Subconscious Mario Paint Constraints

08.13.2016 § Leave a comment

In 1992, my family got Mario Paint. You know, the “video game” that came with its own controller (a mouse) which was basically a souped up Microsoft Paint. You could also make simple animations, and you could even compose music.

These tools were limited. You could only have one animated element at a time, and it could only endlessly loop around either 4, 6, or 9 frames you’d drawn (the more frames, the smaller cells you got to draw in), and this looping element could be further animated in a path around the screen but only in any path you could record contiguously with your mouse movement.

And as for the music, you could only have three notes at once, choosing from a palette of only fifteen instruments (including the Super Mushroom, the Baby Yoshi, and the Game Boy), within a pitch range of less than two octaves, without accidentals (thus forcibly diatonic), without dynamics, and you could only use staccato quarter notes or rests, up to 96 beats in either 3/4 or 4/4, choosing from a predefined set of tempos.

I recently visited my parents’ house in Georgia and found the SNES cartridge on a shelf in a basement closet. I brought it back with me to California and kept it near me as a talisman while preparing a composition to be performed and recorded at the Untwelve Microtonal Summer Camp — to remind me where I got my start composing.

Photo Aug 13, 11 39 55The work I’ve been doing this month is to interpret my composition for humans, not just computers. These days I have better digital audio workstations than Mario Paint, so it’s no big deal to tell a computer to play whatever notes I damn well please, such as one with a frequency of 453.884586154785 Hz. But to get a human to play that note it’s better to tell them something more like that they’re shooting for a note 44% percent between the Eb5 and E5 familiar to them, and also that they’re shooting for a note 16/13ths the pitch they just played and 11/8ths the pitch another performer is playing simultaneously.

To avoid manually drawing all 161 of the diagrams peppered throughout the sheet music for this purpose, I scripted up a webpage through which I could feed a specially formatted spreadsheet version of my song, that would then draw the diagram with HTML5 Canvas and spit out each diagram as an image file. I had hoped to add a fifth part to my piece in time for camp, but the overhead to prepare these pitch diagrams (and write tests to confirm they came out correctly) precluded that.

Clearly the pitch system I developed for this piece is too complex to have been written in Mario Paint. It’s not even twelve tone equal temperament, let alone diatonic. But given that I originally composed this piece a year ago — long before Mario Paint was fresh in my head again — I am amused to notice that other than pitch, its other musical qualities could be rendered within the constraints of Mario Paint!

While nowadays I normally write music in like, 11/3 + 9/4 + 7/5 time, this one is straightforward 4/4. And while it’s over seven minutes long, it’s so slow that it’s only 23 bars, or 92 beats, just within MP’s limit. That molasses-slow tempo it proceeds in is precisely the slowest tempo MP makes available. It boasts only a single type of instrument, almost always only up to 3 different pitches at once, and a pitch range within MP’s limits. Up until adapting it for humans, I called for no dynamics either.

Part of me knows that I intentionally made the piece as simple as possible other than the pitch system, in order that the performers and listeners could focus on the complexities of its pitch system (trickery deriving from the fact that movement by the 19th harmonic is almost exactly equal to a movement by the 11th, 13th, and the 17th) (which I originally developed five years ago at the Xenharmonic Praxis Summer Camp, an earlier iteration of this annual alt-tuning retreat). But part of me playfully wonders if some of the Mario Paint near the core of my musical self subconsciously worked its way to the surface here.

(No, sadly, I cannot find any trace of the first song I remember composing on Mario Paint, “Flying”, which was a duet for two Geese.)


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