Music doodling toy

I bought a Nintendo GameBoy DS just to play this game. Designed by the legendary Japanese artist Toshio Iwai, this little gem allows you to draw music. I have always wanted to make music, but I never mastered an instrument. This tiny thing is that wondrous instrument. It lets me construct harmonic and melodic sounds in pictures. The joy of making my own music instantly and visually is intoxicating. Computer-assisted music making is nothing new. What’s simply fantastic here is the utterly beautiful and ingenious interface that Iwai-san has devised, and the ease and fun it provides.

To make music I take the little Nintendo touch-screen stylus and drag around cute little sprites on the screen (it’s supposed to be for kids). Musical notes in the shape of single-cell organisms bounce around between them. These “electro-plankton” jump, swim, ricochet, wiggle, and ripple sounds. By arranging the cells in different patterns, under different environments, I can direct them to play interesting melodies and rhythms. But since these little sprites are creatures themselves, they have a little bit of their own action. The music is co-created. The sound is never random noise, but coherent in some strange way. It’s a visual and audible treat. When I play with it I feel good. That’s all it does. However, I know of a few musicians who use this game for their professional music, almost like a sketchbook. You can export tunes from it via the speaker port. Yet, Electroplankton is not a general purpose music machine; the style of sounds it generates is limited to an underwatery ambiance. It’s closer to art than a game. But it is a strangely endearing toy, perfect for sonic doodling.

-- KK 12/21/06

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