New Sounds From Old Technology

The first Americans to start using computers right out of the cradle are now in their early 20s–but though they’re as comfortable with modern technology as your grandma is with a teakettle, they’re not immune to nostalgia. “A few years ago I got my old Atari out of the closet, and I remembered that it made some interesting sounds,” says 23-year-old Paul Davis, a member of the electronic-music group 8-Bit Construction Set. “I also remembered that there was no software for it, that the only way to write sounds was to write programs in BASIC. I wasn’t thinking of making tracks with it, I was only interested in using it to make some sounds.”

But before long Davis, Joe Bonn, and Cory Arcangel–all music students at Oberlin College in Ohio–and Joe Beuckman, a pal from their native Saint Louis who was studying computer science at Southern Illinois, were spending the better part of their spare time making music on Atari and Commodore computers from the 80s. Last summer, after graduation, Davis and Bonn moved to Chicago, where Davis spent a year in the School of the Art Institute’s Art and Technology program. Arcangel moved to New York; Beuckman still lives in Saint Louis. The group’s eponymously titled debut, recorded in 1998 and 1999, was finally released earlier this year on Beige Records, the label Davis and Beuckman had started in 1997 to release some more conventional electronic noodlings.

The EP, released only on 12-inch vinyl, is something of a curio: the cover bills it as a battle record, which usually means a cutting contest between two hip-hop DJs, but here an Atari 800 XL is pitted against a Commodore 64. Instead of technical flash, the emphasis is on primitive sounds–the record is a veritable video arcade symphony. Each side of the release features a series of grooves meant for more traditional DJs to sample or scratch, plus one full-fledged instrumental song. Each side also includes complete data for sound software–which, when taped onto a cassette, can be loaded back onto the corresponding brand of computer. (The Beige Records Web site boasts that this is the first software ever distributed on vinyl, which is probably accurate.) Most of the tones, melodies, and rhythms were programmed using the computers’ shared assembly language. “Some people have turned their noses up at it because they see it as a retro kitsch thing,” says Davis. “But that’s not why we did it.”

“It’s not only a kind of DJ battle record, but it also functions as a tool,” adds Bonn. “It’s a sign of our appreciation for that technology and what we can do with it.” The 8-Bit members are a strange strain of Luddite: It’s not that they’re technophobic–quite the contrary. But they disapprove of the direction technology has taken, particularly when it comes to the distant relationship artists have with the computers on which they increasingly rely.

“We’re interested in understanding the aesthetics of the computer and understanding the craft of computation,” Davis explains. “The thing that was so special about [those old] computers was that they asked the user to understand them. You sit down at a Windows machine and there are AOL icons everywhere. The potential of what you can do is squashed by corporate choices….It’s more attractive to us to use a computer and understand it rather than be used by it and the companies who write the software.”

The electronic-music community isn’t exactly rallying around the flag yet. When the 8-Bit Construction Set performed at a party in New York a few weeks ago, they projected their actions on video and took pains to explain the composition of each piece, even noting the computer brand and model and how much memory it had. But “the audience only wanted to hear nonstop techno beats,” says Davis with a laugh.

The group has recently expanded its arsenal to include early Atari and Nintendo home video-game systems, which used the same microprocessor as the Commodore and Atari computers. As part of “Post-Data in the Age of Low Potential,” an exhibit that just closed at the Deadtech space in Logan Square, Davis and Arcangel reprogrammed old Nintendo cartridges to translate video footage of an NHL brawl into primitive pixels and play an accompanying sound track; the results ran in loops on several televisions.

The Nintendo piece will be resurrected next Friday, July 13, as part of a group show at the Fassbender gallery, 835 W. Washington, where it’ll stay through August 22. A few days earlier, on Tuesday, July 10, Davis and Bonn will kick off a twice-monthly Beige Records residency at the Double Door’s basement Dirt Room. They’ll construct tracks from loops on the record, but they’ll be triggering them from the computers rather than turntables. They’ll also play back some of their original compositions for Nintendo, and possibly also their Nintendo-ized cover of the Joe Jackson hit “Steppin’ Out,” on which Bonn takes a rare vocal turn. DJ Presyce of the Molemen will also spin.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.