Jay Chou and the Bastion OST

I’ve been playing a lot of Bastion lately, the indie game by Supergiant that has popped up on a whole bunch of Best of 2011 year-end lists. One of the music tracks has a lick in it that sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it at first. Then suddenly one day it hit me: Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou 周杰伦.

Regular visitors to my website probably know of my marginally unseemly fixation on Jay Chou; I even wrote an article for Time Out Shanghai in 2010 entitled “Why I Love Jay Chou.” He’s a trans-media pop star (as all the biggest ones seem to be these days), recording albums, starring in movies, hawking toothpaste and motorcycles (at $6 million, a record endorsement for an Asian artist). Western audiences who missed him in foreign fare such as Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 might know him best for his Hollywood debut as Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet last year. Studying the lyrics to his songs was my primary method for learning Mandarin, and I still harbor dreams of releasing a tribute CD one of these days. He was even the subject of my first ever post on this blog.

Check out this video for the second track on his November’s Chopin 十一月的萧邦 album from 2005, “蓝色风暴” (Blue Storm). (Note that Chopin is more commonly rendered 肖邦 in mainland China, but 萧邦 seems to work too, as discussed here.) Pay particular attention to the closing moments, from about 4:36.

Now check out this track from the Bastion soundtrack, by Darren Korb, starting around 0:26.

I don’t think the odds are so slim that I might be the first person to notice this, given the slender overlap between Jay Chou and Bastion’s respective fan bases. Clearly, both artists are using the same loop from some sample library. I have no idea which library, but after conferring with some of my Berklee colleagues, the consensus is that the instrument in question is most likely a bouzouki, a fretted Greek lute.

I’m straining to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever used a canned loop in one of my compositions. (I may have used some stock phrases on King’s Quest back in 1998, but slowed way, way down beyond recognition to create an ominous background texture.) I’m totally down with the idea of creating a meta composition out of several streams of patterns or recorded material, the way that Charles Ives or Luciano Berio or David Shea might weave a larger fabric out of existing sounds; in fact, I think this is pretty much the job description for a video game audio lead. But using a stock loop out of a sample library just takes all the fun out of it. At the very least, if you want to keep it fresh, roll your own loops. Moreover, when creating a composition out of layered loops, it’s too easy to ignore the contrapuntal interactions between the different layers; you can miss the chance to think through all the alternate configurations of notes that might make your musical point more purposefully.

Most critically, there’s a regularity and periodicity that really feels anathema to the subtle irregularities of human performance, and it’s too common to come up with something artificial and rigid, chopped up evenly along the bar lines: every eight beats (or whatever) another layer comes in or out. And when a layer stops, it stops abruptly, with none of the resonance or decay of a natural sound, since it must be truncated precisely on the bar line, in order to seamlessly connect back to the beginning of the phrase. When I was fielding composer demos back at Ubisoft, this characteristic was grounds for immediate rejection.

The same objection applies on a macro scale, too, in game music implementations that simply loop a piece of music indefinitely (Bastion‘s primary mode of musical organization). At best, this kind of repetition can lead gamers to tune out the music, reducing its impact, and at worst, it leads to active irritation. In any event, the power of music to support the emerging drama of a narrative is lost. In fact, the desire to eliminate loops and fades (two of the most common signifiers that you’re listening to a game soundtrack) was a guiding impetus behind the design of the EndWar music system.

At least for Jay, the bouzouki sample is only a minor flourish, in a fairly ridiculous duet with DTMF touch tones, almost a punch line at the end of an eclectic song that started with Gregorian chant.

But anyway, let’s get back to my Jay fetish. Here’s a clip of me sitting in with the house band at Harry’s Bar in Suzhou on a few very loose renditions of Jay tunes towards the end of 2010. (Be patient; you’ve got to breach the Great Firewall for this clip.)

For more, don’t miss my Best of Jay Chou playlist on Spotify!

The Power of Music

I just got back from giving a presentation on sound art at Raffles Design Institute on the campus of Donghua University, about a block from Yu Yin Tang. The hallways are emblazoned with photographs of people like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney, and the glass door to each room is inscribed with maxims such as “Globalization is possible when a brand is built into a cultural stereotype,” “Brands are relationships; there’s nothing else,” “Success financially is a measure of creative success; it is the same in all art” (that one was Stella’s), and my favorite, “The power of music is branding.” It was even creepier than the thought of classrooms full of students being serious about fashion marketing.

But my personal interactions were all quite agreeable. I was there at the behest of the effervescent multimedia instructor and aspiring DJ Raquel Assis, to speak to her “New Media and Environments” class. My presentation seemed to be quite well-received, although I always feel a bit like I’m cheating, since all I have to do is say, “I’ve been making videogames for the past 12 years,” and everyone snaps to attention.

