Sunday, December 9, 2012

Introduction to Chipmusic with Invisible Robot Hands (James Winters)

James Winters isn’t your average college dude. I met him on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island where I was mesmerized while watching him play music from his 1989  original Game Boy plugged into an amp. Something else, right? That’s exactly what I thought. So after jumping up and down for a moment (you can get that footage at the bottom of this article) I, at the peak of intrigue, had to ask what was happening.  I recognized bits of sound from my brothers' video games...crossed with the electronic music genre. Sweet party/rave music is born! Not that I go to raves! But maybe I should…
Invisible Robot Hands going at it.

After James (stage name Invisible Robot Hands) stopped the Game Boy alchemy I asked how it all worked.  James introduced himself and his art as chipmusic, where “people use outdated gaming/computer hardware with (often newly written) audio software in order to synthesize sounds from the hardware’s soundchip and sequence those sounds into entire songs.” Did you get all that? Me either. And James was kind enough to go into more detail via email.  I learned that what appeared to be "video game music" or fun party music to my untrained eye is so much more...Chipmusic does incorporate old video games' "bleepy tones," but in many ways it has evolved from the simplistic tunes from Mario to a craft with more room for artistic license and creativity.
'80s Europe popularized chipmusic via the Demoscene, where the public started trying their hands at it.  Chipmusic itself was actually born by select individuals who would hack into established video games and rip the music from them, and then insert their own music and graphics as--ready? Digital graffiti.  (Kinda like a techy Banksy...) But generally, the Demoscene used old computers like the Atari ST and the Commodore 64 (Aren’t those cooler names than Apple and Windows??) rather than old Game Boys; this came later.

James' chipmusic interest really took off in the eighth grade. He had to sit out of gym class for a few months due to a broken arm and leg, couldn’t play his guitar, and so started playing around in computer lab, specifically learning about vintage computers.  He then switched gears and got into music sequencing programs through Famitracker, a music sequencing program referred to as a tracker.  Trackers require the musician to build all of the sounds themselves before sequencing the notes.  With trackers, "everything is 'tracked' one second at a time. Every step or 'tick' in a patterm is shown in a tracker, a little bit like a bar of sheet music." This is very cool because the musician has to economize when creating, because they're restricted to the capabilities of the sound chip.  However, not all music sequencing programs are built this way. 

A different family of music sequencing progarms called Digital Audio Worksations (DAWs) baby the musician in James’ opinion: "DAWs are pretty much an infinite plane of potential layers of sounds and samples, whereas chipmusic trackers demand imagination and economic thinking of the musician, because the user is often given no more than about 4 or 5 one-note-at-a-time 'channels' of sound. What's more, in some trackers, each channel is restricted to certain types of potential tones. Half the fun in the chipmusic community is seeing how much you can do with very, very little."  So James is about the raw craftsmanship of the beat. And I like that. I liken this to purchasing an object that is made well and possibly more expensive, rather than going for the 99-cent-made-in-China-cheap-fast-easy version...or even more accurately,taking the time to make the object yourself. Not for the faint of heart! There's more craftsmanship (blood/sweat/tears/skill) in it, and it adds more soul to the finished product.
James spent 2-3 years immersed in tracking programs creating music (and saving to floppy disks to feel ‘80s chic. (I loved that tidbit!)  The hobby went to the next level when James gratefully received a classic Game Boy from a classmate. He then attained the additional necessary hardware to create chip music through the Game Boy.
“From there I spent ages in my room creating covers of stuff from the ‘80s and eventually started writing my own stuff.  I got tired of showing my songs to nobody, so I bought a crappy boom box from Salvation Army as a makeshift amp to plug my Game Boy into and started playing on the street.”
The boom box amplifier also has a certain 80s charm to it (Say Anything, anyone?), but James now has a battery powered guitar amp for his performances.  Ah, the evolution of the artist...

