Composer David Farrell started making 8-bit covers of Christmas songs several years ago for fun. Using tones roughly based on the sounds that an old Nintendo console makes, Farrell would generate the songs, put them on the Internet and share them with his friends.
When the Playground Ensemble, which has focused on new contemporary music for fourteen seasons, was asked last year to contribute a song for a holiday album, the group reached out to Farrell, who’d worked with the group before, to see if he had any 8-bit holiday tunes that could be used alongside live musicians.
That got the ball rolling to do 8-Bit Xmas, a whole album of holiday songs that include Farrell’s 8-bit arrangements along with some of the Playground Ensemble’s musicians.
“It’s like Christmas music meets classical music meets video-game music,” Farrell says. “I think if you like any of those things, then you have a doorway into it. I have people say, 'It sounds like this video-game soundtrack that I know.'”
A perfect example of that is “Nutcracker Boss Fights,” which is something like a video-game soundtrack mashup with many different compositions from The Nutcracker.
“They’re loose arrangements, so a lot of the time, there’s original music or new added things that I think sound good or interesting sort of shuffled in with all the familiar stuff,” Farrell says. “Part of it is just trying to find different ways to approach these songs so they don’t sort of all sound the exact same, and how to make them sort of fleshed out, because a lot of times with these tunes, they’re really short melodies and chord progressions, and that’s it. If you’re not going to sing all the words, which change over time, what are you going to do to make it musically interesting over time?”
When arranging the songs for 8-Bit Xmas, Farrell was challenged with aligning 8-bit music with the human element of real players.
“I kind of had to rethink a bit what it was all going to be like and how it was going to work in terms of who’s going to do what,” Farrell says. “How can these things that are really different go together but still sound cool?”
When playing songs for the album, Sarah Whitnah, Playground Ensemble violinist and board president, says there was really no room for any human element, because the music is so strict, both metronomically and also tonally.
“You have to fit perfectly in with the electronics, which can be a challenge, because as humans we’re so used to kind of adapting to each other,” Whitnah says. “And it’s hard to do that with electronics that don’t reciprocate that.”
Whitnah says that the sounds that come from instruments are more complex and more beautiful to our ears.
“So, having that in combination with the 8-bit kind of helps your ears not freak out as much, because just hearing 8-bit for hours is just kind of monotonous,” she says. “With the human element in adding in those live instruments and voice, it just kind of relieves that monotony.”
Farrell says a lot of the songs on 8-Bit Xmas were originally written for singers, but with 8-bit music made using sine-wave generators, really long notes don’t sound good.
“There’s not a lot of shape to the sound,” he says. “It’s really aggressively digital. I think really quickly I wanted to do more rhythmic music. Computers are so good at playing precise fast rhythms. ... It’s sort of rhythmic and driving.”
Conrad Kehn, the founding director of the Playground Ensemble, produced 8-Bit Xmas with Farrell, who he says did a masterful job in finding ways to bring the two worlds together.
“The acoustic chamber-music purity of sound and performance, along with this 8-bit novelty but also all sorts of goodness — I don’t think he watered either one of them down," Kehn says. "I think he actually put them together very well.”
While there were some delays releasing physical copies of 8-Bit Xmas before the holidays last year, the album is now available for purchase through CD Baby and streaming services.
The Playground Ensemble performs at Metropolitan State University’s Holiday Card to the City, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, at the King Center on the Auraria campus. Tickets are $15 to $20 and available at the MSU website. The Playground Ensemble's Annual Holiday Party is on Thursday, December 12. RSVP to [email protected] for the address.