Most of the questions afterwards came from other professors sitting in. One asked how living in China has influenced my work, which was an interesting question, because the piece I had just played was “Radiospace,” which on the surface (in this particular rendering) has lots of snippets of Chinese speech and pop songs, but is actually not about content at all. It’s a real-time program that uses radio broadcasts as source material for audio manipulation, and was actually completed back in Seattle, where the program mangles Britney Spears instead of the Jay Chou. A lot of my work is kind of ambivalent about content, focusing instead on structure, and that’s particularly true of this piece.

But back to the question, while I am an enthusiastic student of Chinese culture, I don’t hear a specific Chinese influence on my work in any overt sense, like using pentatonic scales or whatever (I wouldn’t have to come to China to pick that up, anyway). When I hear something in Chinese music that is relevant to the issues that concern me, I do, of course, take note (I cited a recording of a Buddhist ritual in a Shanghai temple on the French Ocora label, “Chine Fanbai: Chant liturgique bouddhique” [I guess that’s 梵呗], as an example of a static musical behavior). But I’m probably more influenced by the rush of modernity, trying to parse and correlate multiple streams of information, the hum and buzz of a huge, constantly evolving city like Shanghai.

Another question was about the limits of randomness in a closed computer system, and I replied that art made from random numbers is just like art made from pipe cleaners. There’s nothing particularly interesting about pipe cleaners, but I’m sure somebody can make some really neat things out of them; the art emerges from form and relationships. There’s plenty of randomness in a computer. You can progress from sample transforms to synthesis, continuing to insert random choices at every stage of your audio-generating function until you’re sending a stream of random numbers directly to your sound card, the very definition of white noise. If you’re not content with the randomness within your computer, then you can introduce the outside world into the system by hooking up a camera or microphone, which yields information that is potentially more random yet also more consistent than a random number generator.

In all these cases, what’s more important than generating noise (random numbers) is deciding how that noise is used, what the random numbers are hooked up to, how they’re constrained, and what happens in between random choices. If you’re getting random information from a camera, you have to decide where you’re pointing your camera. All works, no matter how aleatory, are framed in some way; they come with some context or expectation as to the circumstances in which they will be experienced. That’s where you see the hand of the artist, and this is why even performances of John Cage’s 4’33” tend to sound pretty similar, despite the fact that ostensibly any sound in the world is admissible.

I’m not sure that I answered either question very clearly, especially considering how long it took me to summarize my responses for posting here.

Two very shy girls came up afterwards and said they had done a sound art piece called “Uneasy” that is designed to make you feel uncomfortable. They’re going to send me an MP3. I can’t wait to hear it!

Below are my annotated notes (yes, that’s notes on notes, or, if you will, the derivative of notes; I think this is what Mike Min meant when he was babbling about calculus in art), and I’m sorry, I’m not going to take the time to clean them up into essay form for you.

Introduction

Hi, I’m Ben Houge

Example of my work, provide some context

[play Breaking New Ground]
Set it up: SICIW, 100% Design, arctic concept
Imagine 12 speakers

Take a vote: is it music? [Response: no]

Done in Max/MSP
6 wind generators
3 chime generators
1 insect-flute generator

All the parameters of music are still there
Strong harmonic basis

So you could consider it a piece of music
Unlike most traditional music, no beginning and end; runs all day, and start/stop is determined by viewers individually entering/leaving, like sitting on a park bench
No loops, just algorithmic behaviors, many elements up to chance
Site-specific spatial element; can’t listen to it in your home on a CD player; have to go there

Background, how I got here

Piano lessons
Got a synthesizer in high school
St. Olaf College, major in Music Theory and Composition
Focused on electronic music, csound

UW, MM Composition
Sound synthesis, algorithmic processes, aleatory music, Max/MSP

Got into videogames
In Seattle for 8 years
Sierra Entertainment
Such games as LSL7, KQ8, Arcanum, Half-Life: Op4

[play Arcanum main theme]
It’s a nice enough little theme, but I was not happy with the implementation of my music in the final game; everything looped
It’s probably around this time that I really became convinced that the future of game audio was in finding unique deployment methods appropriate to the medium

In Shanghai for 4 years
Ubisoft
Tom Clancy’s EndWar, out today!

Parallel artistic trajectory

Early on in my career I was a content provider: music composition, sound design, dialog editing, lip syncing, etc.
Eventually became an audio director, where my job was simply to make the game sound good
Producing very little original content, rather directing other content providers, e.g., working with pals from Seattle on EndWar music (though I still got my song in there for the end credits).

First thought of games as a stepping stone into film, but soon discovered what a fascinating world it was.
Whereas film is codified and calcified and super competitive, grammar of games is still being defined; more fun challenges

[Play sci-fi ambience, built entirely from random and statistical deployment of synthesized sounds]

First heard of John Cage in college, several years later, while working in games, read Silence.
Recommend to all aspiring videogame audio designers
Started making the connections, also reading Feldman
Sound Currents, Seattle school

Began finding a focus for my art, and my extracurricular work, which had previous been mostly sacred choral music, began to focus more and more around the issues I was facing in the evolving medium of games.
Sierra paid for my Master’s, continuing education program; since I had already been working in games for a while, I knew where I wanted to focus
During my Master’s I realized my mission wasn’t to write a symphony or smart little chamber piece, but to connect these dots.

