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David Kanaga’s top five inspiring video game soundtracks

Exclusive: Ahead of the release of his original video game soundtrack Dyad, the Software artist trips through digital dimensions and shares an exclusive mix

On October 28, Software Recording Co. (the record label run by Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never) will release David Kanaga’s original soundtrack to the video game Dyad. Musically, Dyad’s soundtrack is a vibrant, multi-coloured trip through acid house, drum ‘n’ bass, juke, and happy hardcore-inflected soundscapes, but it’s unique in the way that the music both reacts to and informs the gameplay.

Speaking to Kanaga in his first interview around the project, it’s clear that he thinks about music in a very different way to most people. He has been working on independent games for a few years now and pushing the boundaries of how music is used on them, most notably in the exploratory music environment Proteus. Kanaga says that “when Proteus came out, a lot of people said ‘Oh, Proteus isn’t a game, it’s a big rhetorical project asking What is a game? and What are the limits of this?”

With video game soundtracks, Kanaga is less interested in the music but the sheer possibilities of an interactive medium. He discusses books such as Adam Harper’s Infinite Music and John Zorn’s 1984 improvisational game piece Cobra as influences on his work. A strongly curated soundtrack, such as in the Grand Theft Auto series, still serves a “banal” function to him, punctuating the action onscreen rather than performing as a gaming element in its own right. “Video games, I think, are still stuck in this idea of representation,” Kanaga says, “It’s not the experience itself.”

Here, Kanaga talks us through five of the video game soundtracks that affected the way he thinks about soundtracks and inspired him in his current musical conquests, and shares an exclusive mix, including original material that didn't make Dyad, and remixes of Aaliyah, Dusty Springfield and Bach.

1. Banjo Kazooie (Grant Kirkhope, 1998)

“John Zorn has improvisational structures. Christian Wolff has branching pathway music – like ‘hit a piano key, try and hit it as softly as possible. If it makes a sound, follow this path. If it doesn’t, follow this path.’ In video games, the equivalent is super reactive soundtracking, so that whenever an event happens in the game, the idea is that it won’t just be scored with a sound effect, it’ll weave into the composition as a whole. So in Banjo Kazooie, there’s this song "Teddybear’s Picnic" that’s the theme. You walk around the world and they play that tune, and as you go into a new area, the texture of it will change, so that it’s on different instruments – if you go into an ice world, it’s probably some nice wet vibraphones. Really simple instrument timbre changes, but it was huge when I played it as a kid. It’s halfway between playing the game and playing a musical instrument.”

2. Electroplankton (Toshio Iwai, 2005)

“This is a game for the Nintendo DS. This was the first game, I think, that was really consciously playing the lines between game and music software. It’s basically like an album of 10 different playspace environments, and it’s got lots of cute little creatures in it. You pick them up and toss them around, and all the environments behave differently. So there’s one where you’ll toss an animal at these leaves, and it’ll bounce off and play different pitches. There are a lot of really simple ways of touching music and drawing out these relationships between the physical space on the screen and the music that’s coming out of it. So that’s another thing that’s really fascinating to me, this idea of mapping space to music and vice versa. Electroplankton was done by this guy called Toshio Iwai, and he’s done some really cool installations too, I saw one here in San Francisco. He’s a good person they’ve got making games.”

3. Slave Of God (Stephen Lavelle, 2012)

“This is by a guy called Stephen Lavelle – you can get it at his website. The music was all done in Figure, a super intuitive iPad app. So this guy Stephen Lavelle, I don’t think he’s ever made dance music before, but there are these super bizarre dance music pastiches – what’s really amazing isn’t so much the loops that are used, but how they do this really strange psychological portraiture. In Slave Of God, they send you to a dance club, and you wander around and everything’s real trippy. There’s this one really amazing moment where you walk onto the dancefloor and there’s some love interest there, and your heart starts pounding. As your emotions are changing, the music changes, and you’ve got this love interest – and there are no words, so the music is the only thing that’s telling you what it means. That was an event that I was super inspired by. It’s just this really beautiful little event, and that’s the sort of thing I dream of happening in games all the time. No language, that’s a big thing that I think is an awesome challenge.”

4. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (Michael Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian, 1991)

“I think this was the first game that used iMUSE, a LucasArts music engine used for establishing continuity in the gaming environment. So pieces would fade into each other — and that’s “fade” with little quotation marks around it, because it was a more complex fade, not just volume up and volume down. I think there were transpositional algorithms in it, and the fades would be gradual, like the piano would keep playing. And then once you move to the new area — I don’t know all the particulars — but if you’ve been there for five seconds, it doesn’t do anything, but once you’ve been there for 10 seconds, it takes the piano out and replaces it. Really complex, tangled transitions. So Monkey Island 2 was exciting not just because they were using the technology, but because it was really wild – I don’t think they’d figured out how to smooth out the technology yet, so it has this really strange, improvisatory quality to it. It feels like passages of Bitches Brew or something, where there’s a lot of people playing together, where as individuals everyone’s in their own timespace, and there’s this complex, emergent whole.”

5. Super Mario Galaxy (Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo, 2007)

 “A lot of the time, it’s these game structures that I get more inspired by than the music. The Super Mario Galaxy games came out a few years ago, and they are the musical ideal for me in terms of how the game feels because of how responsive everything is. Jumping has this really nice rhythmic quality [to it]. You land, and that’s like a meter, but it’s an uneven jump — it’s like free jazz. Super Mario Galaxy is great because it has all these different textures — you walk on honey, you walk on grass, you walk on dirt — and everything has you moving in different ways, so speeds are constantly changing, and then you’ll pick up a silly hat that makes you bounce really high or that makes you heavy. It’s like what’s happening to these time structures in Super Mario Galaxy are exactly what’s happening to time structures in music, where something’s gonna be slowed down, something’s gonna be expanded, something’s gonna be repeated for a while, something’s gonna be taken out of its context and put into another context, and on and on. And I think there’s this real analogue between game structures with no sounds whatsoever and musical structures, so that’s really what’s inspired me. But really, it’s the most mainstream stuff — it’s Nintendo, but they’re really brilliant over there, making this silent structural music. Mario feels like a musical instrument.”

Dyad by David Kanaga is released October 28 on Software Recording Co.