Once upon a Time

I’ve been thinking a lot as of late about classical music, as a category and an industry, and how it’s like comic books—specifically, how it traffics in a conception and manipulation of historical time that comic books also display. An esoteric connection, maybe, but one which might hold some implications for the reckoning that classical music always seems to need, and that always seems never to come.

In 1962, the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco published an article later translated into English under the title “The Myth of Superman.” The prompt for Eco’s analysis was the tension in superhero comics between the mythical stature of the superhero and the need for a supply of ever-new adventures. Myths, Eco notes, are usually closed narratives: the twelve labors of Hercules, for instance, are the same in every telling of the story. On the other hand, comic books require novelty on a weekly or monthly basis. Every issue, Superman is presented with a new problem to solve, which he does. “Consequently,” Eco writes, “the character has made a gesture which is inscribed in his past and which weighs on his future. He has taken a step toward death”.

To act, then, for Superman, as for any other character (or for each of us), means to “consume” himself. Now, Superman cannot “consume” himself, since a myth is “inconsumable”….

The hero of the classical myth became “inconsumable” precisely because he was already “consumed” in some exemplary action. Superman, then, must remain “inconsumable” and at the same time be “consumed” according to the ways of everyday life. He possesses the characteristics of timeless myth, but is accepted only because his activities take place in our human everyday world of time. The narrative paradox that Superman’s scriptwriters resolve somehow, even without being aware of it, demands a paradoxical solution with regard to time. 

Hence the article’s original Italian title: “”Il mito di Superman e la dissolozione del tempo.” In order for Superman—or any other superhero—to retain a mythical aura but still remain the central character in a series of novel narratives, comic books dissolve boundaries that might delineate a strict chronology. Eco again:

The stories develop in a kind of oneiric climate—of which the reader is not aware at all—where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy. The narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what had already been said. 

The word for this that we use nowadays is “continuity,” and, if you have any familiarity with comic-book fandom, you know that continuity is a big deal. And the peculiarity of that continuity—immutable and mutable at the same time—is recapitulated in classical music. Classical music has a similar demand for both myth and novelty, after all. And the “timelessness” of the canon rather depends on a certain temporal haziness not unlike that which Eco cites. If you reframe classical music’s supposed devotion to nostalgia as a cultivation of a particular continuity, and realize that said continuity is, in fact, selectively and purposefully discontinuous, a lot about the nature of classical music in history and the 21st century makes more sense.

The question of audition repertoire, for example, swirled about Twitter not too long ago.

It is a sign of classical music’s fraught relationship with the current moment that accusing an audition panel of gatekeeping can be something besides redundant. But what might look like laziness—you should learn this piece because your teacher did, and their teacher did, and their teacher did—is, in fact, an unusually pure statement of classical-music continuity. That connection across generations is, in large part, what classical music is. Classical musicians learn a Mozart concerto, or other standard repertoire, for the same reasons a comic-book fan learns that Superman is from Krypton, or that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, or that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. It’s considered baseline knowledge for making sense of the rest of the corpus.

Which is not to say that it’s good! One of the problems with classical music is that, whether at point of origin or over time, a lot of misogyny and white supremacy has been baked into the continuity. Even if your relationship to the continuity is in definite spite of that inequality, it’s all too easy to inadvertently uphold the status quo. And here’s where I think the example of comic-book continuity can at least provide an entry into change. Because comic-book continuity changes all the time. That deliberately vague sense of chronology that Eco highlights—and that classical music, for all its arrow-of-progress narrative tropes, eminently shares—allows for all kinds of adjustments to the continuity.

What would that look like in a classical-music context? Exhibit A, I think, is Florence Price. The canonization of Price’s music is one of the most fascinating developments in recent classical-music history with regard to what it tells us about classical-music continuity. The story has become almost as standardized as any superhero origin: Price, the first Black woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra, was stymied over the remainder of her career, and fell into semi-obscurity, until the chance discovery of a cache of her musical manuscripts revived interest in her and her music. That trope—a forgotten composer, re-discovered—is, as many commentators have pointed out, a convenient fiction, eliding the particulars of who exactly forgot Florence Price, and why. But the story is crucial with respect to Price’s entry into some version of the classical canon. It provides a way of situating Price in the existing classical-music continuity. Her music was neither old nor new, stylistically and formally in the Romantic/nationalist vein that so much of the classical canon epitomizes, and yet somehow (within the trope, at any rate) disconnected from the time and circumstances of its creation—oneiric, in Eco’s sense—in a way that makes it easier, not harder, to edit her back into the timeline, reinterpreting the continuity in a more optimistic and generous way. 