Performing and writing his own material then led James to create 8Bit Northeast, “a collective of people from the nooks and crannies of New England who make chipmusic as well.” Right now there are about 40 members in this collective, although James tells me that membership has fluctuated quite a bit. 8Bit Northeast has even done shows locally, collaborated with Boston 8Bit, and has even recently participated in Rhode Island’s Maker’s Faire.

James covers "I Quit" by chipmusician "Chipocrite"
What do I like about this? That for Invisible Robot Hands, this is an original and extremely creative outlet.  Also, it’s sustainable to repurpose old computers and gaming hardware to produce music— that strangely has some Woodstock ethos. Finally, it’s damn well entertaining, which is the broad goal, right? Very animated and energetic. Listen to some. Go ahead, jump around in yer room.
Even deeper still, James remarks that chipmusic is not caged in by a genre, like the aformentioned rave or dance music.
"It's a medium, not a genre. This means that it has the potential to be whatever the artist wants it to be."
James likened it to a guitar: "Not every song with a guitar in it is automatically rock and roll; or rather, a guitar isn't just a tool for making rock music. It's a tool for making music, in general. It's how the individual uses it that determines it. Chipmusic can be rock, techno, hip hop, classical, new wave, ambient, jazz, polka, folk, etc. I think a good example of this is the fact that there are so many bands nowadays that fuse chipmusic with traditional instrumentation.  Examples would be "Anamanaguchi", "Graffiti Monsters", or "Awkward, Terrible", bands that use 8-bit hardware in conjunction with guitar/bass/drums/vocals to create new layers of sound."
Please check out James’ site and to find out more. I didn't even get all of the technicalities of trackers and DAWs down because it's quite hard to explain and would make this post double in length. Seeing the complexity and talent that goes into creating chipmusic is fascinating and really ushers in more respect for the chipmusician.

Thank you James, for your time and willingness to share your cool, creative, and challenging craft with me.
Now go and listen to chipmusic.



Stay tuned: Next interview features one of my very best friends, Annie Keithline on why she's walking accross the country!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Time with Alpha Woman Alanis Morissette

