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Eight-Bit Symphonies 

Who's responsible for the best music of the 1980s? Nintendo.

Cheesy mid-'80s videogame music: It's the new classical.
  • Cheesy mid-'80s videogame music: It's the new classical.

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 goombas, not to mention seeking magic mushrooms and other mystical flora 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, is 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 startle us with their excellence.

Cheesy mid-'80s videogame music is 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. Martin achieved a staggering degree of internet fame with a six-minute video of our hero pounding out piano renditions of tunes from Super Mario Bros. and its myriad sequels. He starts off blindfolded, actually, before dramatically tearing it off, flipping on his glasses, and stomping through the eerie, spacious crypto-jazz of Level 1-2 (you know, the dark-blue subterranean one). Martin's site now includes a 10-minute version of the Mario Medley, climaxing when he mimics the series' penchant for jacking up the tempo as time runs out. It's a hilarious virtuoso performance. It also represents Martin'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 videogame music," in order 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 videogame music, they'll realize that there's more music classical instruments can play, other than video-game music," Martin says from Irvine, California during his winter break. "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 in 2006, beginning March 24. (Martin is hard at work on tunes from the gorgeously symphonic Final Fantasy series as you read this; see VideoGamesLive.com for the six-minute trailer.)

Apparently he also destroyed an Austin audience with a solo piano recital -- his first live performance of music derived exclusively from videogames -- that Martin says triggered an unprecedented 21 encores. Martin has vivid memories of this triumph: "Yeah, I bowed three times, bowed, went offstage, came back onstage, bowed, went offstage, came back onstage, bowed and played an encore, then went offstage, then went back onstage, bowed, went offstage, bowed again, then went offstage, bowed, and played another encore. I did that 21 times. They just kept on clapping."

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