Grindcore Zarathustra

July 2020

The startup sounds of tech products have always been just another opportunity to brand a piece of hardware or software. Microsoft commissioned recording artist Brian Eno to make the six-second Windows 95 start up sound, and AOL’s “You’ve got mail” digitized welcome was so ubiquitous that it became the title of a major film. Some of these sounds are forgotten, others get thrown into our nostalgia pools, but even fewer are timeless. For two generations of Sony PlayStation video game consoles, the aesthetics of these sounds have made these particular boot sequences, both composed by Sony’s Takafumi Fujisawa, seem like great works of art.

When you boot up the original 1994 PlayStation (PS1), a drawn-out, two-note thunderous roar—that almost sounds like it’s about to clip and blow out your speakers—vibrates into distorted and reverb-laden chimes and strings. It’s a seven-second snippet of something shoegaze maestros My Bloody Valentine probably measure their distortion and volume levels up to during a soundcheck for their live shows. With a game disc inside the console, a second startup screen blends into the tail end of the first: a chime acting as a bridge from the first screen’s wall of noise into the soft ethereal five-note contrast of the second screen. Together, it lasts about 15 seconds.

For the PlayStation 2 (PS2), launched in the year 2000, a bubbling muffled bell shatters like a pane of glass, pitch-shifts into passing ghost whispers, and fades into wind-like noise. The duration of this startup is no more than 10 seconds, yet the sustain of that initial bell and its fading volume make it seem like it will never decay or end—as if it’s teasing us to chase it into a black void.

For both consoles, these startup sounds are made from multiple clips of noise layered on top of each other and played at different tempos. In the case of the PS1 startup, you can almost see those layers crushing each other in order to create that initial rush of distortion. The PS2’s sound has a different feeling—you sense each layer drop out from underneath the layer above it like a loss of gravity or stability.

As previously mentioned, most tech hardware, including the PlayStation’s rival consoles made by Nintendo and Microsoft, use startup sounds as a branding opportunity. However, aesthetically they are creating space. Nintendo consoles seem to always use single-note chimes, snaps, or clicks, sometimes in a sequence of quick steps, with very few auditory effects applied. There is no sustain, just quick decays, as if to depict you being dropped like a pin in a pure and sterile initiation space. Microsoft’s Xbox consoles have variations of a digitized whirling sound, as if it’s being inhaled by the system itself. The space it creates is narrow—that inhaling affect makes you feel as if you’ve been sucked in and pushed against the console’s interior walls. In both cases, these sounds are auditory manifestations of the materials—plastic, metal, and electricity—that house their respective operating systems. And that’s exactly why these consoles don’t have that same impression or ever-lasting “nostalgia” as the PlayStation: their startup sounds place and cement you in corporate landscapes—places you can’t inhabit and call your own.

The two PlayStation sounds, however, push and pull you, creating an almost stalemate effect. They lift you off your feet, instead of planting them on the ground, in a space where time seems infinite. And with each boot sequence, that space feels oddly different. No matter how many times you boot up a game on the PS1 or PS2, you never feel like you are returning to a familiar place, nor are you any closer to knowing the origin of these sounds. Their intentions are the complete opposite of the typical usage of startup sounds in tech, but that’s exactly why these two have felt so timeless. Although we may not feel like we’ve landed in a familiar space, these sounds, and their never-ending sustain and therefore lack of definitiveness, let us claim these spaces as our own—their presence only felt as auditory cues to reach for or distorted noise to rest upon. The same can’t be said for the PlayStation 3’s unimaginative orchestral warm-up session that leads to stark, empty silence, nor the PlayStation 4’s ethereal harp-banjo combination that creates an old-timey midwestern call for dinner. These sounds lead to the same sense of finality that the rival consoles’ elicit.

The combined 25 seconds of both the PS1 and PS2 boot sequences are canonized not for their nostalgia, but for what they continuously encourage us to do. A sampling of the PS1 startup sound is in “Start,” the first song from Frank Ocean’s 2012 album Channel Orange. Ambient noise of shuffled movement and phone notifications eventually leads to the PS1 boot sequence that prepares the listener for an album that, as Pitchfork put it, masterfully flows from “Stevie-style keyboard breeziness to 90s R&B to mystic psych rock to crunching 8-bit funk.”1 The crushing weight and contrasting soft ethereal steps of that PS1 boot sequence are the perfect catalyst for Channel Orange’s subsequent genre bending. It’s not a nostalgic gimmick for exploitation. It’s a call for understanding so that the exploration of the album’s themes—such as unrequited love, decadence, and the existential thoughts that stem from them—can be felt as public and ubiquitous. The PS1 boot sequence of “Start” tickles your skin with the speckled haze of its distortion, inducing awe as you explore Frank Ocean’s words and music on your own terms.

In an interview with Takafumi Fujisawa, the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is referenced as a similar musical structure to the PS1 boot sequence.2 While certainly an accurate comparison, I think it’s worth arguing that the PS1 startup’s short duration is not a snippet of something grander but rather the actual proclamation. Like songs found in the hardcore punk and grindcore genres, extremely brief song durations, and the musical variation crammed within them, emphasize the instantaneous moment in which change can be engendered. Because of the nostalgia that stems from them, most startup sounds can be seen as intros or outros to the lifecycles of tech products. But for the PS1 and PS2, their startup sounds represent spaces of in-betweenness. Juxtaposed with the definitions of “startup” and “boot sequence” they are the opposition to the status quo. They are the spaces formed by the dozens of pauses, sustains, glissandos, and volume shifts that compose the entirety of “Zarathustra;” all crammed into 15- and 10-second “grindcore” compositions. These sounds, like “Zarathustra” before them, will be understood as rallying din from mystical (digitized) buisines3 for countless generations to come.

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  3. Those long, straight medieval trumpets. ↩︎