The Merely Epic

Sianne Ngai and Haley Thurston have done much, I think, for aesthetics by formalizing certain descriptive terms previously used informally: the zany, cute, and merely interesting (Ngai); the baroque, whimsy, and cheesy (Thurston). I want to continue that project here.

In narrative the epic refers to works of great length, whose diegetic time spans years and decades, often featuring heroes who overcome incredible obstacles. Homer is paradigmatic in poetry and literature; Ben-Hur is paradigmatic for film, with a runtime of almost four hours and a storytime that lasts years, following its protagonist as he falls from Jewish prince to galley slave, only to ascend reborn as Roman patrician.

But “epic” as I mean to sketch it out here is as an aesthetic, rather than narrative, form,  that which is associated with the epic narrative—heroism, grandness—but is not itself narratively epic. Music which might accompany a blockbuster film but is not itself of great length, or great scale (but is inevitably played at grand and heroic volumes), whose epic quality derives from this association as well as a largeness of its own, a dynamism and sweeping quality which seems to straddle opposites and encompass the whole world in its grasp. Not Lawrence of Arabia but certainly its famous main theme. Brass instruments (used for royal announcements, military marches, and warnings of impending danger) are common in epic music, in part for their loudness—contrast the clarinet—but so are strings, sweeping and historic, and of course the ritualistic drum. Trailer music is a Wikipedia-certified genre of art that is often epic, the sign of something important, monumental, or urgent ahead (ie the film’s release and epic storyline). Indeed, the epic has something of the cinematic to it—a melodramaticism, a saturatedness, and of course, a popular, heartstring appeal. It shifts dramatically between tempos and volumes; it builds from soft valleys to crashing peaks.

There is something distinctly low-brow about the epic (which goes partly toward explaining why the “epic” is not a sought-after affect in the visual arts). It is explicit rather than subtle, has an in-your-facedness or over-the-topness that can seem unrefined. Classical works that approach the epic (Beethoven’s 5th, Mozart’s Requiem and 25th — chosen, of course, for the cinematic Amadeus) are typically placed among “Moonlight Sonata” and the Raindrop Prelude as pinnacles of mass taste. The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is still obscure enough to escape similar treatment, but features a sort of all-the-world-in-a-melody quality archetypal to the epic.

Epicness is one of the central aims of dubstep and 2010s electronic music, emphasizing the drop and the dopamine flood, a pursuit which is arguably its undoing, the superficiality and sentimentality of giving such primacy to a single affect (or emotional effect). At the same time, I believe this genre has a steelman (see Justice, ); its epitome is Jamie xx’s “Gosh.” It’s no coincidence the track’s accompanying video is full of shocking, Planet Earth-like scale applied to a Chinese cast-concrete replica of Paris. Nor that the quasi-chorus is “oh my gosh,” signifier of shock and awe, something important is happening. It’s the sound of gears beginning to churn, of some strange communal power stirring. It’s the sound of transcendence, of the merely human transforming — emergently or supernaturally — into the superhuman.