Hellllo anyone that reads this blog. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to go see Alanis Morissette at the 92nd Street Y in NYC.  It wasn't a performance, but a conversation with Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone. (Still Alanis in real life...I'll take it.) My friend Mike from college was in the city too, so he joined me, yeah!
 Photo cred: Mike Acciardo
A little background for you on me and Alanis. First contact was in mmm...fifth grade when my super talented classmates Lauren and Kim were doing recess performances of Ironic (whilst standing on the picnic tables all of us kiddos ate outside lunch at--priceless memories... :) From then on I was enchanted by Alanis's confessional, angsty (and darn catchy) ballads, so she became my go to girl for those especially moody, temperamental times. She's grown tons as an artist since the 1995 release of Jagged Little Pill (the first ridiculously successful album) and now, at thirty eight, is a married mamma!  It was so cool to see her telling her story. Topics discussed included her musical philosophy, personal life, growth as an artist, getting married and becoming a mother, political involvement--the biggies.
Alanis looked killer in a bright green blouse, leatherish, rock star appropriate leggings, highhh stiletto boots, and of course, her gorgeous long black locks. And she was glowing (methinks from being a new mama, but it could just be that Alanis charm I'm in love with). It was about an hour long chat; I thought DeCurtis was dull, but his questions were good, so maybe he wasn't acting like an excited idiot a) because he gets to interview artists a lot and wants to keep things professional 2) because he's not me.
Anyhow, Alanis talked at length about the false veneer of the success + money + sex = happiness formula, which she experienced after the megasuccess of Jagged Little Pill. Maybe fifteen minutes into the interview I started getting really really excited because she was talking about everything I've been reading up on and interested in for the past year. (And goodness, she's quirky-funny in real life. I loved!) She also has an impeccable vocabulary while in actual conversation (as an artist/poet should...) but that made me so happy (Nerdy observation number fifteen).
 She's thought a lot about the hollowness of "making it" (a la materialism, the perfectionism/beauty epidemic, huge egos, aggression/violence, lack of true connection with others/oneself/the divine),  and mentioned a lot of psychological and spiritual ideas to back her stances.  Psychology redux: she's a big proponent of therapy and geeky-PhD-toting-therapy-loving types (me too!). Spirituality redux: she was brought up Catholic and now has a Buddhist bent but says she appreciates all religious traditions.  I felt this in the generous way she spoke about these topics; with a strong sense of gratefulness, wonder, and respect.)
One thing that struck me more than the others: she stated we are a profoundly undertouched society.  I would tend to agree with that--I'm talking like, real and meaningful touch, like good hugs, holding hands, etc., MAYBE even if you're not in a relationship!  Maybe with someone of the same sex!  This enriches our connections with others.  Yep, not everyone's touchy feely, but it's beyond that--more like, it's good to establish human connections that shows a facet of care through a tactile gesture.  My friend Rosy once told me her mom always said we need eight hugs a day for proper growth.  This initially completely freaked me out  and I thought it was just one of those cheesy quotes...(the Russians aren't the huggiest culture either, and gotta say the hugs can be overdone--but there's studies!) After hugging it out with Rosy for a year I am converted to the hugfest, and agree with Alanis Morissette that we should share the love. (But be concientious about not being creepy...a verbal warning of an incoming hug might be a good idea :)
Alanis commented that the psychological and spiritual communities fight. She herself is an interesting combination of spiritual and psychological insight and exprience.  In the U.S., from what I read and have heard from others, I often feel therapy is divorced from holistic care of the person and medication is overused and spirituality just isn't discussed unless the person wants to talk about it.  Holistic care and spirituality are almost synonymous on a certain level; holistic care: taking care of the whole person when treating a medical condition, getting their lifestyle and past (psychological, relational, nutritional, environmental) in order to effectively treat physiological symptoms. And spirituality doesn't just cater to the soul/spirit, but absolutely to the body and mind as well. It's all connected. (This is a seperate blog post in itself, though.) I'm also not saying that medication is bad, but what might help more or in combo with medication to start lasting healing versus symptom management is for the person to feel like someone else is really walking with him or her through their hardship (and sometimes walking through it takes a long time.) ...Stepping off soap box now and getting back to more stuff I loved about this night:
Alanis said that although she sees herself as an activist for various causes, her most important activism is parenting (and she says she's loving it.) That really makes me smile.
So, hope I haven't sounded too much like a crazy sycophant; bottom line, it was special to see Alanis in the real! Struck so many chords. (No musical ones tonight though...I did ask for her to grace us with a song on my question card but that didn't pass the DeCurtis test...darn.) So thanks Alanis! Best to you and your gorgeous family and your art.
Anyone want to give me $50 to go to her NYC show this October?
P.S. She's a gemini like me!
P.P.S. Here middle name is Nadine. So pretty.
Bonus: An article she wrote about her thoughts on marriage. Interesting read. The woman has a lot of heart; the authentic kind.

Hugs until next time!



Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greece + Russia Meet in NYC

Christofis Mavromoustakos was my waiter at La Parisienne Diner on 57th and 7th in Manhattan. I found myself there after work a few weeks ago, bemoaning a bad day. A thin man with distinctly Greek features and intense eyes took my order from the other side of the counter. The friend I’m talking to on the phone suggests that I start interviewing people and writing about them. This excites me, since I am constantly meeting and talking to new people in the city. And this would give me the unique opportunity to go deeper than small talk. I tell Christofis I’m a writer and ask if I can interview him. He is eager to help. This romantic English major is excited. We agree on a time to meet the next day. Chris hands me a pen that says “Thank You--Your Server, Christofis New York, USA”. I like this gesture.  The man has gusto.
La Parisienne, where Chris works
The next day, I approach his restaurant and ask where he wants to conduct the interview. We decide on a pizza place a few streets away, and after settling in with some pizza slices, we just get right into it.

