Superman Goes to the Symphony:

Michael Daugherty’s The Metropolis Symphony

One of the old adages about writing says that you should write the thing that scares you—so here goes.  For this week’s column, I want to take a look at a piece of classical music.  Considering that I learned most of what I know about classical music from Schroeder, the Peanuts gang’s piano man-in-residence, I’m feeling more than a little under-qualified.  Luckily, the classical piece in question involves an alien planet and a fellow with a red cape, so hopefully I’ll be able to meet the challenge halfway.

First, let me back up.  A couple of years ago I was standing with my kids in the Santa Claus line at the local mall.  If you haven’t done that lately, you should know that those lines move at the speed of a ‘90s-era dial-up connection, and this one was no different.  It did, however, have one saving grace.  The line snaked around the Santa display and ran past a kiosk managed by the Nashville Symphony, so I knew there would be some brochures to look at along the way.  That’s when something else caught my eye.  I couldn’t make out the lettering from where I was standing, but it was clearly a compact disc, and the cover image of a city skyline and a small flying object held my gaze.  What was that object?  Was it a bird?  Too big.  A plane?  Too small.  When I got close enough to read the title—The Metropolis Symphony—I glanced back at the Santa Claus line and smiled.  I couldn’t speak for my kids, but I sure knew what I was asking for.

The more I learned about The Metropolis Symphony, the more intrigued I became.  Contrary to my first guess, it wasn’t a performance of John Williams’s movie score.  It was, instead, an original, contemporary, classical symphony composed by Michael Daugherty, one of the leading composers in the country.  What’s more, this particular recording by the Nashville Symphony actually won three Grammy Awards in 2011, including one for Best Orchestral Performance.  How had I never heard about this before?

The symphony is comprised of five independent movements with titles that should sound familiar:  “Lex,” “Krypton,” “Mxyzptlk,” “Oh Lois,” and “Red Cape Tango.”  According to Daugherty’s Website, he began composing some of the individual pieces following the 1988 celebration of Superman’s 50th birthday in Cleveland.  When the individual pieces were completed, they formed the larger Metropolis Symphony, which the Baltimore Symphony recorded in 1993.  That recording includes a sixth short piece called “Bizarro,” although it’s considered separate from the larger symphony.

Now comes the part of the column where I would normally offer a bit of analysis.  But since my musical knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond what came out of Tupelo and Liverpool, I’m not going to try to fake my way through the rest of this column with some misapplied musical jargon.  Instead, I’m just going to describe the piece using my Classical Music for Dummies vocabulary and then try to explain what I like about it.

Because I really like this music.  It’s a remarkable recording, and very different from what you might expect from a classical symphony.  Daugherty makes this clear from the very beginning.  The first sounds you hear don’t come from trumpets, drums, or violins; they come from whistles.  On his Website he refers to them as four “referee whistles,” but considering that the first movement is inspired by Lex Luthor, I like to think of them as police whistles.  Those whistles really set the tone for everything that follows, for The Metropolis Symphony is bursting with the robust energy of the big city.  Much of it is fast and loud, and Daugherty creates what I think of as the classical equivalent of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”  (Okay, so Beethoven probably just rolled over in his grave, but bear with me—I’m doing the best I can.)  Daugherty fills the whole symphony with amazing combinations of non-traditional sounds—whistles, bullwhips, bells, sirens, and something that even sounds like a gong—all in addition to the usual strings, winds, brass, and percussion sections.

But despite the variety of sounds, none of it comes across like … noise, for lack of a better word.  My limited exposure to contemporary classical music includes some pieces that are very abstract and don’t really sound like traditional “music”—the classical equivalent of “Revolution 9” from the White Album—but The Metropolis Symphony is nothing like that.  Instead, Daugherty’s music reminds me of a combination of accessible composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland and movie composers like John Williams and Bernard Herrmann.  The result is the soundtrack to the most thrilling Superman movie you’ve never seen.

The opening movement, “Lex,” is dominated by those whistles and a very fast-paced violin, which, according to the Website, represents Lex.  The movement carries all the energy of the big city—it’s like an old Jimmy Cagney movie—and it’s hard not to imagine all sorts of images while listening—much like drawing your own comic book or directing your own movie.  “Krypton,” as you might expect, has much more of an alien feel, somber at times, and punctuated with background sirens that remind me of my hometown tornado warnings.  “Mxyzptlk,” is more playful, driven by high-pitched flutes and psychotic-sounding strings—perfect for a 5th Dimensional imp.

The fourth movement, “Oh Lois,” is incredibly fast.  It reminds me of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and perfectly suggests all those thrilling, nick-of-time rescues of Lois Lane.  The final movement, “Red Cape Tango,” is perhaps the most ambitious of the individual movements, musically.  It was inspired by the “Death of Superman” storyline from the early ‘90s.  Considering I never cared much for that story, it’s nice to know that something emerged from it more worthwhile than Superman’s mullet.  The tone is somber in the beginning—elegiac to my ears—and it seems to begin right after Superman’s death struggle with Doomsday.  The movement gradually intensifies with lots of crashing cymbals, perhaps suggesting the battle that had come before.  I don’t get the impression that the pieces are telling a linear story but rather are capturing the feeling of a particular idea or theme, much like a video montage for the ear.

As you may have gathered, The Metropolis Symphony is aptly named because it’s not so much about Superman himself as it is Superman’s literary world.  And it’s a remarkable demonstration of just how varied that world is, including urban life, alien culture, action, whimsy, romance, drama, and sadness.

When I was young, I never much cared for Superman, but that has changed with adulthood.  I love Superman, but I’m picky.  For me, The Metropolis Symphony stands alongside Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman, the Fleischer cartoons, the Richard Donner film, and Tom De Haven’s novel, It’s Superman! as the quintessential creative works about the quintessential comic book superhero.

And as an aside, I should mention that Michael Daugherty’s most recent composition is a Star Trek-inspired piece for concert band called Vulcan.  Something tells me I have a new favorite classical composer.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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