[Play A Reading from _____/Variations on _____, live radio performance on KEXP’s Sonarchy]

Is this music? At the time, I would have said yes, but BMI didn’t think so.

Why “sound art”?

Most open term, least expectations.

Throughout music history, there’s an increasing tendency to incorporate new sounds into music
Mozart’s Turkish cymbals, hunting horns, etc.
Technological advancements: saxophone, sirens, electronic instruments (Theremin, ondes Martenot)
Recording technology, musique concrete, tape music, computer-generated sound, sampling, DJ’s
Now experience almost all music in recorded format anyway

Now just about any sound can be considered of musical use (pop music ahead of classical music in that sense)
So what’s the important distinction?

Not bound by medium; more likely to experiment with cite-specific sound producing configurations.
Not necessarily electronic, speakers, Trimpin, acousmatic
Sound art is not necessarily even sound producing, Christian Marclay’s instrument sculptures and manipulated album covers
Also mention his video work and our recent Screen Play performance

An aspect I find particularly intriguing is the idea that sound art is in some way an “object,” rather than a “piece.”
Music has almost exclusively been about an organization of sound with a beginning and end, unfolds as an event.
But from my game experience, I’ve become concerned with organized sound that is indefinite, that continues until a user decides when to leave.
In this regard it’s more like an ambience, like sitting on a park bench and listening for a while, then leaving when you’ve had enough.
And similarly, it’s like looking at a painting in a museum; so “sound art” seems apt.

Because of all this, my work is just one possibility of what sound art might be
Most of my work has been sound producing, but I’m expanding
Working on giraffes [algorithmically generated digital prints], expressing the same ideas of organization in different media
I kind of still consider this music, too, but most people reasonably wouldn’t, so sticking with “sound art” for now.
Also coming soon: video works.

My issues

Dynamic behaviors
No loops!
“Just loop it” is the dumbest answer to a very interesting question, first thing people think of, cocktail party response
A more interesting answer involves algorithmic behaviors (do not fear algorithms; it’s just a method of doing something, like a fugue)
Also, do not fear randomness; very fertile artistic medium, lots to do with it.
Randomness as an artistic medium; more than just a random number generator
Levels of linearity; usually a continuum, not on-off; find the right granularity for your project

Shuffling, additive systems
Combinatoriality [I’ve stolen this word from 12-tone theory; I like my definition better]: exponential increase in possible outcome when you mix several layers of indeterminate behavior
Responsive; deprived of pre-rendered dramatic trajectory, allows you to switch on a dime

Multimedia
This ability to switch allows you to closely follow another stream of information; this is what happens in a videogame
Mapping from one stream to another; multimedia works, real-time
Coordination between different streams

[Play Mobile 3]

Explain that this is a live performance at the 2pi festival 2006 [and not one of my greatest works, but gets the idea across]
Also served as a prototype for EndWar music system

Granular synthesis
Also interested in what happens when you have lots of similar objects doing slightly different things
Small variations, lend interest, thwarting computer’s ability to be too perfect, the warmth of an acoustic performance
Heterophony, flocking behavior, Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower

[Play Radiospace]

Having a big visual art show soon, visit my web site for the latest.
Also, I just started a blog. Visit!

Questions?

[Bonus: Play “EndWar” main menu music for big finish]

More Channels for Jay

After finishing up the second half of Taal last night, I attempted once more to watch Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲, yet once more I was confounded by a faulty DVD. So to sate my Jay Chou 周杰伦 craving, I popped in his 2007 World Tour concert DVD, unquestionably the least exciting selection out of my copious media haul from Beijing’s Blue Line store three weeks ago.

And I’ve got to say, it’s not a notable improvement over his previous concert DVD from 2004’s Incomparable tour. Most egregious fault: no Dolby Digital. Even Jolin’s 蔡依林 imaginatively titled “Live Concert” DVD from 2005 had Dolby Digital, though the constant subwoofer pummeling makes it nearly unlistenable. The set list on the new Jay DVD reminds me of the Shanghai stop of the Incomparable tour that I caught live a while back: following an opening flourish, there was a long stretch of very similar sounding ballads in the middle of the show, and he only made an effort to rouse the crowd with some peppier material towards the very end. There were some curious omissions, too: no 东风破, no 七里想, no 简单爱, no 夜曲. The performance overall seemed pretty lackadaisical (although it could be argued that this is simply his very calculated and well-worn style). He even flubbed the words of a few songs.

For surround sound, Curse of the Golden Flower was turning out to be much more titillating, before my Xbox gave up on the DVD. I loved hearing the imperial time-tellers scurrying about the imperial chambers intoning the hour in a flurry of bells. Even Taal was more imaginatively mixed, if none too subtly, fully Dolby Digital, with delayed vocal lines and hollerbacks bouncing around the rear speakers.

If Mr. Chou seeks to dominate in the global marketplace, I am afraid that simple stereo sound is not going to cut it.