Compare Alex Ross, in his 2018 review of Price—

Listening to her, I have the uncanny sense of hearing the symphonies and operas that women and African-Americans were all but barred from writing during the Romantic heyday, when the busts on the piano were being carved. She seems to speak from an imaginary past, from an alternative history of an America that lived up to its stated ideals

—with Eco:

At a certain point Supergirl appears on the scene. She is Superman’s cousin, and she, too, escaped from the destruction of Krypton. All of the events concerning Superman are retold in one way or another in order to account for the presence of this new character (… the narrator goes back in time to tell in how many and in which cases she, of whom nothing was said, participated during those many adventures where we saw Superman alone involved).

Classical music might be defined by its relationship to the past, but the parameters of the relationship—and the characters in the narrative—are at least somewhat malleable.

This is, to be sure, incremental change. Price’s music has gained a foothold because, as much as it disrupts classical-music continuity, it reinforces it, too. The necessity of being able to elide with that continuity is its own form of exclusion. But it hints, I think, at ways to start to topple the discriminatory pillars holding up much of the classical-music apparatus without sacrificing that sense of continuity.

Eventually, though, some continuities need come to a conclusion. It’s important to note that Eco’s ultimate rationale for unpacking the Superman mythos was political—to explain why, for all his power, Superman never dismantled the underlying structure of the crime-ridden society he patrolled so diligently:

It is strange that Superman, devoting himself to good deeds, spends enormous amounts of energy organizing benefit performances in order to collect money for orphans and indigents. The paradoxical waste of means (the same energy could be employed to produce directly riches or to modify radically larger situations) never ceases to astound the reader who sees Superman forever employed in parochial performances. As evil assumes only the form of an offense to private property, good is represented only as charity. This simple equivalent is sufficient to characterize Superman’s moral world. In fact, we realize that Superman is obliged to continue his activities in the sphere of small and infinitesimal modifications of the immediately visible for the same motives noted in regard to the static nature of his plots: each general modification would draw the world, and Superman with it, toward final consumption. 

Fair warning: continuities are hardy beasts. In the mid-1980s, DC, the publishers of Superman, tried to do a wholesale clean-up of their continuity with a famous limited series called Crisis on Infinite Earths, an attempt to collapse the multiple universes that had sprung up in DC comics as a result of proliferating continuity. It didn’t stick. A pair of early 2000s sequels partially undid that narrative, and then, in 2015, a limited series called Convergence finished the job:


I have been doing my part to uphold the classical-music hegemony by practicing Johann Sebastian Bach under lockdown—practically a cliché at this point, but when has that ever stopped me before? My repertoire of choice has been the A minor English Suite (BWV 807), a set that, if not a white whale for me, was at least a pale fish, my fingers and brain never reconciling to it despite my fondness for the music. It took the experience of the pandemic—the disruption, the isolation, the forced change—in order for me to realize why. The Bach works that have always come easiest to me are the ones that establish a contrapuntal or physical pattern and then spin it out across time. I suppose they’re the sort of works that feed the popular image of Bach as some sort of divine clockmaker, every note falling into its place with effortless inexorability.

The A minor Suite is not one of those. Playing through it, you can feel Bach having to work the material every step of the way, trimming it, pinning it, patching it in order to get the tailoring right. The patterns stutter or abruptly change direction; a fingering that works for one iteration fails in the next.

I’ve become especially engrossed by the opening to the Allemande, which seems to stumble around for several bars before the music actually settles on what it’s going to be—a moment of rhetorical vertigo promptly repeated, as the form demands.


BWV 807 is Bach finding himself doing the musical equivalent of what we’re all doing right now: navigating while off balance, adjusting on the fly, muddling through. That he still manages to land every phrase, every paragraph with sureness and even grace is a measure of his expertise.

I’d seen a lot of pablum lately about how musicians turn to Bach in times of difficulty because his music is orderly (it is not) or rational (it is not) or that it channels some sort of divine reassurance (your mileage may vary, but, for me, no). The worth I find in Bach at the moment is in diametric opposition to the cavalcade of incompetence that forestalled any chance of an effective response to the virus: the uninformed disparagement of science, the cowardly capitulation to corporate greed, the hot-potato passing of moral and administrative responsibility among elected officials, the pointless and mendacious politicization of even the most basic preventative measures. In the face of that, Bach’s expertise is a real comfort. As escapism goes, there is something to be said for stealing away from the news every now and then and spending an hour or two in the company of someone who was very, very good at his job.

In memoriam: Nikolai Kapustin and Ennio Morricone. To borrow Isaiah Berlin’s dichotomy, musical hedgehog and fox, respectively.

