Cristyn Magnus composer

News & Events

Combat Music: games of strategic improvisation (2006)

There are two models of music-making: music as spectator sport and music as communal activity. Somehow, music as spectator sport seems to dominate both commercial music and art music. In my experience, many non-professionals think of themselves as unable to make music, even with their close friends when no one else is listening. Nevertheless, music as a communal activity is lots of fun and a good bonding experience.

Combat Music is designed to encourage communal music making.

Combat Music is a collection of old-school video games coded up in Flash (the graphics environment used for many web games) and communicating with Pure Data (a patchable computer music programming environment). Pure Data analyzes audio inputs and converts them into joystick and button controls for the Flash games. The games, ported to flash by P.D. Magnus, include Pong and both tank and biplane versions of Combat. The 1998 version of Combat Music was a hardware hacked Atari2600, allowing the game to be played with any game cartridge. By implementing games in Flash, they can run on contemporary computers. Although the game choices are more limited, each game introduced to the system maps sound onto the joystick differently, creating a different musical environment.

Combat Music can either be performed or installed. As an installation, it is set up like a typical video game configuration in which people can choose games and compete against each other. In performance, we usually create a larger form by juxtaposing games: Biplanes, Pong, then Tanks.


Combat: Biplanes

Combat was the game that came packaged with the Atari 2600, one of the most widely used video game systems ever. Biplanes was one of several options. Like the original game, there are optional clouds for planes to hide in. The screen wraps in all directions. Biplanes is controlled by absolute frequency. Frequencies below a certain threshold turn the plane left; frequencies above a different threshold turn the plane right; frequencies between the two thresholds move the plane straight. Loud noises make the planes shoot.

The music produced by biplanes tends to follow different patterns depending on the player's experience. A total beginner tends to sing with lots of glissandi. A novice tends to fall into singing one pitch in each range. An experienced player will usually try to be more musically creative. What doesn't vary is the occasional loud punctuations in the music when people shoot. Since there can only be one bullet in the air per plane at a time, players are discouraged from singing loudly all the time, lest they spend their bullet and not have it ready when a good shot becomes available.


Pong is a classic, tennis-like paddle game. This version is controlled by relative frequency. Sounds of increasing frequency move the paddle up; sounds of decreasing frequency move the paddle down. The best way to keep the paddle stationary is a wide vibrato. The music produced by playing Pong tends to involve lots of glissandi, and occasionally taunts in the form of glissandi.

Combat: Tanks

The tanks version of combat has walls at the screen edges, as well as walls as obstacles in the middle of the playing area. As with the clouds in the biplanes version, the walls can be switched between different arrangements. In addition, there are options with steerable shells and bouncing shells. We left out the invisible tanks option from the original game, because vocal steering is enough of a challenge when you can see where you are.

Like biplanes, tanks uses absolute frequency ranges for steering. However, in biplanes the planes always go forward. Tanks have an option of turning while stationary or while moving forward. Volume is used to control forward motion. Quiet sounds will allow the tank to turn in place, while moderately loud sounds will move the tank forward. Noisy sounds cause the tanks to shoot.

Tanks has a similar characteristic pitch profile to biplanes, although the volume is a lot more varied. Shooting with noise tempts many players to say "shoot" to shoot, although other players employ a variety of noisy phonemes.

There is an additional tank option that lets two players cooperatively operate one tank against a computer opponent. One player controls direction and the other player shoots and controls forwards and backwards movement. Both players use absolute frequency range to control movement; the shooting player uses noise to shoot. Combat Music was initially developed to run with a stereo audio interface. In the future, we hope to have teams of players operate tanks against each other.