Isolation is inherent in Canada’s geography. We’re often called a country of two solitudes, but it’s really a land of thousands. Before the Internet, most shared experiences were the result of proximity – you were defined by who and what was nearby. Beyond that, all you had was what could be bought or beamed into your living room.
This is a feeling that music often responds to – like, in 1994, when Sloan named their sophomore record Twice Removed, pointing out just how far they felt from the world’s grander narratives. Back then, I was in their neck of the woods – the Maritimes – filling my time playing Nintendo in my parents’ basement. I felt far from just about everything, but playing games such as Mario and Zelda felt like sharing a common experience with people around the world.
Music has long been praised as an instrument of pop culture, but, at least in conventional media, video games are less celebrated. For Andrew Schartmann, a pianist, composer and music theorist hailing from the isolation of rural Ontario, both are valid pop-culture conduits – and, when intertwined, can enhance each other as works of art. His new book, Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, tries to pinpoint the origin of this relationship, examining how the score to the 1985 Nintendo game set a benchmark for what video games can achieve in the broader cultural sphere. Its leitmotif, the Overworld theme – “ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM!” – is ingrained in the minds of millions, if not billions. Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake and Cara Delevingne were caught spitballing it last month.
The Mario soundtrack spawned a dynasty of infectious songs: Virginia rapper-singer D.R.A.M.’s recent single Cha Cha, which earned a remix from Drakeand a co-sign from Beyoncé, samples not soul, not funk, but Super Mario World’s Star World theme.
Still, there’s less than three minutes of original music on the Super Mario Bros. NES cartridge. A book-length examination of this can feel like an absurd proposition – have we reached the peak of music nerdery? – but that’s exactly the premise of Bloomsbury’s 331/3 series, of which this is the 106th volume. Minutiae-loving music nerds are its core audience. Schartmann’s book marks the first in the series to examine a work of music outside the scope of a traditional album, and, being a unique case, requires a unique voice. Schartmann, as it happens, is a music-theory PhD student at Yale who loves vintage video games – two interests that inform each other enough that their intersection became worthy of cultural study.
Anchored by that ubiquitous leitmotif, the score was the first of its kind in video games. There had been bleep-bloopy melodies in earlier games, but Schartmann contests that Super Mario Bros. was the first fully thought-through soundtrack, one where the rhythm of the music connects with the rhythm of the game. “With Kondo’s visionary techniques, players do more than control a character on screen,” he writes. “They form an intimate bond with it.”
Like Beethoven, Schartmann argues, Super Mario Bros. composer Kondo transcended the medium of composition to break free from its restrictions, creating something new to be examined and improved upon. Like Bach, Kondo was able to create beauty even when confined to a minimum number of instruments – here, only the NES sound chip. This is about as much classical name-checking as he does, though, instead focusing his efforts on setting Super Mario Bros. in its historical context – a company-saving power move that ended a greed-fuelled industry recession – and examining how the soundtrack enabled the game’s rise to ubiquity.
Half the book is spent plumbing the composition itself for meaning: how the Overworld and Starman themes’ chords are a “constant dialogue between restriction and possibility,” how the Underworld theme trades the Overworld’s brightness for a disorienting, hollow spaciousness; how the short loops of the castle levels’ score breed tension. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees at some points – the best 33 1/3 books have deeply reported narratives, but some fall victim to lengthy technical nerd-outs. Some of the trees, at least, form thickets, including a chapter on the waltz-influenced Underwater theme, in which Schartmann contends that Kondo actively contributed to waltz’s centuries-old history by giving it new, eight-bit life. Still, the author recognizes that writing more than 100 pages about less than 180 seconds of music might be contentious. He spends the book’s first pages justifying its own existence, calling out haters by the second line of text. This seems intended to appear self-aware, but it comes across as self-conscious. There’s long been a vulnerability among fans when it comes to justifying video games as art. For all its front-of-book worry, though, it manages to be a decent argument for it.
There are missed opportunities – Schartmann doesn’t really establish a lineage of games outside the Super Mario franchise that built off the original’s score, or juxtapose Kondo’s success against soundtrack composers in other mediums – but its gaps might not even matter. The insights it does bring only cement what we already knew in our hearts and in Pharrell’s:Super Mario Bros. has an enduring sonic legacy. Music is, after all, one of the great social connectors, and the infectiousness of Super Mario Bros.’ iconic main theme is ignorant of geography’s constraints. When my girlfriend, who grew up on the other side of the world, caught me reading a book about theSuper Mario Bros. soundtrack, she first thought it was absurd. “Wait,” she said, after a pause. “You mean the one that goes ‘ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM?’”