Hello and welcome to a very unusual and exciting installment of Office Hours on The ChipWIN Blog! As a classically-trained composer who also teaches college music courses, works from the Renaissance and Baroque eras are heard regularly in my classroom. So you can imagine my absolute delight when a new album combines these periods with another of my passions – chip music. Dear diary: jackpot!
Old Style is a collaboration between cellist Emily Davidson and her brother Chris, who is well known to us on the ChipWIN squad under the moniker Dj CUTMAN. Their project “Baroque Remixes” takes 17th and 18th century composers from a variety of nationalities and arranges their works in a mixture of chiptune and EDM-style beats. Now… if this were a commercial, here is the spot where the narrator is suddenly cut off by a record scratch.
The chiptune community is ripe (some might say “plagued”) with covers of songs in all styles, done with varying degrees of detail and care. Perhaps 20% of these “chip covers” are tolerable, 10% are phenomenal1, and the rest of them are unholy abominations2 that should be killed with fire. Friends, please continue reading because you are about to experience the upper crust of that fabled 10% category.
A Bit of Context
For this review I will be discussing each track separately to focus on the combination of styles, as well as including a small bit of historical context behind the original pieces. Click the link on the “Original” line under each track to hear the source material.
I am also doing away with my usual grading system for the review, as I am definitely NOT an impartial voice in any sense for this release (spoiler alert: it would receive 100% because I am infatuated with this album). Emily and Chris are awesome, and I just would not feel right fabricating a reason not to give the album a perfect score. Being a professional classical musician can be a brutal grind, and I wish only the best for Emily. I also greatly respect and enjoy the large amount of work that CUTMAN does in the chip community, including ‘This Week in Chiptune’ and his mastering work on the ChipWIN releases, which include two of my own tracks. Let’s just talk about the tunes and not worry about assigning points, shall we?
Sonata Pop (Vivaldi)
Original: ‘Allegro’ from the Cello Sonata in E minor
Even if you don’t know Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)3 from a vivisection, you have likely heard his music. Today he is largely known to the public by his violin concerti ‘The Four Seasons,’ but the “Red Priest” was widely influential in his lifetime for his instrumental compositions. This track is a wonderful opening to the album, both as a standalone track and a preview of what to expect from the rest of the arrangements. The opening is slightly modified from the original, adding a few pauses and building to the main theme. Steady drums accompany the simple melodic lines, and the ‘chorus’ as it were contains some beautiful side-chained synth chords. The orchestration at 1:45 is a nice change rather than directly repeating material we’ve already heard, and the closing octaves are a lovely standard effect in chip music.
François Couperin (1668-1733) came from a large musical family, and this French composer wrote keyboard music that was highly influential to Baroque and later composers. His collections of harpsichord works contain extensive discussion on ornamentation as well as having very evocative titles – here, ‘The Mysterious Barricade’ whose meaning is hotly debated. Couperin’s original gradually builds in energy and intensity, and this trait is left intact on the Old Style arrangement. Starting simply with a few bass notes, the main melodic texture soon enters and remains fairly constant throughout. The most interesting aspect of this track for me is the juxtaposition of trap rhythms in the drums combined with the stately, flowing harmony and melody. The little dissonant sounds that occur at the ends of phrases after the first minute are really nice touches that keep the musical texture fresh. Overall I really like the blend of styles on this track, and I could see this new genre of “Baroque chip-hop” becoming the next big thing!
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is rather infamous in the art music circle, both for his work in music theory and his radical new approach to French opera. If you think classical musicians are a bunch of stuffy, boring snobs, just take a few minutes to read up on the ‘Querelle des Bouffons’ that used Rameau’s music as a scapegoat – sometimes we really know how to sling an insult! This is the track that drew me to this album, as I am obsessively in love with Rameau’s music, particularly his keyboard works. The original depicts a Native American dances that Rameau apparently witnessed, and the aggressive nature of the music is immediately apparent in Old Style’s arrangement. A driving beat and harsh synth tones reminiscent of distorted guitars alternate with quirky synth patches that offer a nice contrast to the aggressive nature of the main section. The descending bass line that starts at 1:20 is KILLER, and the track ends with the same amount of intensity and high energy heard throughout.
