I’ve just watched an experimental dance music gig created by an artist playing Half-Life. Graham Dunning has replaced every single sound in Valve’s shooter with samples he says come “from 90s rave tracks and sample CDs”, giving Gordon Freeman drums for feet, making sentry turrets loop vocal samples, turning ambient sounds into pounding loops, blasting drum breaks out guns, and all that. So he creates improvised music just by playing the game. He performed for two hours today on Twitch and it is: so good. Come see today’s show!
Graham Dunning has done songs and live performances for a few years now, and he’s about to release a whole album of it. Which I guess is why he’s treating us to Twitch streams like this, today:
That was cracking, that. Often he just played Half-Life, letting the music be whatever came out when he played. Other times, he consciously performed. My favourite part was when he paused to stare at a skull, flicking his flashlight on and off to play vocal samples that became stuttering, almost gasping, while distant environmental beats quietly ticked on a steady rate. Another triumph for environmental storytelling’s love of skulls. You can see that bit at about 1:36:20 in the video.
There’s a few elements to Dunning’s performance. Ambient sounds loop constantly, making the Black Mesa complex functions a giant sequencer you move through. Scripted sequences become intense little composed parts too. Dynamic elements come in through what Gordon and all the other characters get up to. The environment provides steady beats, different elements dropping in and out as he moves around. Footsteps thump and crash drums. NPCs generate their own little dynamic performances. Fights bring brief intense moments. The way Half-Life aggressively distorts sounds in certain spaces works nicely too.
I wasn’t into rave in the 90s but these sounds were everywhere, and I love hearing them rearranged into this new form. And even I recognise bits like the “let me feel your warm embrace” off Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy, which I believe here replaces the looping ‘active’ beep of sentry turrets.
He’s put a few Panopticon samples up, including this pleasantly simple song built from firing a gun turret in a corridor. That’s just the background sounds, the gun, and different instruments coming in depending on the materials the bullets hit.
So simple. So magic.
You can read more about Dunning and his other work on his website.
I can’t let this end without mentioning Devil Daggers, the FPS which comes out the box sounding like an unearthly gig of grinding teeth, roars, and warbling. Proper lovely, that. And hot tip: if you view a replay slowed way, way, way down you’ve got several hours of rumbling ambient music. Love that Devil Daggers.
Ta to my pal Pat Ashe for pointing out this stream.