Saturday, 4 April 2015

Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack by Andrew Schartmann Review


The 33 ⅓ series are small paperbacks, usually between 100 and 200 pages long, looking at important albums of 20th century music. I’ve read the ones about bands I love like The Beatles, The Pixies, Nirvana, and Elliott Smith, but occasionally they put out some more abstract books, like Carl Wilson’s on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. It wasn’t so much about the album as it was about critical taste in general and explored why so many people, himself included, have a negative reaction to Dion’s music even though most of us will only have heard one of her songs (you know the one) if any. 

So it goes with Andrew Schartmann’s book which takes a look at Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. soundtrack as a viable, and important, “album” of the 20th century. It’s a curious choice not least because it’s music for a computer game and was created in tandem with, and to reflect, the game, but because - repetition removed - the whole thing, start to finish, is under three minutes. Some pedants might argue that this discounts it as an album as they probably have their own specific idea of what an album is, but then they wouldn’t be pedants if they didn’t. 

The first 20% of the book is context and history and is definitely the most interesting part of the book. Schartmann relays a brief history of Nintendo, which was founded in 1889 making card games, then became a toymaker before branching out to video games in order to make toys off of them. They developed Donkey Kong where we first met Mario, then known as Jump Man, which became a massive arcade hit, before branching out into the home console market, creating the Famicom console for Japanese consumers (it was rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES for Western markets). 

After Atari burned down the home console market by releasing one shoddy game after another, culminating in the notorious ET game that became the company’s death knell, Nintendo succeeded where Atari failed by ensuring quality. When the Famicom proved to have a glitch, Nintendo ordered a recall, regardless of expense, and lost a lot of money. They started putting “Nintendo Quality” stickers on their products to build up customer trust and their president demanded staff work on projects that were different from what was on the market, not building on pre-existing products. It was this ethos of high standards and innovation that became central to the games they produced which is why they created such wonderful games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, which still hold up today. 

Continuing the progressive-thinking, Nintendo hired Koji Kondo who was the first full-time video game music composer. While most composers are brought in after the game has been completed, Kondo was present as the game was being developed and shaped the music around the look and feel of the game. It was revolutionary because all of the sound was written not just with the game in mind but with how the player experiences it. Music was no longer background beeps but part of the overall effect. 

The old adage - “art through adversity” - is applicable here as the NES had a limited five channel sound generator, one of which was white noise, and yet Kondo was able to produce so many memorable and catchy tunes through it (including the awesome original Zelda game’s music). It’s a testament to his talent as much as anything, the legacy of which meant that games would become more artistic going forward. 

As informative as the first 20% of the book is, once Schartmann gets into the meat of the music, it becomes very dull and monotonous. Schartmann is a music theorist who can talk extensively in the jargon of his field so most of the book is full of paragraphs like this:

“Remember the fanfare that plays each time Mario takes down Bowser’s flag at the end of a level? Let’s take a look (Example 8). The basic chord progression underlying this fanfare consists of just four major chords: C, A-flat, B-flat, and C. If you play the last three chords on a keyboard, you may notice that the fanfare is built on the exact same progression as the salient passage from the ‘Overworld’ theme’s B-section. In fact, the sound of chords ascending in stepwise parallel motion is relatively common in the Super Mario Bros. album as a whole. Whenever Mario crosses a bridge and casts a Bowser imposter into a pit of boiling lava, the ‘Castle Fanfare’ (Example 9) sounds the following series of major triads: C, D-flat, E-flat, F and G. Remember the music that plays to warn Mario that time is running out? It’s a series of ascending parallel chords (this time diminished-seventh chords).”

I can play guitar but can’t read sheet music - write the chords above the lyrics and I can play a song passably well - and I also have no knowledge of music theory whatsoever. So reading stuff like that - and it takes up most of the book - is extremely dull to me. 

But the thinness of the material gets really stretched by the end when he starts examining the individual sounds, like of Mario hitting a wall he can’t break or jumping. That’s when it becomes very dire and I just wanted the book to end. 

Part of the appeal of the 33 ⅓ series, for me, is learning about the artist as much as it is about discussing the art. So Steve Matteo’s book on Let It Be was interesting because he showed us how The Beatles were disintegrating, taking us into their personal lives, as well as looking at the tracks. It is gossipy and shallow but Kondo’s life isn’t at all dramatic. He was a young guy straight out of university who had talent and began working at a games company. He succeeded and began an illustrious career. That’s it. 

There doesn’t have to be a lot about the artist necessarily, but when the writing about the music itself is utterly tedious, I was hoping a different aspect to the book would offset the boredom, and it didn’t. The history behind the game is fine, but the lengthy examination of the music and its creator is, like many academic books, far too dry and much too full of technical detail for my taste. 

Super Mario Bros. remains a fond memory from my childhood and the music will remain embedded in my head ‘til I get the Game Over screen on my own life. I appreciate that 33 ⅓ tried something different, and it sounded like a fun read, however the experience was anything but.

Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack

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