[First bubblegum pop—now Rock Band! What’s RF Banjo coming to? Fear not, folks, I’m still playing guitars with strings & no buttons, & Eberle hasn’t ditched her array of instruments either. While I admit I still find the Rock Band phenomenon perplexing, I find Eberle’s take on her experience fun & fascinating. Hope you do too!]
Menopause is a fascinating experience—or rather, the two years of peri-menopause that I have known. I don’t think anything else could have brought me to drive up into the piney mountains on Hallowe’en to spend an evening playing Rock Band when I’ve never played a modern video game and my feelings about rock music are ones I generally mask in public out of politeness to friends and students—who probably really don’t want to hear that I find 4/4 downbeat-driven music a hideous affront to my own sense of rhythm and that the cult of celebretism associated with rock really pains me by turning the individual expression of art into a commodity and a substitute for truly exploring one’s own individuality….
Later that evening I began to wonder what John, who has heard me elaborate quite endlessly on my theories about rock music, would say if I told him that I was totally getting off on playing along with Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”? I had a feeling that confessing this was going to be kind of a humbling experience; but I didn’t care, with the lights pulsing intoxicatingly into my eyes, and my thumb on that thrilling trigger of the Rock Band fake guitar…
An aunt of mine once told me that menopause was in a way a return to adolescence and I really didn’t have a clue what she meant by that. But I’m starting to get it. In the midst of overwhelming hormonal waves and the confusion of a self who sometimes feels cut adrift from familiarity, there is a sense of adventure and surprise—an epic journey—being the traveler of one’s own mythic sense of reality. Five years ago if someone had invited me to play a game like Rock Band I would have said no without question. But I was curious—I told myself that it would be a good thing for me to find out how to talk to my music students about games like this—but in reality I thought it would be an adventure.
So, after finding my way to the lovely collection of hand-built and salvaged buildings that makes up the homestead of my Rock Band friends in the company of a hillside of tall pines, and after a trip to the outhouse in the light of an almost-full moon, I walked up a flight of stairs on the outside of the largest building and into the Rock Band room. This was another world. A movie-screen on the wall displayed the video-projection of the game hugely in the darkened room and an electronic drumset filled up one whole corner. My heart sank as I realized I had to choose a “character,” choice being apparently limited to skinny, sexy, and young. (Someone should add an aging Medusa and a hefty Toad Goddess to the options, in my opinion.) I had a strong feeling this was going to be even worse than I had feared.
But I loved the game. First of all the visuals. As I tried to explain to John when I got home late that night, it’s like there’s a moving fret-board coming at you very fast all the time, only the frets are the measure-bars, and colored dots in the five-laned fret board on the screen tell you which button to “fret” with your left hand and when to activate the note by strumming the sound bar-trigger with your right. Some of the rhythms for the guitar are actually very interesting. And since I didn’t know most of the songs we played, there was the thrilling feeling, similar to what I love about improvisation, of not having time to conceptualize the rhythm before actually playing it—the feeling of discovering a rhythm in your body as you go along rather than having your mind tell your body to try a rhythm that it has created in the abstract. I realized that the way I approach the drums is to find a rhythm, internalize it until I can get into trance mode with it, then complicate it. Like: OK, I can play a 7 and a 5, so can I alternate them and still have them sound like groups of 7 or 5? Or: I can play a duple and a triple simultaneously, so how about trying a two against a five?
With Rock Band, my mind didn’t have time at all to imagine ways of complicating things. Plus the music was really loud. And the fret board sometimes lights up with different decorative patterns! And the note-dots sort of explode and splash if you hit the button and the trigger at the same time! Then they are throbbing white sometimes! For someone whose passive visual experience is limited to old movies, who has been to a movie theatre only a handful of times in the past two decades, does not play video games or watch television, I can say it was genuinely intoxicating. That makes sense to me—what I didn’t expect is that I would feel like it was a good thing to be intoxicated in this way—passively—not particularly creatively in the way I define it—through a machine—not playing real instruments—not playing songs you made up yourself—not really interacting with your sister and fellow musicians. But it was great.
I did invite my friends to come play Rock Band “unplugged” with a hands-on group improvisation session at my house—and I’m looking forward to turning them on to this form of musical game. But as I drove home with floods of moonlight flashing between the trees, down the highway that seemed to resemble the “lanes” of the Rock Band visuals, music echoing in my head—I knew I was looking forward to going back and playing Rock Band again. I really want to see if I can get to the “Hard” level of guitar and the “Medium” level of the drums. I’m thinking about it now, strategizing how to make those lighted patterns move more quickly from my eyes to my fingers.
Eberle Umbach © 2009
All images are Rock Band screenshots found online, except the pic to the left, in which Eberle has a non-Rock Band (bass) guitar!