and holding up her geek credentials at last year’s SXSW. If there was ever a queen of sci-fi pop, it has to be Ms Harry.

Or maybe I’m being dated and myopic. Drop me a line in comments if you can come up with a better contender.

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Damien Walter, at the tail end of last year, published a piece in The Guardian saying that good sci-fi writing had the chance to hold its own against the spectacle of modern videogames. While he was right that most sci-fi games are terribly written, the scope of imagination currently being unleashed within this space is worrying to any scribbler.

Take Inner Space, which reached its Kickstarter goal last year. It’s a game that I personally invested in simply because of its premise and the beautiful execution crafted by Tyler Tomaseski’s team. As the pilot of a glider within a Dyson sphere world, it’s up to the player to unearth artefacts that upgrade your craft and enable deeper exploration. The developer’s promotional video projects a real, alien sense of place, even if the underlying narrative
remains untested.

British developer Hello Games also brings No Man’s Sky to this new wave of sci-fi themed experiences. An entirely procedurally generated universe, if offers one of the most opulent and diverse environs of any space shooter to date. Again, though, is there a good and strong narrative thread holding the player’s attention across this kaleidoscopic galaxy? We shall see.

Around a year ago, the film Gravity featured on the site with the cautious consideration as to whether the opening scene of The Stars My Destination could sustain a feature length level of attention. The answer, in hindsight, was it absolutely could. So no surprise then that Three One Zero have decided there’s millage in generating a game around the same premise (see Adrift trailer above).

Of the three games, the immediacy of a survival story seems the most potent. But it’s still not enough to address the deficit caused by so many bad game plots. Interestingly though, as the discipline of gaming and generating virtual worlds spills out, cross-over projects from the wider artistic community seem to be on the increase.

The Nether is just such an example of this breakout. Making its West End transfer from the Royal Court Theatre, the play deals with issues around what is and isn’t morally acceptable within a virtual world. While not as overtly sci-fi as the games above, it does describe an increasing acceptance of genre tropes as a way of questioning issues within our technically saturated world.

So the written/performed word amplifying its message through VR. Which brings everything nicely back to the title of the post and Ernie Cline, who has already created a beautiful game culture/scifi amalgamation with Ready Player One. News is he’s working on a sequel to his 2011 bestseller. Now all we need is for someone to persuade him to script a game.

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