Office Hours #5 – Soleviio ‘Sonus Antiquitatum’

- Posted January 7th, 2015 by

Hello and welcome to a snow-filled1 winter edition of Office Hours right here on the CWB. I fully expected to talk about a more straightforward chip release this time after my previous review of Oldstyle’s ‘Baroque Remixes,’ but I lucked out with a new release from Soleviio titled ‘Sonus Antiquitatum: Sonata for Two Game Boys in F minor.’ This release is again closely tied to my teaching, as my students learn a great deal about sonata form in my theory classes. Before diving into Soleviio’s music, let’s have a quick crash course in sonata form, shall we?

A Brief History

If you have heard the word ‘sonata’ before and not known exactly what it meant, you are not alone! The best way to describe the historical relationship status between composers and the sonata is: ‘it’s complicated.’ The term comes from the Italian suonare – ‘to sound’ – and was originally applied in the Renaissance era to instrumental works. These sonatas were widely different in form, style, and length; the term was only intended to differentiate between instrumental (sonata) and vocal (cantata) works.

The term began to standardize in the Baroque era with Arcangelo Corelli’s ‘Trio Sonatas’ – multi-movement instrumental works in binary (AB) form. JS Bach expanded on Corelli’s model by writing trio sonatas with substantial keyboard parts, but it was not until the 555(!) keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti that an actual ‘sonata form’ began to take shape. Instead of binary form, Scarlatti’s sonata movements often return to the opening section, creating a three-part ternary form (ABA). In addition, each formal section tends to have its own key area, which becomes an important hallmark of sonata form. Scarlatti’s works provide the springboard for Classical-era composers to expand upon, which in turn becomes the most important formal scheme of the era. Classical symphonies, string quartets, and works for solo instrument and piano all utilized sonata form.

Domenico Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Yes, but what *is* ‘sonata form?’

Sonatas typically contain three or four movements with music in contrasting styles. The first movement is nearly always the one to utilize ‘sonata form’ in its proper formal scheme. Remember Corelli’s binary and Scarlatti’s ternary forms? These combine on a macro level to create the skeleton of sonata form:

Sonata Form
click to embiggen
Exposition (A) – the most important music is introduced here with the main thematic material for the movement. Theme 1 is stated in the original key, then theme 2 is heard after a modulation. These themes tend to contrast with each other: bold or lyrical, wide leaps or stepwise motion, etc. This section by itself is in binary form (AB), from Corelli.

Development (B) – musical material heard in the exposition is expanded in the development. Where the key areas were clear and consistent in the exposition, the development is tonally unstable.

Recapitulation (A’) – a modified version of the exposition occurs after the development. Both main themes are heard in the tonic key, as the recap is tonally stable to provide for a strong structural end to the movement.

This is a rough outline of sonata form; there are many, many different variations on this basic premise invented by composers over the past 250 years. The second movement is often in a slow tempo in ternary form or a theme and variations. In a four-movement sonata, the third movement is a fast minuet-like dance in triple time. The final movement is often fast, whose music is lighter and less dramatic in character than the opening movement.

Now that everyone has brushed up on sonata form, let’s see how this outline is used in Soleviio’s work!

Soleviio 'Sonus Antiquitatum'
Soleviio (aka Connor Riley) is a chip artist currently residing in Pasadena, CA. He describes his music as ‘turn[ing] the Game Boy into an expressive, lifelike instrument in its own right,’ and this focus on expressive music is evident in the ‘Sonus Antiquitatum: Sonata for Two Game Boys in F minor.’ Soleviio seeks to combine styles and influences from the past to create a new, contemporary work. While this paradigm of ‘old + new’ is very common with modern chip artists, Soleviio’s influences span a very wide stretch of music history. His work is in the style of an early 19th century sonata, where the form has solidified and has seen decades of heavy utilization. By this point in history, composers (Beethoven especially) have begun radical experimentation with the overall formal scheme. Soleviio’s work is in four movements, and we might expect the first (and possibly last) to be in true ‘sonata form’ as outlined above.

I. Rekindling the Flame (Allegro)

Vibrant, descriptive titles are indicative of the 19th century, so already I am expecting to hear some alterations to the standard sonata form. After a brief introduction, a lyrical first theme enters the texture and is repeated with a really neat underlying percussive beat. Immediately after this theme is a transition that I am going to label ‘theme 3’ (again, typical of Beethoven) that closes with a Baroque’ish circle of fifths progression. The proper second theme enters at 1:25 with a change in rhythmic feel from straight eighth notes to triplets, helping to set it apart from the music heard so far.

