Festival marks blip on the radar for chiptune

by Felicity Hughes

Taking Nintendo’s Game Boy to places it was never meant to go, a lineup of international chiptune artists will be converging on Koenji High this weekend for Japan’s first ever Blip Festival. The roster includes acts such as Nullsleep from New York, who takes a blowtorch to sweet “Super Mario” style ditties, gradually melting them down with a battery of zaps and bleeps until the listener is caught up in a dog fight (or goomba fight) of raw electronic sound.

“I kind of made a real pain in the ass of myself with a whole bunch of people trying to convince them (the event) was possible,” says organizer David Adams over coffee in the Higashi Nakano area of Tokyo. He has made it his mission to bring Blip Festival to Japan ever since being blown away by it in New York in 2008, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm over the possibilities of the chiptune genre.

“The Game Boy and the Nintendo Entertainment System are both really basic; they can only generate four sounds for the Game Boy and five sounds for the Famicom at the same time,” says Adams. “The sounds are very limited; you can’t really manipulate them, but there’s an appeal to . . . how far you can push the technology.”

Adams says the chiptune scene started to go global when Japanese artist Hally began a bilingual chiptune website called VORC.org nine years ago. The first Blip Festival was held in 2006 after another scene-defining moment.

“(Fellow chiptune artist) Bit Shifter and Nullsleep did a tour in Japan and actually met Hally and Midori from Japanese group YMCK face to face. That was the first major contact between the (Japanese and U.S.) scenes that I’m aware of and it kind of kicked off the first festival in New York.”

Nullsleep (Jeremiah Johnson) and Bit Shifter (Joshua Davis) will act as curators of the Japanese event. “Jeremiah and I have been lucky enough to encounter the music of a lot of really phenomenal chip musicians,” says Davis by e-mail from New York. “(There are) people doing really inventive and interesting things using the sounds and aesthetics of early-generation computing. So when organizing Blip Festival events, we try to apply a combination of gut-level intuition and careful bigger-picture consideration when inviting the participants.”

Reflecting the international nature of the scene, seven locals will represent Japan and the remaining 12 acts are coming from abroad. Hally says he is most looking forward to seeing Switzerland’s Stu perform.

“I’ve known Stu for a really long time, but this is the first time I’ll get to see him perform live. He’s an artist who can tap into the extraordinary destructive power of electro.”

Adams is also excited about the lineup. “I’m really interested to see how Hip Tanaka’s music goes over with a large crowd; he’s basically a bit of a legend,” he says, referring to Japanese artist Hip Tanaka.ex, who worked as a sound engineer, programmer and composer for Nintendo in the 1980s and ’90s.

“There’s also a guy from Australia coming who writes music under the name little-scale and who is an incredibly talented hardware savant,” says Adams. “He makes midi interfaces with things that have no business having midi interfaces and I think people will be really fascinated by the technical aspects of (his performance). He’s done things with Japanese hardware that have never been done in Japan before, which is kind of awesome.”

Blip Festival Tokyo takes place from 4:30 p.m. till 10 p.m. on Sept. 4 and from 3:30 p.m. till 9 p.m. on Sept. 5. Admission costs ¥3,000 (plus a ¥500 drink ticket) each day. For more information, visit www.tokyo.blipfestival.org or www.koenji-high.com