Retro songs resurrected by Chiptunes at Bletchley Park

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Retro songs resurrected by Chiptunes at Bletchley Park

Sumit Paul-Choudhury

Matthew Applegate, aka Pixelh8, is a leading light of the "chiptune" scene - music made using vintage home computers.

Now he is embarking on his most ambitious project to date, holding two concerts consisting of music made on some of the oldest and rarest computers in the world at the UK's National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, the second world war code-breaking centre.

This article first appeared on  New Scientist.com. Its editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury talked to Matthew Applegate ahead of the performances of his show, called Obsolete?

How did you get into this music?

I was in an REM covers band in the late 1990s, and the Amiga 500 I used to do our orchestration was fairly limited - it came out sounding like chiptunes. By comparison, modern PCs using samples have always sounded to me like they were trying too hard. They just didn't sound right.

When I realised that you could emulate old machines on a PC and learn what was going on inside them, I went back to the older sounds. I've designed instruments for pop stars. I reprogrammed Game Boys for UK artist Damon Albarn, for example, turning them into real musical instruments.

I grew out of the home computers and started to use scientific machines. With Obsolete? I've gone right back to the beginning of what computers can do in terms of sound. It's not just about sound chips, but the electromechanical sounds they make: the fans, the tape readers, the teleprinters - crunchy sounds.

What kind of music is it?

I usually do my own weird version of pop music in one-off songs, but this is a lot more elaborate. It's a concert work - a complete study of Bletchley Park, its history and its people, and of mathematics and code-breaking.

There are hidden codes and themes of encryption within the music. For example, I created a rhythm on the Colossus [the world's first programmable electronic computer]. The Colossus was used to break wartime codes: the Nazis enciphered Morse code messages by adding a second layer of Morse on top. I think of Morse codes as rhythms, so the piece has multiple rhythms overlaid.

There is also one piece of music where I'm going to put the date of the concert into a hand-wound adding machine and turn the handle. As it turns it will make a rhythm for that particular night. But it's not going to come out as some sort of strict mathematical, avant-garde modern music. It does have all these things in it, but it's still music.

How do you turn primitive computer sounds into music?

I make chiptune music and I do circuit-bending, too. Chiptunes are about reprogramming old computers and using their sound chips to make new music. I've had to learn all the relevant computer languages from the 1970s to 1994. In fact, the best chiptune musicians are programmers.

Circuit-bending is taking an electronic device and short-circuiting it to create completely different outcomes to whatever it would originally have done.

I think the people at Bletchley Park were expecting me to just make pop music using the sounds of the machines, but that would trivialise it. The museum curators initially took a little persuading because some of the machines are worth, say, £4 million, and I have blown up machines in the past. But I promised to be sensible with them. I'm using samples in the performances, because there's no way I could use all the machines - they wouldn't let me move them. But some of them will be live.

Who are your musical inspirations?

I don't actually listen to chiptune music. My inspiration is really people like Marvin Gaye. For this piece, though, I've gone to 20th-century composers such as Schönberg, Bartok and Cage, to see how they explore themes.

What's next?

There are a few individual machines I'd like to work with. One is the Whirlwind from 1951, arguably the first computer to produce sound. I'd also like to do more projects like Obsolete?, but in different areas, such as using machines that have a specific function - in astronomy, say. I got everybody scared when I said I'd like to work on strategic nuclear defence machines.
I got everybody scared when I said I'd like to work on strategic nuclear defence machines


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