July 30 1995
Taking a page out of @MaxKriegerVG's book - here's a thread of visual aesthetic influences that directly inspire the sound of my upcoming album, Blue Wave Wonder, prefaced by some words about why I decided to make it. As much as I've tried to explain the album as a synthesis of my favourite musical influences from various genres, I found that this approach (while definitely aiding the production side of the album) still did not bridge the gulf in my mind between what I saw and what I heard. So, while the music-making process has been full steam ahead for some time, actually figuring out what I wanted this album to be about and what it drew inspiration from was proving to be much more difficult than I previously expected. The idea for Blue Wave Wonder came to me 2 years ago, or maybe more. It's all been little fuzzy in my mind - which is why I've decided to make this thread. My first mistake was assuming that I'd be able to capture an idealised notion of whatever it was that this album would be about, which ultimately lead to the music I wanted to make being informed by a cacophonous visual mess in my head. Things became difficult. Second mistake - I didn't write anything down, and instead saved pictures of various things I categorised as influencing the album. I still have this disparate collection of images, but they brought me no closer to my goal of understanding what I wanted to write songs about.
Blue Wave Wonder will be an instrumental album, which itself poses what I call mechanical challenges - making each song vibrant, listenable and unique while fitting into the jigsaw puzzle constraints of a concept album. This is the basic foundation of the album and in my opinion, these mechanical challenges are combated purely through instinct. Choices made to drive the musical aspects of the album forward. Above this level are what I term emotional or aesthetic challenges. The question here differs from what I'm writing about, which can easily be answered as: a fictional soundtrack to a racing game from the mid-late 90's, versus what exactly it is that I want to SAY. Am I talking about pleasing aesthetics? Vibrant colours, shapes and well-executed design? My interpretation of the 1990's as a time of technological progress, discovery, the age of the burgeoning World Wide Web and rampant high-tech optimism? I think so. The music is dictated by real world design choices, trends and associations with time periods; so while it exists as an anachronism, it is still fueled by a spirit of authenticity to the era/s that it pays tribute to.
Here are some things that I feel influenced and informed my idea of what Blue Wave Wonder should be:
Something I love about the 90s were ray traced 3D rendered scenes. These were often sparsely populated with characters or basic shapes and took place in barren, featureless landscapes. Something about the simplicity of these types of images really appealed to me.
One of my biggest struggles was finding names for the many design trends of the pre-2000s Web era that I love. Imagine my surprise when I found out about colourful scholasticism, Global Village Coffeehouse and Factory Pomo. Finally, words to fit the art I had admired for so long.
Another influence comes from my experience with the departure of Windows XP, making way for Windows Vista and 7. I didn't love them then, but things change. Clean lines and glossy, modern textures and colours have grown on me.
Windows XP always seemed so friendly and approachable. Sure it had the beginnings of more developed design elements but it wasn't as clinical as its immediate successors. It felt like the 90's idea of Y2K, at least to me.
My first experiences with computers were with those that looked something like this. If Blue Wave Wonder was the soundtrack to an actual 90's racing game, I'd want it played on one of these machines.
Is it time to mention how much I love clip art? Like, really love it? There was a great thread I saw a while ago dealing specifically with the clip art aesthetic of faceless office people bounding wildly through impossible scenery. If I find it later I'll add it to the thread.
I love emoticons, too. I can't stop calling them that for some reason.
Splash screens from back in the day were also one of life's great joys.
If I haven't mentioned the Memphis group of design, here are a few examples of the abstract sort of random colourful ideas they embody.
I tend to hyperfixate on things. It's just how my brain works. This, along with my obsession of connecting visuals in my head with sounds, often leaves me creatively immobilised. I like when my creative process is neat and straightforward. This usually means that all the influences I draw on are able to be put in a box and labelled easily. With Blue Wave Wonder, I found that this process of mine was regularly defeated thanks to just how many distinct ideas I had about what I wanted the album to be. I was locked in a battle with my desire to make this album sound like everything I wanted and more, all at the same time. When the conflicting parts of my brain threatened to each blow a fuse simultaneously, I decided I had to change the way I was going about this. So I decided I would not only incorporate every possible aesthetic element of my choosing, I'd try and document it on the way, just so I had some way to orient myself if things felt like they were going awry. This is my first attempt at doing that, and I hope it was a fun read. Maybe I'll make this a weekly thing? #TuesdayAesthetics possibly? I think that sounds fun. It'll give me a chance to do a deep dive on whatever it is that I've focused on that week and help me familiarise myself with all the new trends and aesthetics I never knew about before.
UPDATE: Haven't been able to find that thread I've been looking for so I'm just calling this white-collar surrealism. It seems to encompass pre-2000's net-age trends in terms of art direction with the main association being faceless white-collar workers in surreal situations.
They exist in strange, sometimes colourful voids, populated with random shapes or objects that they might sometimes be interacting with. This style, to me, represents the bold, confident and optimistic attitude that seems to permeate much of mid-late 90's software. I should also mention how strange I find that this fearless attitude often doesn't seem to be shared by the subjects of these clip art images. They look lost at the best of times, bound by invisible forces far beyond their control.
The workers in these clip art pictures are shown in dynamic, active poses, but in a lot of these there's a subtle undercurrent of a loss of control in the face of a racing tide. Amending the thread to slightly broaden the scope of what I want to talk about - after all, the Network Music Production Library of 1993 is mostly... music. It will be interesting to discuss how library music can evoke imagery and visuals tied to a certain era/time.
August 6 1995
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayAesthetics! This week I'll be covering the Network Production Music demo CD from 1993.
