Violins Control Violence In Experimental 'Mortal Kombat'-Inspired Project

Instruments, not joysticks, control fighters in innovative live performance.

First there was John Cage, a 20th century composer who championed chance music, which based the composition of songs on a series of random occurrences.

Then there was Johnny Cage, a fireball-throwing character in "Mortal Kombat."

For years they had nothing in common but a name. But Mat Kane, 30, and Andrew Miller, 31, have changed that.

For two years the duo have been fine-tuning a performance called "Mortal Muzak," which brings the Cages together by using a fighting game to create music. No joysticks or controllers are required. Instead Kane and Miller man drums or keyboard, banging and tapping the sounds that are translated via a laptop computer into kicks, punches and special moves. And if this setup creates an interesting musical experience? Well that's the point.

"If you listen to the music without seeing the game played and it sounds good, then we've done it correctly," Kane said.

Kane also shares a name with a video game character, the hero of this fall's first-person shooter "Quake 4." But his gaming taste has always run toward fighting games such as "Mortal Kombat," "Soul Calibur" and "Dead or Alive."

In addition to games, Kane's also passionate enough about music that he's in four bands. He enjoys eclectic musical styles and had been thinking five years ago that he wanted to make his own contribution to John Cage's "chance music."

"A trend in the late 20th century with a lot of experimental composers was to use games [like chess] to compose music," Kane said. "The whole idea behind it being that, because the moves in games are random, therefore the result in music would be random as well."

Kane decided that video games could give the concept a modern update. "I chose a two-person fighting game because I knew it would sound good because it's so combative," Kane said. "You can imagine that video game golf wouldn't be so good."

The idea lingered for a while, but in late 2003, Kane tapped his friend Miller to make the whole thing work. Miller found a "Mortal Kombat"-styled online computer game called "Open Mortal" that he tinkered with until he was able to successfully trigger moves with the notes of the electronic keyboard and drums that he plugged into his laptop. They played the instruments and the characters in the game fought the fight. One note produced a kick. Another made the character walk forward. A multiple-note riff would trigger a more advanced attack. With two instruments plugged in, two musicians could go head-to-head.

This scenario differed from traditional music games like "Donkey Konga" or "Guitar Hero." In those games, music is pre-recorded and players simply hit buttons in an assigned sequence in order to keep the music playing. The only options are to make the pre-arranged music sound better or worse.

In "Mortal Muzak," the music takes form naturally, as each note is triggered by the need to attack or defend in the flow of a fight. Music is being created. Each fight is a new song that can be recorded and even committed to sheet music, something Kane and Miller have actually done. Their pages blueprint riffs not with notes but with directions to kick-punch-kick.

The two friends took the system for a test run at a New Year's party in 2004. "I think people were interested in it for about the first two minutes or so," Kane said. But the game's fighting moves were not yet keyed to the most melodious notes, and the aggressive combat was not yet making sweet music. "As we were playing it for about half an hour, people were getting visibly annoyed with it."

By the spring the kinks were more or less worked out and Kane began weaving bouts of "Mortal Muzak," via onscreen projections, into the set of his main band, the Trophy Wives. From that point on the crowds ate it up.

Kane and Miller keep adding to their routine. The Trophy Wives now play backup during the onstage fights, adding a stabilizing backing rhythm to the start-and-stop stutter of the notes coming from the fighting moves. They've also broadened the range of instruments, adding a way for Kane to use the violin in a fight. And at the suggestion of an ambitious hip-hop musician named Kid Lucky, the next "Mortal Muzak" set will feature a fight controlled by beat-boxing. Beyond that they want to add the ability for one instrument to tag-team with another so that a fighter struggling to succeed with a violin can be relieved by a bandmate armed with the drums.

Kane and Miller are planning to add these features together. But Miller, who does the programming on his own, has been known to slide in the occasional improvement just for himself. There have been special moves that he never got around to telling Kane about — secret chords to trigger secret weapons, as it were. This came in handy when Kane had him in trouble during one of their fights. "In the middle of the set I was down and my fighter wasn't doing as well. I pulled out this new note combination he hadn't heard before and all of a sudden she did some flying kick and set him on the ground."

Kane and the Trophy Wives have so far only played "Mortal Muzak" for crowds in Brooklyn, New York. But there could be reasons to take this on the road. "I think we'd be big in Japan," Kane said.

The Trophy Wives will play "Mortal Muzak" on December 2 at Galapagos in Brooklyn.