Book Blurbs are a series of quick-hitting reviews in which our staff dissect and critique music-related books fresh off the presses. For more in-depth literature discussions, Matt Melis curates the Aux.Out. Book Club.
Bloomsbury’s highly touted 33 1/3 series has never shied away from eclectic tastes, instead allowing its stable of authors to convince readers across 100-plus pages why their album of choice matters. The stakes were perhaps never higher for Andrew Schartmann when he challenged himself to deliver a book dedicated solely to the 8-bit music Koji Kondo composed for the original NES game Super Mario Bros. Indeed, Schartmann begins his preface with a quote from Eric Alper of eOne Music Canada in which Alper questions the validity of a Super Mario Bros. 33 1/3 upon seeing the publisher’s 2014 shortlist of titles. The questions Schartmann must battle with are severe: does a series of video game level tunes constitute an album? Can the three-tone manipulation of an NES sound chip even be considered music? By the end of the book, these questions seem downright absurd. Schartmann gives readers not only a history lesson of video game music and Kondo’s role in elevating it to the respected medium it is today, but also a masterful dissertation on the music theory and philosophy required of the composer to create the themes some of us have been humming to ourselves for 25 years.
About the Author:
Andrew Schartmann holds degrees in music from McGill and Yale University. He is the author of Maestro Mario and the assistant editor of DSCH Journal.
Schartmann’s entry into the 33 1/3 canon is written with a chip on his shoulder. He is well aware of the public skepticism surrounding a book on Mario music and wastes no time in legitimizing his claim to write on it in the same vein as previous authors have tackled Pet Sounds and Loveless. The latter half of the book is ripe with advanced music theory, which is tricky for pedestrian readers (aka anyone who didn’t major in music theory), but Schartmann includes lots of helpful analogies and simple translations to refrain from alienating his audience without sacrificing the points he’s eager to make. Whether you’re a nostalgic gamer or a student of musical composition, it’s hard to come away from this title without an immense appreciation for the accomplishments of Koji Kondo and the powers at Nintendo that supported him.
Usually one’s desire to put down a book and play old video games is a sign that an author has lost his reader. In Schartmann’s case, it’s a credit to how he describes the immense innovations in both game design and music that every few paragraphs you may stop reading to wonder where your mom stashed your old NES. Before Super Mario Bros., video music was an afterthought, usually inserted to be brash and repetitive and entice players to come closer and drop in a quarter at the arcade. Nintendo was the first company to hire a composer to work with the game development team, and the first project they embarked on together led to one of, if not the most, cherished video games of all time. Schartmann lays out the nuances of Kondo’s approach – he was relegated to a five-channel sound chip that could only produce three unique tones at once, while also under the constraints of 8-bit memory limitations, which often required video game music to loop itself endlessly. Learning how Kondo overcame these obstacles to create the tunes we still relish today is incredible stuff for anyone with a passing interest in how music is crafted.
In the second half of the book, Schartmann delves into deep analysis of the music itself. He shows how the Overworld theme (Overworld being the levels that take place on land) is a melodic, joyful composition that actually compels the player to move forward, while the Underworld theme (aka those scary underground levels) is its “musical negative”: dissonant and absent of chords. This abrupt change in style gives the level its “stark and hollow” character. Aside from a fascinating dissection of the four major game themes, Schartmann also explores the sounds that make up the game effects, like Mario growing from a mushroom or going down a pipe. Readers are treated to the delightful term “Mickey Mousing,” which refers to the aural correlation between, say, a xylophone being played up in scale and a cartoon character tip-toeing across the floor. Schartmann’s analysis of the varied types of sound effects employed by Kondo in Super Mario Bros. will surely make anyone who has ever picked up a controller gain a new found respect for the thought and intricacy behind them.
If there’s anything to complain about in Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, it may be that some of the music theory employed by Schartmann is extremely difficult to follow. While he does provide examples, it’s of little assistance to those who don’t read music. Some pages may require multiple takes to grasp the nuances of Kondo’s jazz influence in choosing to stack a ninth-chord with an extra two thirds or the importance of diminished-seventh chords played as a series of ascending parallel chords each time the game warns a player that time is running out. But in fairness to the author, Schartmann really isn’t out to make anyone feel dumb – it’s simply that Kondo’s 8-bit masterpiece really is that nuanced and complicated. Regardless, if the third sentence in this paragraph gives you the beginnings of a migraine, you may not want to commit to a book full of similar prose.
Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack is an eye-opening look at a piece of music that many love but few appreciate for the stunning achievement it represents. By combining history, music theory, and more than a few dashes of geekiness, Andrew Schartmann has created a love letter to a man whose work is known far better than its creator. If you’ve ever had a Nintendo system for a best friend or simply love understanding music at the molecular level, there’s much to be learned from this worthy addition to the 33 1/3 family. Press Start and dive in!