Professor Kenny McAlpine. By Giulia McGauran

Chiptunes and coffee spoons: meet Kenny McAlpine, lecturer in Interactive Composition

Professor Kenny McAlpine is the New Melbourne Enterprise Fellow in Interactive Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He talks to us about the creativity born of constraint, and what attracted him to working at the University of Melbourne.

By Stephanie Juleff

There’s a noisy murmuring irony in the background of this conversation with Professor Kenny McAlpine, the world’s leading expert in chiptune music and the newest Interactive Composition staff member at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

Trucks and cranes are criss-crossing the dusty unfinished Southbank Boulevard on the north side of the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus; they halt, scratch and scrape, pick up and pour tumbling piles of gravel to the ground as steel screeches against steel to tip the scoop, providing an improvised backing track. The machinery reverses back and continues the process.

“This is just my backbeat,” McAlpine says, raising his baritone voice to be heard over the noise. “See that siren tone? Between that,” he cocks his ear to the repetitive donging thud of the machinery as it compacts the dirt, “…and that? We’ve got a kicking rave track going on here.”

McAlpine, who arrived from Scotland to teach at the University last month, is sipping only his second Melbourne flat white, a vital aid for settling in to the rhythm of this city. He comes to the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music from Dundee’s Abertay University where he spent almost 20 years merging his interests in music performance practice, sound production, mathematics and technology to lead the development of its computer games degrees, across both the arts and science schools.

He joins the Interactive Composition course at a transformative moment for the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music. This year, for the first time in the Faculty’s history, staff and students of the Conservatorium join their Victorian College of the Arts peers to make the Southbank campus their home.

The Ian Potter Southbank Centre nears completion within Melbourne's renewed Arts Precinct
Construction of The Ian Potter Southbank Centre nears completion within Melbourne’s renewed Arts Precinct, early 2019. Image: Bison United.

New facilities such as the stunning Ian Potter Southbank Centre, a nine-storey state-of-the-art conservatorium building on Sturt Street, and the position of the campus at the heart of the city’s Arts Precinct, were part of what tempted McAlpine to move with his family from the other side of the world.

In the UK, he says, opportunities to collaborate with cultural institutions with the stature of the ABC or the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were rare.

“All these people are just on our doorstep. So I’m really, really hoping there’ll be opportunities there for collaborative projects of all sorts.”

McAlpine’s academic pathway to Melbourne has not been direct. As a student at the University of Glasgow, he switched from first-year computer science (“the dullest subject in the world”) to astronomy (“the most difficult”) before ending up doing maths (the “soft option”).

An honours supervisor, knowing McAlpine also had a piano diploma, suggested he combine the two interests, to focus his studies on the formalisation and modelling of the creative process; simply put, to investigate how and where composers get their ideas from, and how they develop them.

Having a foot in both the arts and science gave him a sense of how the two complement each other.

“The study of any discipline, whether it is ‘capital c’ Creative or not, necessarily combines creativity with a deep, technical understanding of the subject. There’s something really joyous about committing yourself to knowing and understanding the detail of a subject, whether that’s how numbers work or how music works, in connecting those ideas, and then in finding inventive and creative ways to make them relevant to and interesting for other people.”

McAlpine’s recently-published book, Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes is the culmination of his lifelong professional interest in 8-bit music. So, what exactly is chiptune?

“Chiptunes are not primarily video game music,” he says. “They were at one point but the two have diverged. The theme from Super Mario Brothers would be an example that many people would know… another would be the music from Tetris. They’re pieces of music that have transcended their gaming roots and become distinctive pieces of popular music in their own right.”

Cover art from Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes, by Kenneth B. McAlpine
Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptune by Kenneth B. McAlpine. Oxford University Press.

“A chiptune is just a piece of music written using the sound chips that were commonplace on those early video game consoles and home computers. It has a very characteristic sound that, to my mind, is kind of joy and nostalgia and aural bubblegum all mixed together into one.”

As an example of the cultural reach of video game music, McAlpine traces the life of the Tetris tune, from its original form as a Russian folk tune, through its iteration on Game Boy, its sampling in dance music, all the way to the 1992 Eurodance hit of of the same name by duo Doctor Spin and beyond.

McAlpine celebrates the inventive workarounds composers used to bypass the technical constraints of early video game hardware to shape the sound of chiptune music and bring it out of the computer game console into mainstream musical styles. He believes it is within this dynamic – of constraint and circumvention – that creativity flourishes.

“Creatives work best when they’re set those creative challenges… one of the things I think a lot of early improvisers get tied up with, for example, is a kind of tyranny of freedom. Constraint gives you something to creatively push against.”

His advice for his students – and to any creative, whether they come from a background of music, science or mathematics – is two-fold: “One is just, be interested in everything because you never know where that spark is going to come from. By engaging with different disciplines and ideas… you’re constantly making new connections.”

And the second part of his advice? “How do I phrase this? Basically it comes in as… don’t be a dick.”

Kenny perfectly complements Interactive Composition, with both adhering to a similar pedagogy. Rather than focusing on a particular genre, or teaching exactly how and what to create, the course encourages students to develop their own personal style, skills and approach.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to be in with a group of motivated, creative, bright kids who just want to do what they’re passionate about. I see my role as being partly about taking that raw energy and channelling it and directing it, and partly about getting them to see beyond the immediate potential. Opening up their horizons.”

Banner image: Kenny McAlpine. By Giulia McGauran.