“Once Upon a Time…” Part I

“Once upon a time…”

Encountering these words, we already know a lot about what we are going to read or hear. We know are in for a narrative. It won’t be just any story but something fantastic. It will be a Fiction. The ordinary restraints of reality need not apply, although they might.The symbolic may take on a literal personage or be enacted or expressed in an event. Even more essentially, however, we know we are in for a story that will have some bearing on us: it will be relevant to people, and so it will matter and mean something.

With these words, we discover more about our storytellers, ourselves, and perhaps even the human condition. One of the great strengths of Fiction is that, without retelling an actual event, it is able serve a bearer of Truth. For this reason, we cannot afford take our Myths and Fictions lightly. The characters could be any or all of us; often, the Truths imparted are timeless.

“Once upon a time…” implies a story about something in the past that is, supposedly, lost to time. It does this through the use of the word “once,” which informs us that what once was is now not. (It is also not “twice upon a time,” nor  is it “π upon a time in a galaxy not so far, far away”). This creates an imagined distance in time between the story and ourselves.

All this lends a variability. Like x or y in an algebraic expression, the variable character is liberated from its specifics, allowing it to signify anyone. For example, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” could be anyone from anytime who is poor, cold, hungry, and with few options yet still hoping for something better. Many stories hope just as we do. A variable character struggles against a perceived negative force and is either successful or not. Theirs is our story too.


In the piece I am currently working on, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the opening section is marked “Once Upon a Time.” As a composer, I work differently than an author in that music is much more abstract than written language. How can a composer convey meaning through music?

[“Once Upon a Time” Part II is forthcoming]


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