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In Atari’s game tunes, echoes of medieval angst

From Monday through Friday, the MIT Game Lab presents “Push Button,” a series of lectures and workshops exploring that onetime American cultural locus, the video game arcade. The focus is on cabinet-based arcade games (the series is a prelude to a contest to develop games for cabinets installed on the MIT campus), but on Tuesday, Nick Montfort, MIT associate professor of digital media, considers how such games were translated for home video-game consoles, including one of Montfort’s own research specialties: the fabled Atari 2600, first released in 1977.

The immense success of the Atari 2600 came despite profound technological quirks — which included its musical capabilities. Sound was controlled by the Television Interface Adapter, the same chip that governed the console’s graphics, and the tuning was inconsistent and variable. Music for Atari games thus gravitated toward particular pitches and patterns, avoiding combinations that would be rendered too distractingly out-of-whack. Canadian scholar Karen Collins has analyzed one interesting commonplace: a lowered second scale degree, a distinguishing feature of the scale that medieval composers would have recognized as the Phrygian mode.

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The various medieval modes often carried specific connotations; Phrygian could signal heightened tension, or themes of lament and death. Collins admits that Phrygian-tinged Atari game tunes were a product of programming limitations, not a conscious channeling of medieval angst on the part of the programmers. But the old modal implications were not entirely out of place.

Take, for instance, one of the most familiar Phrygian tunes in the repertoire, the Lutheran chorale sung to the words “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” J.S. Bach famously used it throughout his “St. Matthew Passion,” usually harmonizing it as to disguise its modal instability; but the final iteration of the chorale in the “Passion” closes with an open-ended cadence true to its Phrygian outline. In a 1994 dissertation, David S. Hill surveyed other Baroque harmonizations of the tune — setting a variety of hymn texts — and found that arrangements meant for texts emphasizing condemnation over salvation were more likely to use harmonies amplifying the Phrygian modality.

That led Hill to suggest that Bach’s choice of cadence for that final “Passion” chorale was theologically deliberate, producing an ending — after Christ’s crucifixion, but before the Resurrection — suffused with uncertainty. That is a limbo familiar to any arcade denizen: the game is not over, but the outcome is anything but assured. Bach and Atari games, after all, were exploring some of the same subjects: pitfalls, leveling up, the possibility of extra lives.

The MIT Game Lab presents “Push Button: Examining the Culture, Platforms, and Design of the Arcade,” Jan. 6-10. Lectures (beginning daily at 1 p.m.) are free and open to the greater MIT community; the Game Development Challenge, Jan. 11-31, is open to college students in the New England area (gamelab.mit.edu/pushbutton).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

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