Why would I ever compare playing jazz to playing videogames? Apart from the obvious answer that I’m a big fan of both.
Well, they both depend on what gamers call “twitch”: instinctive use of patterns kept in muscle memory, and triggered subconsciously.
To achieve this, musicians and competitive gamers practise intricate finger and hand movements, chained together and timed precisely. (E.g. a fighting game might give only 1/60th of a second in which to counter an opponent’s attack).
Aggressive competition defines much online gaming and was also a celebrated aspect of early jazz and bebop. Speed, rhythmic intelligence and imaginative reharmonisations were prized in those scenes, demonstrated at jam sessions, battles and cutting contests.
Speed, timing and rule-breaking shortcuts are the hallmarks of video game speedrunning, where enthusiasts develop techniques and exploit glitches to achieve impossible trajectories and velocities…
I’m gonna get a little more abstract now. Hold onto your hats. Both video games and music are virtual worlds. They transport us to somewhere imaginary. They also change instantly in response to the performer’s decisions. (Bandmates providing the reaction in the one case, the computer and/or other players providing it in the other.)
And, music and games both happen in virtual space. The perception of space in music is complex, but here are some known aspects:
- High notes are heard as being above low notes and never the other way around (although some cultures use a different binary, e.g. thin-thick). More here.
- Our hearing automatically interprets stereo differences, echoes and reverberations to give us an impression of our surroundings. In music these effects are called “spatialisation”. They have always been an area of cutting-edge technology, because their virtual spaces seems so futuristic. Psychedelic music has always relied on spatialisation!
- Most importantly, “music is the sound of human movement”. We interpret rhythm by imagining, using our kinesthetic sense, the body movements that could produce it.
- Loosely speaking, musicians and informed listeners tend to imagine music as made of shapes (phrases, sections) and to imagine points in a cycle as locations. So, a jazz musician might ask another, “What are you playing on (or over) bar 5 of the form?”
- These spaces must be learned off for high level performance. Set sequences of moves (i.e. licks in bebop, or a chain of jumps in a game) are used to navigate the space.
In general, I think the African-American tradition of improvisational music has game-like qualities anyway: misdirection, illusion, masking, changing context. Steve Coleman turned me on to this stuff. Further parallels can be drawn with sports, martial arts, and forms of ritual speech like telling tall tales.
So, music/games is obviously a fun analogy to ponder. But, beyond that, it suggested to me some interesting crossover ideas.
“Let’s Play” videos, of gamers commentating their own playthroughs, have become massively popular in the last few years. Could improvised music work with a commentary?
Actually, it traditionally does: non-verbal exclamations of approval, musical imitations, and jokes (“knock knock” at 0:50). Or in classic hip hop lyrics that turn attention to the present moment, “You’re in awe when I’m gripping my mic cord”, “Hey you sayin’ what the hell is this shit/Reaching for the cover, turning up your deck”. I wonder could a contemporary artist build off these traditions and consciously add forms of commentary to improvised performance?
Visuals help a lot to make games accessible. The technology is available to visualise the harmonic choices made by improvisors – most simply, how about assigning a different colour to each note?
The practices of “modders” who repurpose commercial game content seem to mesh well with how jazzers used showtunes or classical music etudes for their own creative ends. Here, for example, is a level released in 2014 (for free) that uses content from a 1996 game in ways the original creators could not have imagined.
The open-source movement, meanwhile, reminds me of the great common pool of licks and ideas that jazz musicians take from and give to.
And these days, I’m feeling inspired by game level designers – particularly, their cycle of repeatedly exploring and then refining a space. I want to have a band that does that.
Can games learn from jazz? One thing I’m anticipating with interest is the appearance of black-coded movement/performance styles in virtual reality. As a point of comparison, think how twerking rapidly entered the cultural mainstream from both corporate music videos and home-made ones on Youtube – probably generating a lot of money for some people.
Okay, I’m gonna start rolling it up now, but first I’ll look at some instructive differences between jazz and videogames culture.
Games culture started in by far the more privileged milieu: prestigious US universities that turned Cold War funding into technologies like programming languages, the personal computer and the internet. As Jeru The Damaja put it, “Chips that powered nuclear bombs power my SEGA.” The people involved were predominantly white and guaranteed of social acceptance in the middle classes.
By contrast, jazz originated in African-American urban communities which experienced much racism and poverty, crime and corruption.
Then again, today, all kinds of people are represented in improvised music and in gaming. A book could be written about the changing demographics of each. Jazz has become broadly academicised, with its mass appeal claimed by rock, hip hop, dance etc. Gaming has gone from embodying both tech culture privilege and geeky outsiderhood, to hosting vocal feminist, transgender and non-Western communities. All these changes have provoked gatekeeping reactions of many kinds.
To wrap up, and to reassure any musician friends reading, I want to point out areas where computer gaming can’t compete with music performance.
- Nuanced expression is one. Although performance capture technology and detail of simulation are always advancing, the complex, multi-layered, intimate connection of a live instrumental performance won’t be digitised for years to come.
- Gaming, as we currently know it, is not a fully-fledged form of expression – you can’t convey feelings by how you jump around a map. Although maybe this fellow would disagree:
- Finally, games are dependent on technology. Of course, you could say this about electronic music. But for me, that’s a major mark against electronic music – if it takes you a minute to start your computer and another to load up your preset banks, you can’t claim to have the immediacy of raising a horn to your lips and blowing.
Hope you enjoyed that! Back to my usual music chat next week! As always, your comments are welcome and you can show appreciation by liking or following on WordPress, or liking/sharing on Facebook.