The development begins at 2:22, improvising around theme 3, the triplets from theme 2, and then theme 1. See if you can hear how chromatic and unsettled this section sounds compared to the beginning and ends of the movement – that is a hallmark of development sections in sonata form. Taking another cue from Beethoven, the themes are presented in an unexpected order in the recapitulation: theme 3, theme 2, and finally theme 1 in the coda section.

I really enjoy the overall sound of this movement, especially the use of harmony since Soleviio has four pulse channels between the two Game Boys. Arpeggio figures and other tricks to imply harmony on the Game Boy are nice, but sometimes you just can’t beat two or three square waves playing lines at the same time! The combination of Classical-era harmonies and form with modern chip techniques really makes this work shine, and it reminds me very much of the Baroque/Classical inspiration behind the early Castlevania soundtracks.

II. Vestiges of Home (Andante – Adagio)

Movement two opens with descending, ethereal arpeggios that lead to a legato theme. This movement is an interesting combination of technical influences: JS Bach’s melodic figuration, high Classical melody and accompaniment textures, Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s sense of melody, and a tiny bit of Wagner thrown in the mix. The movement is structured as a theme and variations, moving ever father away from the source material by the middle of the movement. In a similar fashion from the first movement, Soleviio allows the music to breathe organically with some tasteful tempo fluctuations just as a live player might do. Combining tempo shifts with short pitch bends, vibrato, and envelope shifts really helps bring the music to life in an organic fashion. My favorite variation is the repeated-note figures that happen at 2:19, and the tempo shifts that occur in this movement are excellent!

III. A Dance with the Darkness, a Dance with the Light (Presto)

After an absence in movement two, percussive beats are back with a vengeance in this frenetic, twisted dance movement. Small pitch bends and ornamentation add a human touch to the melodies, and I really like the interspersed noise channel flourishes. Gritty, distorted bass patches that are reserved for use in this movement alone really allow the wave channel a chance to shine and cut through the overall texture. Intricate rhythmic figures push the music forward in a frenzy, and the main melody tends to stick in your ears for days on end. My only criticism with this movement is the harmony used in the introduction that returns throughout the movement. It sounds GREAT, but to my ears the dissonant progression breaks the ‘beginning of the 19th century’ fourth wall. Mozart and Beethoven certainly had their moments of stretching tonality, but this movement sounds to me very much like the final years of the 19th century rather than the first, where the tonal system is stretched to its breaking point. Perhaps inspired by Liszt and Mussorgsky, Soleviio does a fantastic job of combining this atonal progression with tonal phrases that do not sound out of place, reminiscent of the tasteful use of dissonance in a Chopin ballade or mazurka.

IV. What Is Dead May Never Die (Allegro con brio)

Given the intensity of movement three, it comes a surprise that this movement rises again harder and stronger than all of the previous music in this sonata. Pure Classical-era harmony combines with a driving beat and a strong melody to propel the music forward. Keeping with the typical sonata form structure, this movement is in rondo form: the main melodic idea returns between sections of new music (i.e. ABACABA). Pay attention to the subtle tempo and rhythmic shifts at 1:15, 2:45, and 4:05 for examples of Soleviio’s dynamic writing style that humanizes the mechanical, machine-like sound of the Game Boy. There are a few times that I wish the drums were a bit louder in the mix, but overall this movement (as with the rest of the release) sounds very clear and bright. Perhaps my favorite thing about this movement is the accompaniment sounds that are more characteristic of chip music rather than utilizing the extra pulse channels for harmony. Arpeggios and LSDJ tables add finesse to lines underneath the main melody, and I really like how these standard chip sounds are largely reserved for the last movement. Given the nice balance of melody, harmony, and sound design, this movement is perhaps the best excerpt from the sonata to cite as an example of Baroque/Classical-inspired chip music.

Soleviio’s ‘Sonus Antiquitatum: Sonata for Two Game Boys in F minor’ is a tour de force of chip music that draws inspiration from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic style periods. Set as a four-movement sonata, the work as a whole retains the expected formal scheme of a proper sonata from the end of the Classical era. Soleviio strives to humanize the mechanical nature of the Game Boy, and does so very nicely through melodic inflections and tempo shifts that help bring the music to life. The combination of old (Classical-era music, 8-bit sounds) and new (electronic versus acoustic instruments, thumping bass and percussion) is done effectively and comes across as genuine rather than a pastiche of styles. Soleviio brings much-needed legitimacy to the ‘Classical chip’ genre – whose main examples are ‘Für Elise’ run through Magical 8-bit Plugin – and I certainly want to hear more high-quality music done in this style!

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