When I first read that the 331/3 series (Bloomsbury) would be releasing Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, I immediately (and paradoxically) wanted to warp to a world where I could hold the book between the controller blistered forefingers and thumbs of my seven-year-old self. Nostalgic impossibility aside (I mean what remembered seven-year-old is going to tackle music crit when there are cartridges full of hopping, fireball shooting plumbers set to the 8 bit tune of Ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM!), I was wired to see how Andrew Schartmann's departure from 33 1/3’s template of classic album studies would transfer to the side-scrolling page. A pianist, composer, and music theorist Schartmann expertly connects the cultural contexts and note-by-note mechanics of Kondo’s inventive score. Carefully arranging detailed interviews, musical notation, clear accounts of Mario’s visuals, and bits of Nintendo’s history, he achieves a counterpunctual balance that gambols into a forward thinking homage to Kondo and his enduring work. I don’t think Schartmann will have to bash his head into many bricks to mass coin or critical life for this title, yet I couldn’t resist seeing how he approached each level.
He was totally game.
- Brad de Roo, who suggests listening to Kondo’s themes as you read on
Are you an avid gamer? What systems do you own or enjoy or wish you owned? Have you or will you ever own a power glove?
Yes! 100%. At present, I own an NES, an SNES, an N64, a Wii, and a Nintendo 3DS. Next on my to-own list is an Atari 2600; I’m looking forward to playing E.T.—the game that ruined everything. Speaking of ruining things, I did own a Power Glove. It’s an awful thing. I’ll let the Angry Video Game Nerd take care of answering why...
What other game soundtracks do you think are worth full-length study? What about them is salient or special?
I’m not sure any other individual game could sustain a full-length study. After all, a good portion of my book is about the unique context that allowed Kondo’s music to thrive. Video game series, however, are a different story. It wouldn’t be hard to fill 150+ pages on music from The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and a number of other series. A favorite of mine is the original Mega Man series for NES (Any interested publishers reading this? Please get in touch!) Those 6 games have some of the catchiest video game tunes ever written. What interests me most, though, is that all of the games have a common sound to them—they all belong to a common “sound world”—despite being composed by different people. Untangling the details of that sound world would be a rewarding project.
Do you have some you hum in transit or play on piano?
I’m a classically trained pianist (my composer of choice is Beethoven), but I play a lot of video game music by ear at the piano. As for which tunes... There are too many to name, but I love improvising variations on the Tetris theme that everyone knows (“Korobeiniki”—a Russian folk tune).
You compose music yourself. Would you ever consider composing video game music? Is there a difference in attitude or aptitude between ‘classical composition’ and video game music writing? Are these traditions held unnecessarily apart in some artificial high and low art binary?
Absolutely. It would be a welcome challenge—very different from writing classical music, which brings me to the second part of your question: yes, there is definitely a difference in attitude between the two styles. Video game composition is dictated as much by the on-screen goings on as it is by the fantasy of the composer, and perhaps even more so by the developers, who might want a particular sound. For this reason, among others, it is often viewed as a trade rather than an art. That said, the binary you speak of is artificial. Well... At least it is today. In the nascent years of video game music, “composers” weren’t trained musicians, so there was a distinct difference in aptitude between practitioners of classical music and those of game music.
You speak of the technology limitations of the early NES 8 bit sound. Your exploration of the limitations (in terms of channels, memory, timbre etc.) that Koji Kondo – and other game music composers – had to embrace gave me a better appreciation of how ingenious these compositions can be. Is there a sense in which technical limitation pushes creative solutions?
Limitations do push creative solutions. NES composer Neil Baldwin bring this out nicely in my interview with him. As he explains, because the sound capabilities of the original NES were so limited, composers had to make the machine sound as though it was doing more than it really was. This spawned a wave of innovation, whereby composers simulated a variety of effects (e.g., echoes) with only bare-bones technology at their disposal. Perhaps more interesting is that solutions from the 1980s continue to define video game music, despite the lifting of technological restrictions. In other words, features that were inspired by limitations have become an integral part of the genre itself.
Your contribution to the 33 1/3 series is the first to depart from the Classic Albums template of past offerings. Did this add pressure to your endeavor? Do you feel akin to various titles or the series despite this apparent difference?
As I wrote in the preface, “This book had its detractors long before a word of it was written.” So yes! Deviating from the 33 1/3 template added a fair bit of pressure. But that was a good thing. The unorthodox nature of my project forced me to raise the bar—to not be satisfied with a run-of-the-mill product.
Regarding my book’s kinship with other entries in the series... Sure. Like many of the fine authors who have written for 33 1/3, I was inspired to write about a selection of music by a single artist (or group) that has touched a large number of people. I feel less kinship, however, in my approach to music criticism. One of the first things a person will notice when flipping through my book is that it’s filled with musical examples; I really wanted to dig deep into the notes themselves. If I’m not mistaken, this is a first for the series.
Do you foresee a flood of studies on classic soundtracks and jingle campaigns now?
Ha! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pitched one of the obvious games, such as The Legend of Zelda. And given the current interest in retro gaming, I could see Bloomsbury considering another video game title. Then again, it’s tough to write a monograph on such small amounts of music, so perhaps people will opt to write about broader topics—music from an entire video game franchise, for example. Jingle campaigns, on the other hand...
I sometimes hear the term ‘leitmotif’ bandied about in discussions of soundtrack music or opera. Is this a helpful term in describing or understanding the music in Super Mario Bros.?
No. I don’t think so. At least not in the first Super Mario Bros. game. There’s no clear mapping between characters and musical fragments in Kondo’s original Mario score. That fact alone precludes discussion of leitmotifs à la Super Mario, at least in my view.
You touch a bit on later incarnations of Mario. I was raccoonish in my love for Super Mario 3. What do you think of its music?
It fits the game well, but it’s too eclectic to achieve the same widespread recognition as the original score. Of course, this isn’t really Kondo’s fault. If you think about it, in Super Mario Bros., all of the Worlds are more or less the same, so the exact same music could be used throughout the game, thus giving the player time to internalize it. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the contrary, introduced themed Worlds (e.g., a desert world, a cloud world, a plant world, etc.). Kondo had to compose different tunes to reflect each of these distinct areas. Four tunes were no longer enough; Kondo needed 8 (one for each World) in addition to the music for different environments (e.g., underwater, castle).
Why doesn’t Luigi get more love as a character? Is Mario in some way more of an every person?
Mario was inspired by a real-life man. Luigi was an afterthought (he didn’t come around until well after Mario had his debut in Donkey Kong). These troubled beginnings (at least for Luigi) account for the lack of love, I think. Nintendo’s marketing also plays a role—the game is called Super Mario Bros., after all, and Mario is always the first character you can select. Let’s just say that Nintendo “nudges” (Nudge is a great book, btw) us to love Mario.
In your research did you determine whether or not blowing on the cartridge helps the game work?
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would like this example. Blowing on the cartridge has absolutely no effect on the game’s functionality (well...over time, doing so can actually damage the contacts), but we’re hardwired to think that it does. It’s actually the pulling out of the cartridge and reconnecting of the pins in a sightly different position that makes all the difference.
In a blip, why is Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. such a cartridge of ear-worms?
If I had a definitive answer to that question, we’d be drinking Diva Vodka on my 100-foot yacht.