Ortiz Reprise, ft. Absrdst (Ortiz)
Original: ‘Recercarta Octava Sobre La Folia’ from the ‘Trattado de Glosas’
Perhaps the least well-known composer represented on the album, Diego Otiz (c.1510-1570) was a Spanish composer who was also very highly important in the shift from the Renaissance to the Baroque era. His two treatises on keyboard and vocal performance were valuable resources for his contemporaries in their instruction on performance practice, and they serve scholars today as an excellent source on early Baroque ornamentation. This piece is a ricercar, an instrumental composition typical of Ortiz’s era where it explores different permutations of motives within a given melody. The sense of constant development is evident in the arrangement here, as the synth patches frequently shift and the the textures also constantly evolve. The ethereal organ patches are an interesting addition to the texture, and I also enjoy the addition of a somewhat sparse beat throughout the track. I did not know any of Ortiz’s music prior to hearing this album, but I enjoy this arrangement enough to seek out some of his original works.
Solfeggietto, ft. James Landino (CPE Bach)
Original: ‘Solfeggietto in C minor’
This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), so there has been a surge of interest in his life and works among music scholars and performers. His music provided the transition between the late Baroque and early Classical eras; Mozart even acknowledged his influence, saying, “He [CPE Bach] is the father, we are the children.” This piece is very frequently heard in its original form, and is quite popular with piano students today. Compare the arrangement to the original, and you will hear a refreshing amount of space given to the notes in Old Style’s interpretation. The music is allowed to breathe a little more than most live performances, and the driving four-on-the-floor beat really pushes the music forward. I love the build in the introduction, and the ‘honky-tonk piano’ sound is just wonderful. This track also features several textures and styles, which is unique on the album since most tracks remain essentially in the same sound realm throughout. The pulsing bass break in the middle of the track is a staple of house music, and works well as an interlude before hearing the main melody one final time.
Suite Jam (JS Bach)
Original: ‘Badinerie’ from the ‘Suite #2 in B minor’ for orchestra
No Baroque remix album worth its salt would fail to include the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Composing at the height of the Baroque era, JS Bach’s music is filled with counterpoint (the simultaneous combination of independent musical lines), and is the ultimate example of Baroque musical thought. Musicologists consistently date the Baroque as ending at Bach’s death year, and if you can get more than three musicologists to agree on something, you have just witnessed a very special event… Much like the arrangement of his son’s work on this album, I really enjoy the amount of aural space between the notes here. Different registers and instrumental patches allow each line to be clear in the texture, and the addition of a steady percussive beat does not blur an already complex aural landscape. Part of this is Bach’s original writing, but I think there is also a good amount of credit that needs to be given to CUTMAN’s production skills on this track. This is one of the only times you will hear the iconic ‘Nintendo bass’ sound on the album, and I really enjoy the fact that it has unique lines to play rather than plunking out chord roots.
Old Style’s “Baroque Remixes” manages to effectively and seamlessly combine disparate musical styles that span centuries of musical thought and innovation. The original compositions were all written without percussion, and in true EDM style the drums add a driving, energetic element to each track without overcrowding the texture. The simple subtlety of the arrangements both do justice to the original material while providing a unique take on cornerstones of the late Renaissance and Baroque styles. Production value is exactly what you would expect from Dj CUTMAN; extremtly high quality work with aural clarity in all frequencies. This album sounds great in the car, through laptop speakers, and played through the system in my classroom. Fans of the composers included on the album will be rewarded with new takes on familiar material, while chip music fans may find some new (old) music to explore.
I hope you enjoyed a grade-free Office Hours this month. Don’t worry, the blue pen will be out and ready to tear into someone with a vengeance again next month!
1 – see: Beethoven/Danimal Cannon “Moonlight Sonata”
2 – see: any MIDI rendered with GXCC and uploaded to YouTube
3 – I’m performing the cardinal academic sin of citing Wikipedia only because I assume most of you do not have free access to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.