Egypt, 1950—Chris is born. He and his family move to Kasos Island, a part of Greece, in 1960. As a boy he enjoys fishing, swimming, and soccer. Six years later his father unexpectedly dies at fifty-seven years old. Christofis is sixteen and left to be more or less the man of the house. He has four older siblings, one sister and three brothers who all moved to the United States by this time.

Two years later Chris enters college in Athens and studies mathematics and civil engineering. He felt like a rookie at first—not knowing anything, and being away from his home—but he points to his head and says that he is tough there, and this propelled him forward. After finishing his studies, he worked for the Greek army, doing drafting (drawing engineering plans). Shaking his head, he recalls that during his stint working for the army, there was a conflict between Cyprus and Turkey unfolding and that war was absolutely no good.   Chris then decides to join his siblings in the United States, a place of more opportunity. He is 24 years old.

“I had no money, no English...” Chris says in describing his young, ambitious self.  He joined his future brother-in-law’s restaurant as a dishwasher, eventually working up to a waiter. He proved to himself he could achieve this. He laughs while telling me how much he made in those days, working twelve hour days, seven days a week; one hundred dollars. His monthly monetary breakdown went like this: $100 for the room he was renting out in the Bronx, $50 to his mother in Greece, and $250 to live on and save.

After saving money and gaining work experience in the U.S., Chris goes into business with his future brother-in-law. They owned and managed a few coffee shops together. Soon after, he felt financially stable enough to get engaged to his sweetheart, Marina, a native New Yorker with Greek heritage whom he met while she was visiting Greece. The pair married on June 19, 1977, and spent a lavish week honeymooning in Hawaii. After Chris tells me this, he gets serious and says he made a mistake. My smile drops in anticipation of bad news--I am thinking he’s going to confide that he married the wrong woman—but he replies, “We should have stayed for two weeks!” (Did I mention Chris has a sense of humor?)  He says that he and Marina enjoyed their time in Hawaii so much that when their son got married, they made sure that his honeymoon was longer than theirs.

Marina and Chris have  two children, Nikolas, 30, and Anna, 27.  He says he has good kids and loves them a great deal. In describing his wife, Chris remarks that she is not a “fantasy person,” in that she doesn't have unreasonable expectations within their marriage or outside of it—she’s not full of vanity or hot air.  He illustrates this point by telling me about shopping for a dining room set.  Marina wanted a set that was beyond their price range at the time, and Chris is big on living within one’s means..  He wanted to buy her this set, but didn’t have the money then. He wanted to buy it for her, but couldn't immediately. Marina said she could wait, and Chris saw her patience as a gesture of love. Seven months later they had saved enough to buy the set.  There seems to be graciousness,mutual respect, and understanding within their marriage—Chris says he doesn't force or demand her to do anything, but asks.  He called her a “power woman”--someone who gets things done. (And me too, which was so touching.)

With regards to lifestyle, I asked Chris more about his feelings on money, since it was clear that he took money management seriously.  He said he doesn't need expensive clothing or a BMW—that “a Toyota or Honda will do just fine, and his two-dollar thrift store shirt is just as good as anything, since he’s not naked, he says with a grin. Chris is more about doing his job and doing it right than looking flashy while doing it—his reputation and character are of more value.  And his financial behavior doesn't translate into being a Scrooge either—he remarks “I enjoy my life.” He then leans into the table and says,“If you want something, and you have the money for it, do it for yourself.”  

Christofis is also a bit of a philosopher.  He loves reading and reads history and some obscure texts like Rasputin’s life.   He’s read the Bible through twice but doesn’t consider himself too religious, though this does not hinder his belief in God.   Not a big gambler or drinker, he’s been to Atlantic City twice.  He says he always has a good time, but keeps from the extremes. He admits he’s not perfect and has  made his share of mistakes—but he doesn’t make the same one twice.  

Chris is a straight talker.  I got all of the above and more in an hour interview, in a noisy room.  I am so grateful that he shared his life with me.  Christofis and his family travel back to Greece every few years to visit family and keep the heritage alive.  If I'm ever in Greece I know who I'm asking to show me around.

Somewhere in beautiful Kasos