From what I can find, Network was a San Diego-based label specialising in music for various sources such as news stations, cable TV, corporate clients and so on. There's not much information out there on them past this.
Their slogan billed them as 'the sound of America!' which I find pretty rad. The earliest release of theirs that I know of is from 1977. After listening to it I was struck by how simulatenously authentic and manufactured it sounded.
Much of the information couldn't have been found if not for YouTube user jcj83429, so go subscribe to them.
They made scans of the booklets included with the two CDs that I'll be making reference to in this thread. When I was planning this week's thread, I was a little hesitant on where to begin. I wasn't sure as to whether I'd start by defining library music and going from there, then decided I was approaching it too academically. After all, it's only Twitter. I'd like to start by talking about what these two demo CDs mean to me and how they intersect musically with my idea for Blue Wave Wonder. When I came up with the idea for Blue Wave Wonder, I conceptualised it in broad strokes and simple terms. It would be the soundtrack to a fictional racing game from the 1990's, and I'd figure out the rest while I wrote the music. This backfired when I realised I'd need to elaborate on what I meant by music from the 1990's, so I had already run into a roadblock. I began with jazz fusion, because it was a genre I knew had a lot of influence on many video games from many genres. It was around this time that I started to understand that in order for me to realise this in a cohesive way, I'd have to understand what a concept album was. In my opinion, it's a good thing to ground yourself and give your art some direction, whatever form this takes. It may seem like you're somehow debasing your imagination's work by doing this, as if by attempting to set boundaries, you've corrupted the beautiful work in your head. I understand the appeal of having a beautifully embellished grand plan in your brain and enjoying the unreality of your perfect imaginary creation. In your brain, whatever you say goes and you have free rein over every single detail of whatever it is that you're making. I totally get it. What's not to love? The issue here is attempting to then translate that work into reality, to let other people see what you've been up to. Replicating that beauty will then seem like a Herculean task. This is what I realised after a few months of writing. I had to be more concrete and unambiguous with what I wanted this album to sound like. The tracks I had sounded hollow and dry, and whatever I was doing to give them my idea of a 90's 'flair', or 'flavour', was not working.
Then I discovered these two demos, and the simple power of keywords. Of course there's a huge discussion to be had about how the interpretation of these keywords are affected by context and whatnot, but I'll not get into that here.
Rather, I'd like to talk about how this demo, unassuming though it may be, provides a really valuable starting point to talking about direction in music. The particular demo that sonically impacted me the most was from 1993. I say this because it took me a while to understand how I could put words to the sounds I heard in my head, while also matching them with the visual aesthetic influences I talked about last week.
This is the Korg M1. It was released in 1988, and by the early 90's had racked up a ton of major hits. It was, in my opinion, the DX7 of the early 1990's.
My 2017 EP 'the Sunset Club' took many influences from the sounds of the mid to late 1980's. I was growing a little weary of the growling analog synths and wanted something different. Something smoother and more in line with what I wanted to hear. I was obsessed with the DX7 electric piano patch, and that whole album I chased the sound that was developing in my head. Glassy, pure, smooth. FM synthesis scratched that itch for a while, but I wasn't finished. As much as FM synth appealed to me through music I liked from the SEGA Genesis and other sources, I found that they had a boundary that I didn't feel fit the sounds of Blue Wave Wonder. I scaled that wall and then found the Korg M1. Its unique patches and PCM tone were the answer to what I was looking for, and they were exactly the sounds I was hearing in my head. They matched my memories of mid-90's PC games (especially edutainment titles) and I knew I had to use it in Blue Wave Wonder. Which leads right back to the Network Production Music demo from 1993.
So now that I had a foundation for how I would construct part of the sound design for the album, how could I translate the images I saw in my head to someone else's? How could I make them see as vividly as I could? The narrator had the answer. Whoever did the marketing copy for the CD needed a raise, because they singlehandedly forced a sea-change in my way of thinking about the album. And it seems like such a simple thing. I'm sure people do it all the time, assigning keywords to a sound they hear either in their head or in real life. But I'd never really thought to do that. My head was filled with the terminology I'd learned after 15 years of playing music. So I remained frustrated until I realised I had to go back to the basics of what sound design was. At least, in my understanding. And that was make a list of keywords that I associated with the album and its sound, just to give me a head start of some sort.
Ultimately, that became my goal. Make a list of keywords related to racing games from the 1990's, similar to what was set out in the demo CD.
I think that'll be all for this week. Next week though...
August 13 1995
This week's #TuesdayAesthetics will look at Street Fighter EX Plus α, released in 1997. Specifically, I'd like to talk about the music and why it works for me.
I'm of the opinion that jazz fusion was the penultimate musical flavour of the 1990's. It's a fluid, versatile genre that I feel is expressed especially well in video game themes. For example, Sakura's theme in Plus α.
Sakura's Theme - Street Fighter ex Plus Alpha
What I love about these themes is that as dissonant from what might be considered 'fighting' game music, they fit the game so well. Rhythmic and chordal complexity lend each theme an ambience that keeps them independent but ties them together by virtue of being jazz fusion.
Not all the songs are like this, sure, but I feel that the trend of finding jazz fusion tracks in video game music (especially Japanese ones) is something to be talked about more. There's a way that Japanese producers internalise and create jazz fusion that I find entrancing.
A number of the sound teams that worked on video games during the 1990s - Namco and SST, to name a few - are made up of some incredible musicians that played a massive role in shaping my understanding of what video game music could be.
Ending this thread with a little announcement. A track for Blue Wave Wonder should be coming out soon. Maybe there'll be a video too? Wait and see. But for now, thanks for reading. See you next week!