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Kristofer Maddigan is an orchestral percussionist with the National Ballet of Canada and a songwriting neophyte.

SAMANTHA HURLEY/Handout

The ragtime-y soundtrack to the hit video game Cuphead already has one Juno nomination to its credit, in 2018 for the year’s top instrumental album. This year a revised version of Cuphead: Original Soundtrack is again in Juno contention, this time in the album artwork category. The enduring success of the music is boggling to begin with, even more so given that the music’s composer was a novice initially reluctant to take on the project.

“Even two and a half years later, we’re still kind of shocked at how much it’s resonating with people,” says Kristofer Maddigan, an orchestral percussionist with the National Ballet of Canada and a songwriting neophyte. According to Maddigan, he was only asked to come up with Cuphead’s tunes because its creators didn’t know who else to ask.

But it worked out. In the parlance that gamers would understand, Maddigan’s music has taken things to the next level.

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Video game music has come a long way from the lo-fi bleeps and beeps of the Super Mario Bros. past. But as gaming technology became more sophisticated, the music did as well. Some of the composers involved are anything but two-bit. Hans Zimmer, for example, was commissioned for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

The case of Maddigan’s music is an unusual one. A boffo hit worldwide, the Canadian-made Cuphead is an indie game, not a blockbuster franchise production. The quirky run-and-gun game is the brainchild of Saskatchewan-bred brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who literally bet their houses when they remortgaged them to develop Cuphead, eventually judged the best game of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly.

The game’s look was inspired by the cartoons of the 1930s and their adorable “rubber hose animation” style. For the music, the Moldenhauers asked childhood friend Maddigan to come up with something era-specific. Maddigan, a jazz drummer in addition to his National Ballet duties, wanted to help, but there was a wee problem: He wasn’t a composer.

Initially wary, Maddigan threw himself into the job by studying jazz composition on his own. He also had the help of John Herberman, a film composer who Maddigan refers to as his mentor. “He was integral in keeping my compositions within the limits of playability.”

Maddigan aimed high. Because the action in most video games is so quick, the musical parts tend to be fairly brief, with repeating looped bits and fade-out endings. But Maddigan insisted on recording full songs. “I wanted to approach this so the songs could stand on their own, as an album of full music."

The music was recorded at Toronto’s Canterbury Music Company, with a full orchestra of local musicians, all paid recording-industry scale. The score is jaunty and atmospheric, particularly inspired by the work of Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington. A barbershop quartet croons Don’t Deal With the Devil, while other songs were arranged for either big bands, ragtime bands or piano trios.

The song titles alone portray the manic peril of the video game: Botanic Panic, Threatenin’ Zeppelin, Clip Joint Calamity, High Seas Hi-Jinx and Shootin n’ Lootin’. Should the gamer get to the end, the final track is a zippy brass number, Winner Takes All.

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Speaking of which, the soundtrack earned a BAFTA for Best Game Music and a video-game industry DICE Award for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition. The Juno-nominated second album, Selections From Cuphead, features different instrumental solos within the original soundtrack songs.

As for any further rewards, Maddigan is happy to hear that his music has sent many a gamer down the vintage jazz rabbit hole, seeking more sounds like the ones heard on Cuphead. “If I’m able to contribute anything to music education, or if anyone wants to seek out more jazz music, that’s wonderful.”

Know of an unsung arts and culture hero who deserves wider acclaim? Send suggestions to bwheeler@globeandmail.com.

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