Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bad Piggies vs. Gourmet Race

TL;DR: video-game-music-induced feels.

I stumbled across this beautiful ohrwurm the other day:

(Context: I've never played the game, though I've watched people play it.)

Listen to that. Just sit back and listen to that majestic thing for a few minutes.

The light-hearted meandering across the piano. The upbeat mood in a minor mode. The bouncing tuba, supported on the offbeats. (Bouncing 4-beat tuba is instant shorthand for adorably unsubtle. It's the sort of musical trope you'd use to depict a litter of baby hippos trying to bake a cake, filling the room with billowing clouds of flour.)

This music makes me so inexplicably happy. :D

Someone once said there's such a thing as overanalysing 30 seconds of video game music. Well, citation needed, punk.

Bar 3: semiquavers slowing out into quavers then crotchets again. Creates the feeling of pace without overcrowding the melody a la Mozart. The downward spill directly along the E\(\flat\) major scale sounds like a literal spill. It is adorable.

(For reference, I'm assuming four tuba notes to a bar, i.e. 160 bpm. For numbering purposes, I'm not counting the three bars of intro before the piano enters.)

Bars 9-12: Love the switch-up in rhythm in the B section, starting with the missed quaver beat at the beginning of bar 9 and building through the 3-1-2-2 dotted quaver madness at the beginning of bar 10.

...and then that E\(\flat\) E\(\flat\) D right on the beat at bar 12, implicit parallel fifths and all. Sogood.

Bars 18-19: Squealing adorable pig!

Oh, and dayum — those oscillating arpeggios around the 0:58 mark (or: bar 35), with their gentle rising and falling crescendos, hovering around second inversion and sounding oh so wistful (at least, if watching the sunset on fast forward is wistful) and minimalist.

(Holy shit could someone record a Phillip Glass style rearrangement of the whole piece? I would love you forever.)

Bar 52 + 56: Flute. Is adorable. That is all.

Ilmari Hakkola, whatever your affiliation is to Rovio Entertainment, thank you. You are a true hero.

The obvious comparison for me as soon as I heard this was Jun Ishikawa's work on the Kirby series. In particular, I found this really evocative of his 1996 Gourmet Race, which, like the Bad Piggies theme, is arranged as jaunty brass-band trip through C minor and its surrounding relatives (i.e. E\(\flat\) and A\(\flat\)).

(Some may be more familiar with the 1999 rearrangement for Super Smash Bros, which, besides swapping sine-y flute/analogy synths for brighter, brassy ones and vice versa, is pretty much the same in tone.)

Screenshot from Gourmet Race (Kirby Super Star, HAL Laboratory, 1996).

Besides key, tempo, modal shifts, orchestration, use of eight-beat tuba-and-offbeat-support backing rhythm, and other obvious qualities, the Bad Piggies and Gourmet Race themes have plenty else in common. For example, they're both designed to be played on endless loop: hardly uncommon for video game music. This has a noticeable effect on their dramatic buildup, or rather lack thereof. Instead of starting modestly and building up to epic, both pieces forget about low-to-high and instead transition from melodic high to high. This is possible mostly due to how each dramatic high has a different quality to it, so that merely transitioning into it feels like structural development. (The one noticeable exception is the previously mentioned arpeggio section in Bad Piggies, which is far more melodic than textural, and is the most background-ish part of the whole piece.)

Of course, they're hardly identical! The B section of the Gourmet Race theme (bars 17-32) uses a wonderful call-and-answer structure which makes me think of European folk music, though I can't put my finger on why (perhaps the alternation between bass and treble?).

Hakkola's Bad Piggies theme, on the other hand, makes no such harmonic allusions. If it resembles anything at all, it's 1930s ragtime, but even then it's lacking swing and most of the comparison is carried by the very particular use of the high registers of the piano. Suffice to say that the A section (bars 1-8) would not be amiss in a Chaplin comedy, but would be utterly out of place in The Sting.

It's also worth noting that the melody in Bad Piggies is always held by the piano. There's no multi-timbral confusion here: this is a piano piece with heavy accompaniment, not an ensemble arrangement.

Conversely, in Gourmet Race, Ishikawa delights in switching between different textures and timbres — brassy and windy, low and high, complex and simple. The switches between different lead voices happen almost like clockwork with every changing phrase (usually eight bars each). It has that feel of call-and-answer all over again, only combined with the melodic call-and-answer to produce some elemental fractal Mobius double reacharound shenanigans.

The comparisons extend beyond the music to the context. Both Bad Piggies and Kirby Super Star present saccharine worlds chock-full of cartoon violence. Both of these tracks appear in contexts celebrating kawaii gluttony.

At this point you may be wondering what grand conclusion I'm building up to. The answer is: I'm not.

Have a picture of Kirby eating cake.

(There was never a horrible official orchestral arrangement of Gourmet Race which used a 3-3-3-3-2-2 rhythm and completely gutted the tone of the original. That never happened.)

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