Pianist Rob Kovacs is a musical chameleon. Both a composer and performer, his past projects have included everything from scoring short films and virtual reality games to playing in an indie rock trio. But arguably the most interesting facet of Kovacs’ career is his alter ego, 88bit, a moniker he uses to create arrangements of his favorite video game music. A Cleveland native, Kovacs stayed close to home for his March 7 concert at Case Western Reserve University, which was presented as part of the Silver Hall Concert Series. Live-streamed from the Maltz Performing Arts Center, the performance was a fascinating exploration of all that both Kovacs’ playing and his arrangements have to offer.
The Goomba Quartet opened the concert with a medley of familiar video game tunes from Super Mario Bros., Pokémon, and The Legend of Zelda. Flutist Liz Root, oboist Scott Little, clarinetist Elizabeth Carney, and bassoonist Summer Canter all sounded lovely, but they struggled to mesh as a group. Though the arrangements themselves were enjoyable, the quartet’s imprecise intonation and rhythm made the pieces lack energy. However, their performance was bolstered by the livestream’s impressive production, which featured various high-quality camera angles and a well-balanced mic setup.
Once Kovacs took the stage, he immediately brought the concert into focus with the thrilling “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. The arrangement’s dramatic chords and his dexterity on the keyboard commanded the audience’s attention, inspiring many excited comments in the chat section of the livestream. As Kovacs explained after the piece, most of the music he arranges comes from games released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) — this was the inspiration for the name 88bit, meaning “8-bit music on 88 keys.”
The music of the next hour spanned the gamut from the immensely popular franchises to the hidden gems of the video game world. Kovacs wasted no time before launching into the bubbly soundtrack of the cult classic StarTropics, composed by Yoshio Hirai. The easy confidence in his playing served him well as he seamlessly transitioned between a cheerful and bouncy introduction, some mysterious-sounding variations on a whole-tone scale, and a grooving dance section that ended with a flourish.
After StarTropics, Kovacs briefly delved into the history of sound chip technology and its influence on synthesized music. This was particularly relevant for the next arrangement, Marble Madness, which combined Brad Fuller and Hal Canon’s original arcade game soundtrack with David Wise’s updated version for the NES. Aptly described by the pianist as a “wild piece,” this energetic tune emphasized his technical prowess with two distinct melodies that continuously twisted together in new and interesting ways.
Following a spirited, two-minute rendition of David Wise’s R.C. Pro-Am was the rock-inspired soundtrack of Mega Man 2, composed by Takashi Tateishi. Though the full arrangement is still a work in progress, this section did not feel unfinished, with dense chords and constantly changing rhythms that made for an engaging listen.
The standouts of the program were two selections from the Final Fantasy series, one from the original game and the other from Final Fantasy VII. Both composed by video game music pioneer Nobuo Uematsu, these pieces showcased a variety of gorgeous themes that were enhanced by Kovacs’ expressive and emotional playing. The concert concluded with the main theme from Final Fantasy VII, a sweeping and powerful ballad that further emphasized his remarkable virtuosity.
It’s clear that Kovacs enjoys what he’s doing, and he’s truly a remarkable talent. Many of these compositions, especially the earlier forays into electronic music, were never intended to be played by humans, yet his incredible technique allows him to continuously push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Given the passionate comments of those in the chat, one can clearly imagine the enthusiasm of such an audience in person — especially since this concert was originally intended to coincide with the Cleveland Comic Book Convention. Hopefully that event will be possible this time next year, but until then, 88bit will continue to enchant his listeners from home.