Like many piano players, I’ve enjoyed fooling around with Kapustin’s music over the years, although my fingers couldn’t always keep pace with his. Ethan Iverson found this footage of Kapustin performing his op. 8 Toccata with Oleg Lundstrem and his orchestra.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/UyepVRxrk9M?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0

(The clip comes from the 1964 film Когда песня не кончаетсяKogda pesnya ne konchayetsya, “When the Song Doesn’t End”—a wild, encyclopedic survey of Soviet variety entertainment at the tail end of the Khrushchev era.) It’s a good illustration of Kapustin’s pianism—and also his largely unchanging style. A hundred opus numbers later, Kapustin was still exploring this particular vein: intricately virtuosic jazzy showpieces.

Jazzy, but not jazz. Kapustin always insisted he was a composer, not jazz musician, on the grounds that he preferred writing down and refining his ideas to the improvisation that he considered to be the quintessence of jazz. His rhythm, too, borrowed the vocabulary if not the syntax; much of the fun of Kapustin’s music is the way it doesn’t settle into a groove, but rather chases grooves over hill and dale like a Warner Brothers cartoon. His music constantly deconstructed and rearranged the subdivisions of a classically-notated rhythmic grid.

There’s a quirk of notation that’s always fascinated me. When a phrase of triplet swing ends on an accented off-beat, you will sometimes see a composer switch from dotted rhythms or triplets to a pair of straight eighth notes. Kapustin used this notation a lot. Here’s an example (which also tries to massage the difference between a triple and quadruple subdivision) from his op. 41 Variations:

Someday (which is to say, when I can nose around a library again) I’ll trace the origin of this notation. I first encountered it in scores by Leonard Bernstein (it’s all over Trouble in Tahiti, for instance). It’s characteristic, I think, of composers who try to translate the feel and subtleties of jazz rhythms for players who aren’t necessarily familiar with them. The notation is only partially correct: in that situation, the rhythm is not going to be another triplet quarter-note-eighth-note combination. But it’s not quite straight eighths, either. It’s a considered approximation, like a phonetic transcription in a traveler’s phrasebook. That was Kapustin’s single and enduring specialty: translating jazz into an argot that would work within the stick-to-the-score, on-top-of-the-beat practice of classical music.

Ennio Morricone, on the other hand, was a polyglot. How do you sum up someone so kaleidoscopic? In 1971 alone, he was credited with the scores to twenty-one different films, including Sergio Leone’s final western, Duck, You Sucker!, Pasolini’s bawdy Decameron, Elio Petri’s agitprop drama The Working Class Goes to Heaven, the featherlight cool of Henri Verneuil’s heist film The Burglars, a pair of Dario Argento shockers (The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet), and Giuliano Montaldo’s docudrama Sacco and Vanzetti—the latter a collaboration with Joan Baez. I mention these films because I managed to see them at various points in my life, and I neither remembered nor would have guessed that Morricone scored them all. In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday nominated Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso as an unintended but apt crystallization of the current moment: yearning for the affirming connection of a communal experience. The thing is, given the breadth of Morricone’s output, one could hear any number of his scores as topical, depending on one’s relative optimism or pessimism. (As I tend toward the latter, I instead might opt for Morricone’s work on, say, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America or Gillo Pontecorvo’s one-two punch of The Battle of Algiers and Burn!)

The one common thread in all of it, I think, was Morricone’s emphasis on timbre. So many of his scores orbit a particular sound, a trait one can hear especially clearly when that sound is unusual or unusually prominent—the oboe in The Mission, the panpipes in Once Upon a Time in America and Casualties of War, the whistling and guitars that underpinned A Fistful of Dollars and, to Morricone’s chagrin, became a shorthand for the entire spaghetti-western genre (and, in less incisive obituaries, Morricone’s entire career). He would find a single sound that could emotionally unlock or sum up a film, and orient the score around that sound.

The best insight into Morricone’s habits and style (or lack thereof) might be the music he made as part of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, the very far-out free-improvisation ensemble started by avant-garde composer Franco Evangelisti in the 1960s. The freewheeling style of Il Gruppo is a long way from, for instance, the nostalgic polish of Cinema Paradiso, but all of Morricone’s traits are there: the exploration of sound, the purposeful eclecticism, the cut-to-the-chase immediacy. Morricone’s work with Il Gruppo was an ideally recursive exercise for a composer of his versatility and prolificacy. It was an outlet for his omnivorous, fertile musical imagination; at the same time, it renewed and reinforced perhaps his greatest strengths: the confidence to trust his initial instinct, and the toolbox to exploit it.

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