On the 23rd of June, 2018, amidst daily theater rehearsals, I presented the performance piece I worked on during a semester for the class of Art and Technology of the PhD in Arts.
Matt Makes Games' Celeste hit me hard. The game's theme was strongly familiar, and from the moment I understood that I knew it would find a way into my work.
Breathe is a performance piece that is inspired by and utilizes the game Celeste. In it, after sleeping under the desk for many uncomfortable minutes, I climb into the chair with difficulty, my stressed breathing betraying my lack of strength in doing such an apparently simple task, put on my mask, and begin playing the game. The projection displays my progress in the final stages, only, when I lose control of my breath, when the stress and anxiety over dying for the 50th time on the same spot begins to show, the screen changes, the audio suffers as I do. If I breathe faster than I should, the visuals garble, suffer interference, get more and more broken while the audio's distortion is aggravated as I try to regain some level of calm. I finish the game despite its difficulty, and at the peak I am given strength to finally stand up, get dressed, and move on with my life.
At the end of this private performance, the teacher asked if I could do it again, as I had explained the technicalities of the system I created, the theme of the game and its importance to me in creating this cathartic experience.
I could not do it.
I spoke before of how art feeds more art, how a composer is not a composer, is a performer, a painter, an actor, a designer... Videogames influence my music, my performance pieces, my art, in ways I cannot (or want to) stop. As they should.
No artist is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
(altered part of "For whom the bell tolls", John Donne's "Meditation XVII - Devotions upon Emergent Occasions")
Music is art - a branch of art, a piece of the continent, and all art part of the main.
Composers must not deny the influence of other pieces of music on ourselves, or of other pieces of art, much like we wouldn't deny how our life, and how it was shaped by forces beyond us, influences our work.
Every story I read, every movie I saw, every poem I muttered, they are in my music - there is no "me" in it besides the gathering of all that happened to me.
On the 27th of June, 2018, I was invited to speak on the CYSMUS's - Group of Advanced Studies of Music and Ciberculture - 3rd Workshop, at NOVA FCSH - Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of NOVA University. I chose to give a somewhat personal talk about the influences videogames had on my concert music, as well as on the music of a colleague - Pedro Finisterra, a path that seemed rarely taken, as most academic research focuses on the influences of concert music on videogame soundtracks. For half an hour (which everyone who attended agreed was not enough to fully experience all the examples), I showed four pieces of concert music I had created where the influence of videogames (not just their soundtracks, but how they changed me enough to create something because of them) was identifiable, as well as three by P. Finisterra, and one by Hiatus Kaiyote (Atari; though I have a feeling any of the songs in that album could have been picked) - that was just a personal tale from a composer with still many, many, more examples to create.
From the 4th of July to the 6th, 2018, me and some colleagues from Lisbon's University of Theater and Cinema presented, after many months of work, a theater piece. The process this team went through was unusual (one of the actor's teachers even commented "this is the first time you work like this and will surely be the last"), as there was no leader, only an horizontal structure where anyone, actors and musicians alike, could shape the work being done. We started with a mash-up of W. Shakespeare's "The Tempest" with W. A. Mozart's "The Magic Flute" that quickly evolved into work over only "The Tempest". From there, "actions", or small moments where each group of 4-5 people analyzed a scene and represented it as they saw fit (a magical dining table used to torture castaway sailors turned into a silent family dinner, the hidden meeting of forbidden lovers turned into a woman escaping from full-body duct-tape bindings...). "The Tempest", but not the "actions" already created, were let go and we began to work on T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", finally splitting up our show into four scenes - an introduction, a disk grinder creating sparks in the dark while a wall of noise filled the room; the poem, spoken in the dark; "The Tempest's" "actions" glued next to each other; the family dinner with everyone who participated, in silence, followed by tonal music (at last!).
(Photography by Alípio Padilha. Many were not added due to nudity)
I was not just a composer, but an actor, a sound designer, a musician... I shaped their world with the screeches of my hurdy-gurdy and computer, the cellist shaped the noise that came before with beautifully (and disturbingly) calm music, the pianist dropped the piano on her leg which changed scenes where risks were too great.
All along this process I kept seeing the similarities between this process and some of videogame development. Concert music, in fact the whole scene of "classical" contemporary music, is highly hierarchical - the composer, the score, is the one true ruler and everyone else must comply. In videogames the designers change the visuals, the visual artists change the music; everyone is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Composers aren't alone and shouldn't try to be. The image of the secluded, misunderstood artist isn't real, never was. We are better when we work together, and in a medium such as videogames, composers who are only that, composers, - not painters, actors, directors, writers, game designers, programmers, sound designers... - who do not speak even the very basics of the world they want to live in... they're not videogame composers.
They compose for videogames.