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Eight-Bit Symphonies

Who was responsible for the best music of the 1980s? Nintendo. Who's finally discovering it? Everyone.

Bach. Beethoven. Brahms. Mozart. Mario. The five pillars of classical music. And while those first four dudes had a good run, it's that last guy who enraptures us now: a Japanese-born yet ostensibly Italian plumber in a bright red jumpsuit who, in the mid-'80s, warp-zoned his way into 60 million homes worldwide, hipping the youth of America to the joys of stomping on goombas, not to mention seeking magic mushrooms and other mystical flora and fauna that make you grow freakishly in size and/or shoot fireballs.

The theme song (World 1-1, if we're getting technical) to Super Mario Bros., the marquee title on 1985's absurdly omnipresent Nintendo Entertainment System, was the most vital, influential piece of music composed in the 20th century. The game's tinny, bleeping, eight-bit symphonies of endlessly looped, relentlessly catchy J-pop, ragtime, cartoonish jazz and surrealistic classical music reached roughly twice as many impressionable youngsters as did, say, Thriller. And as that generation grew up, took piano lessons and eventually heeded the siren song of nostalgia, the soundtracks to those Nintendo classics of yore -- Super Mario, Castlevania, Duck Tales, Contra, Metroid -- now soothe us with their familiarity and shock us with their excellence.

Cheesy mid-'80s video-game scores are the new classical music.

Consider 19-year-old Martin Leung, born in Hong Kong, raised in Orange County, and now a piano prodigy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. That's his day job. Here's his alter ego: VideoGamePianist.com. Leung achieved a staggering degree of Internet fame with a six-minute video of himself pounding out solo piano renditions of multiple tunes from Super Mario Bros. and its myriad sequels. He starts off blindfolded, actually, dramatically flinging it off and flipping on his glasses before stomping through the eerie, spacious crypto-jazz of Level 1-2 (you know, the dark blue subterranean one). Leung's site now includes a ten-minute version of the Mario Medley, climaxing when he mimics the series's penchant for jacking up the tempo as time runs out. It's a hilarious, jaw-dislocating virtuoso performance. It also represents Leung's artistic crusade.

For that, we turn to the Video Game Pianist's official three-pronged Mission Statement, of which the third prong is a desire to "popularize classical music by performing video-game music," so as to "build a bridge that will link the pop music world with the classical music world."

Sweet.

"I think that as more and more people get exposed to video-game music, they'll realize that there's more music classical instruments can play other than video-game music," Leung explains from his winter break in Irvine. "And then they'll look at Bach, Beethoven and Mozart."

To facilitate this end, he's aligned himself with Video Games Live, a ludicrously extravagant faux-Broadway multimedia stage show -- orchestras! choirs! lasers! live actors in full costume! more lasers! -- that debuted in July at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and promises an international tour this year, beginning with a March 24 date in San Jose. (Leung is hard at work on tunes from the gorgeously symphonic Final Fantasy series as you read this; see www.videogameslive.com for the six-minute trailer.)

He also apparently destroyed an Austin audience with a solo piano recital -- his first live all-video-game music performance -- that Leung says triggered an unprecedented 21 encores. Leung has vivid memories of the triumph: "Yeah, I bowed three times, bowed, went off stage, came back on stage, bowed, went off stage, came back on stage, bowed and played an encore, then went off stage, then went back on stage, bowed, went off stage, bowed again, then went off stage, bowed and played another encore. I did that 21 times. They just kept on clapping."

Like punk rock, mid-'80s Nintendo music started as a rogue, crude art form with strict sonic limitations and no respect from Real Musicians. Also like punk rock, it's now dead. The primary architect lives on, though: Japanese composer Koji Kondo, responsible for the bulk of the Mario empire, and the similarly beloved and ubiquitous Zelda series. The joy of his work lies in its forced simplicity -- the original Nintendo sounds, not surprising, like a computer mass-produced in 1985. Limp bass, cheesy keyboard melodies and a percussive tableau wherein the snare-hits sound like sneezes. Music buffs will understand you now if you describe something as eight-bit, but that's because it's now beloved as a sunny, retro relic suitable for kitschy pilfering; Beck has dabbled extensively, for example.

It's a unique and undeniably appealing style that, paradoxically, ultramodern technology can no longer replicate. "There's a definite classical influence, far beyond rock music and stuff, in terms of chord structures," explains Ben Milner, guitarist for the Advantage, NorCal/Nevada's preeminent all-video-game rock band. "It's pretty out-there. Kind of like a fusion between classical and '80s hair metal -- that was what was happening at the time."

Ah, yes, the Advantage. Leung is the gold standard in a shockingly large kingdom of Internet-only Super Mario tributes: There's an unbelievably rad-looking Asian teen rocking out on electric guitar (www.funnyjunk.com/movies/4/mario+guitar), or nearby Novato's very own Jean Baudin (lurking over at www.jeanbaudin.com), who rips through a technically stunning rendition on an 11-string bass, an awe-inspiring black hole of gleeful geekdom. But weirder -- and louder -- still is the ongoing surge of full-blown guitar-slinging Nintendo rock bands. At the moment it's a two-horse race between Phoenix's Minibosses (who do fine work with Castlevania) and the Advantage, a quartet featuring Spencer Seim from thrash deities Hella.

The Advantage plans to release its second full-length, Elf-Titled, this month, flaunting fantastic renditions of the Goonies 2 "Wiseman" stage, Double Dragon III's "Forest of Death" and, most notably, Metroid's epochal "Kraid's Lair." In its hands, these Nintendo ditties turn into snarling, technically demanding math-rock workouts, mosh-pit-worthy even as they recall childhood innocence. It's radical but not remotely ironic. Milner's fandom is sincere as he recalls his personal favorites, from Super Mario 3 ("Some of it's really kinda honky-tonk -- the Japanese version of honky-tonk") to the almighty Mega Man II, which might rival the original Mario in depth and vision. "It's pretty intense, just how good every song on there is," he declares. "There might be better individual songs, but if you made an album from a game, that would be the White Album of Nintendo."

But that, like the Beatles' heyday, was a bygone era -- nowadays, video games are scored like Hollywood blockbusters. Name-brand punk bands anoint Tony Hawk skateboarding games, and superstar DJ Amon Tobin scored a 2005 entry in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell military espionage series. But as hot new systems like the Xbox 360 (dwarfing the early Nintendo in sophistication and high-tech capabilities) take over, critics quietly consider "The Uncanny Valley," an odd but increasingly apparent principle that as video-game characters and situations get more realistic, at some point they get too realistic, to the point where it creeps you out and it no longer feels like a game. Video-game music follows a similar pattern. Modern tunes are all right, of course, but nowhere near as bizarre and distinctive and real as the Casiotone vistas Koji Kondo once whipped up, and guys like Leung and Baudin and the Advantage now rightfully deify and righteously reinterpret.

And it is invariably guys, by the way. This is a fascinating slice of humanity, but not a particularly sexy one. "It's funny, actually, 'cause one of the few things I've read about the Minibosses, one of their quotes was 'Yeah, playing in a Nintendo cover band isn't a good way to meet girls,' " Milner recalls. "I would agree with that. We meet lots of rad people, but you don't really get so many screaming teenage girls. That wasn't exactly the goal." When it comes to Mario's classical music pedigree, girls might not know, but the perpetually adolescent boys sure understand.

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