Bit Shifter live in New York. Photo by Marjorie Becker.
Bit Shifter: Not Playing Any Games
By Tiffany Razzano
Goodbye Super Mario Bros., hello innovative, electronic music.
Nintendo's Game Boy has been a popular handheld video game system since it was released in 1989. Over the years, while most have relished it for making their favorite Nintendo games portable, Astoria's Josh Davis - who dons the name Bit Shifter whenever he has a Game Boy in hand - uses it for an entirely different purpose: creating music known as "chipmusic."
A common misconception is that Davis samples sounds from existing games, mashes them together and puts beats behind them. In actuality, Davis never touches any of the video games. Instead, with the help of a pair of programs called Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ, he inserts a special cartridge that turns the Game Boy's screen into a music making interface (much like a sequencer or drum machine). "This allows the user to control, define and arrange sounds to make songs," Davis said. "And these sounds are all synthesized in real time by the sound chip within the Game Boy itself. So, the process really sidesteps gaming entirely."
Josh Davis. Photo by Kevin Jennings.
Davis took on the name Bit Shifter, partially influenced by a Swedish music collective called Beepdealers, after brainstorming to come up with a name "that invoked a sense of motion at small scales." It was a stroke of luck for him that Bit Shifter turned out to be a very appropriate name for the music he creates as "bit shifting" is a term that applies to a computing process.
This electronic project might seem to be a far cry from the more rock - and instrument - oriented groups he typically played in growing up outside of Buffalo, and when he first moved to New York City, but he says the music he creates now is more or less rock and power pop on a Game Boy. And six-and-a-half years into the Bit Shifter project, you can hardly say that it's short-lived.
What started off as burned CD-Rs for friends has turned into a way of life for Davis. "The aim of the project is really to explore what's possible when working within limitations," he said, "and I've been personally pretty excited and inspired by the fact that in many cases, working within limitations is actually very creatively stimulating. Parallel to that, there's a certain subversive appeal to repurposing widely available, cheap and antiquated technology, and using it for a purpose for which it wasn't intended, using it to make music that's unusual, exciting, new, visceral and maybe even as appealing musically as it is conceptually."
Bit Shifter live in Stockholm.
Photo by Jonas Lund.
Recently, Davis went to Austin, Texas, for SXSW, to represent the artist collective and netlabel for chipmusic artists, 8bitpeoples, that he helped found. He participated in a label showcase organized in support of a screening of _Blip Festival 2006: Reformat the Planet_. The Blip Festival is an annual four-day festival run by his collective and featuring chipmusicians from around the world.
You can catch Bit Shifter June 6 at the Annex in New York City. He also runs a monthly event called Pulsewave (www.pulsewavenyc.com) at the Tank in Tribeca and is helping organize the upcoming Blip Festival (www.blipfestival.org). And keep checking www.myspace.com/bitshifter for details on an upcoming show in Queens.
Published June 1, 2008
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