My memories of the original Game Boy are inextricably linked with the Tetris theme, a jaunty 8-bit rendition of the Russian folk song Korobeiniki playing out of tinny speakers. It was addictive, yes, but not something you would ever want to dance to.
In hands of Joshua Davis, however, the Game Boy attracts crowds of fans looking to sweat it out at packed clubs and music festivals. He was in New York last weekend, performing as Bit Shifter at the festival he helped start in 2006.
Fans came from hipster capitals like Portland and Austin. Musicians flew in from countries like Holland, Japan and France. Chip music, apparently, is about more than just the novelty of hearing live music played from a Game Boy.
“There’s a certain amount of levity and a tongue-in-cheek aspect to some of it, but I think everyone who is doing it is taking it quite seriously,” says Davis, who started playing in 2001 and has since helped throw 11 Blip Festivals around the world.
What started as a niche hobby for adventurous musicians and musically inclined hackers is expanding. Downstairs from the main stage at the Gramercy Theater, Sarah Dyer, 27, was buying a black Game Boy with pink buttons from Thursday Customs for $95. The company modifies original Game Boys with features like knobs that speed up or slow down gameplay and pro-sound jacks for people who want to play their own music.
Dyer is one of those people. She owns six Game Boys already. An English professor living in Manhattan, she was at day two of the three-day festival with her husband Thomas.
“I started going going to shows with [Thomas] in 2006,” she said. “I want to start making music because I think there needs to be more girls out there making this kind of music.”
They were one of many couples there, proving that chip music isn’t just for pale-skinned Nintendo fanboys — although there were plenty of those too. The “instruments” weren’t limited to Game Boys, either; musicians use everything from old Atari ST computers to the classic Commodore 64, often accompanied by traditional instruments like guitars.
It’s hard to appreciate the music until you hear it live.
That’s a strange thing to say about songs played from outdated sound chips on aging computers, but the booming amps bring out a harshness in the beeps that, when paired with the pounding bass, creates a pretty intense live experience. For musicians, the decision to play with a Game Boy or Atari often comes down to freedom from the tyranny of choice.
“It makes me more creative to have more limitations,” said Mark Van den Heuvel, a.k.a. Monodeer, from Holland. His friend Fabien Bourbigot, a.k.a. Dr. Von Pnok, seconded that idea.
“Making electronic music on my computer, I had too many choices,” said the stringy-haired Frenchman. “The Game Boy lets me just compose and express myself without getting distracted.”
The chip music community extends beyond its main centers in New York City, Tokyo, Stockholm and Melbourne, mostly though the Internet. While many fans are musicians and people who like to tinker with electronics, some are simply nostalgic for the games of their youth.
“I’ve been a gamer since I was a kid and I still play Super Nintendo,” said Brandon Ribeiro of Union, NJ. “I’ve always been a fan of electronic music. Finding something that mixed that with my love of gaming was fantastic.”