Classic Chips is a collection of some of my favourite classical music, performed on a Nintendo Entertainment System and related chipsets. I am attracted to chiptunes because of the limitations involved, trying to fit the expression needed into a very small number of simple sounds. This challenge is fun and exciting to me, and I find it can lead to very unique and interesting solutions. There are already many wonderful recordings of these pieces played on their intended instruments, and I relish the opportunity to present them in a different way.
My selection includes mostly music of the very late Romantic period. The Bach pieces are a huge outlier in that respect, though I hope they will not feel too out of place here. Most of this was originally written for piano, as well; this bias is partly because I thought it was of a complexity well suited to reorchestration on the very limited NES sound palette, but also because a lot of my own experience lies with the piano.
This album would not have been possible without the wonderful program FamiTracker, written by jsr. It is the primary tool which I used to build these arrangements.
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No. 5 Op. 53 (1907)
"I summon you to life, secret longings! You, drowning in the dark depths of the creative spirit, you trembling embryos of life, it is to you that I bring courage."
Scriabin placed this excerpt from his Poem of Ecstasy as an epigraph at the beginning of the score for his fifth piano sonata.
The writing of this work actually seems to have begun in 1903 with his Sonata No. 4, to which it is strongly linked by many shared musical ideas. In the fifth sonata these ideas have returned expanded and much enriched, but most importantly he has unshackled them from traditional tonal harmony. In the years that followed, Scriabin's system of harmony would become more focused and refined toward a very unique "mystical" sonority, but this sonata marks the tipping point where the romantic harmony he'd worked to its limit finally spills over into a new cast, and unlike his later work it still retains characteristics from both sides in a rich mixture. That this development would prompt a return to the material of the fourth sonata I think indicates that he felt confined by tonality when writing it. Perhaps these ideas were the drowning embryos which he had to set free, and with a new courage they grew into this wild and vibrant fifth sonata.
This piece has for a long time been my favourite work for piano. However, it was written by a true master pianist, and the breakneck pace required of its presto sections has been beyond my technical ability as a pianist so far. By sidestepping this requirement with computer control I've finally been able to create my own performance of it.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Suite Bergamasque (1905)
- Clair de Lune
The Suite Bergamasque, and especially Clair de Lune, is among the most well loved in the piano repertoire. Debussy wrote much of it in 1890, but it underwent significant revisions before it was published in 1905. Clair de Lune takes its name from a Paul Verlaine poem of the same name. The name Bergamasque also comes from this poem, referring to a clumsy dance associated with Bergamo.
The Passepied was the first piece I did for this album. Nobuo Uematsu's Battle Scene from Final Fantasy had reminded me of it, and that inspired me to arrange it this way. Once that was finished I decided I needed a whole album of it. My version of Clair de Lune seems to take place by an 8-bit seaside; perhaps it is not in Bergamo after all?
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
- Intermezzo (A minor) Op. 76 No. 7 (1878)
- Intermezzo (E minor) Op. 119 No. 2 (1891)
Brahms composed a number of pieces with the title "Intermezzo". Usually they would appear in a collection of other short pieces for the piano, but for this album I have taken the title literally, and am using them as intermissions between other tracks on the album. For this purpose I have tried to keep their arrangments simple.
As a student these two pieces became my favourite of the intermezzos. The A minor helped me through a mental block in my own compositional technique. The E minor I like for how it carries a single theme through a great range of character, from the nervous introduction, to heavy alternating chords, to a lyrical lullaby.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier I (1722)
- Prelude XVI (G minor) BWV 861
- Fugue XVI (G minor) BWV 861
The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of 24 prelude and fugue pairs, one in every major and minor key. This was made possible by recent developments in tuning systems (known as well temperament). I use equal temperament here, as it would not be very meaningful to apply an uneven tuning system without arranging the entire book to show the difference between all the keys. Additionally, the limitations of the NES make fine tuning distinctions impossible, especially in the higher registers. As well, a tuning system may have been the inspiration for their creation, but it is not what has made them memorable. The preludes are known for their variety of character and individual charm. The fugues have become the canonical demonstration of contrapuntal technique.
Though commonly played on a piano today, these pieces predate the modern piano and were intended for contemporary instruments like the harpsichord or organ. Because these instruments do not distinguish how loud or soft you press the keys, the expression in this music comes chiefly from its counterpoint. For this reason, and unlike the Romantic period music on this album, it is actually quite robust when played on very flat-toned instruments like simple synthesizers. I believe this is why Bach's music turns up so frequently in older video games.
The G minor prelude and fugue have been my favourite from the WTC, since I was first introduced to them by my high school music teacher. This arrangement for VRC6 is based loosely on an orchestral transcription I wrote several years ago.
Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951)
String Quartet No. 1 Op. 7 (1905)
Arnold Schönberg is most widely known for his development of atonal compositional techniques, and the controversy surrounding it. Schönberg happens to be my favourite composer, and though I appreciate his atonal music very well, the work of his I love most is this string quartet, which belongs to an earlier period before he, like Scriabin, found a need to escape from tonality.
This piece begins in a very deep, dark place, opening with a very dramatic theme that almost immediately begins to dissolve into extremely dense counterpoint. On my first hearing, I found it hard to believe that it was written for only four instruments. When Schönberg showed the score to Gustav Mahler, the older composer had to say:
"I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have written complicated music myself in scores of up to thirty staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them." 
This piece remains dark for quite some time. It is a bubbling froth of themes and motives, continually evolving and recycling. It doesn't really emerge from this until about 11:30, where one of the themes that has been trying to rise to the surface suddenly comes out in full chorale harmony. This moment of clarity is only fleeting, like everything in this work, but for me it is the turning point where I begin to find my way. It is easy to get lost in this one, and there is almost nowhere to rest. It is written as a single continuous movement, containing only one real pause a little past halfway, where I have split it into two tracks.
This recording is performed with the four square waves of the MMC5 expansion chip, which I suppose makes it a "square quartet".
1. Schoenberg, Arnold. Style and Idea. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1984.