"Call me by your name and I'll call you by mine": The Queer Art of Transcription

I presented this paper at the TAROT [Transcription, Arrangement/Adaptation, Reworking, Orchestration, Translation] musicological study group's inaugural conference, "Rethinking Musical Transcription and Arrangement" on 19th May 2018 in Cambridge. It was an amazing day, with a lot of lively discussion., and papers ranged in focus from 18th-century keyboard idiom to Evanescence. Parts of my paper are an expansion on the "Transcription" section of this blog post that I wrote in February, but the focus of the thinking is different; less about the exterior sounding of interior identity workings, and more about exploding the distinction between them.

Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory’s recent film adaptation of the 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman is a queer coming-of-age. It documents a blossoming romance between introverted, seventeen-year-old pianist Elio and his father’s older research assistant, Oliver. Set amid a modern pastoral of Northern Italian countryside in the 1980s, the film maps the increasing intensity of their affair to the point of an identity merger, culminating in the eponymous line, “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine”. Both in and outside its diegesis, this film is almost obsessed with transcription: a Clementi parody by Satie, a Busoni transcription of Bach, and—most centrally—an intense scene of pianistic flirtation between the two lovers. Today I’m going to ask why a queer coming-of-age film might place such emphasis on transcription, and whether transcription itself can ultimately be deemed a queer practice.

The coming-of-age film is a fairly straightforward genre. The surface may be fraught and bewildering, with gun-toting Breakfast Club nerds, suicidal Wallflower episodes, or that thing that happens in American Pie, but the structure remains the same. Something Happens and the protagonist emerges fundamentally changed. The politics of the closet, with its in-out epistemology, inherently lends itself to this genre. At least in terms of sexuality, a coming-out story is so often a coming-of-age because it has the same structure: passing from an existence deemed sheltered and innocent into one that is enlightened but dangerous. Of course, it is never that simple, because queerness, especially when unarticulated, is so very diffuse. By the time the words “I’m queer” have passed a person’s lips, they are already, paradoxically, responding to the event of their coming-out. The epistemology of the closet enfolds queerness into an event-structure that reifies its ambiguities and tensions, rendering them articulable. In other words, if you’re going to come out of the closet, you have to construct that closet first. Therefore, while coming out is a defined, and deep speech-act, coming-of-age films, as much as real-life coming-out stories, derive all of their drama, their pain, and their elation from the ambiguities of their thickly drawn-out surfaces; surfaces that are eventually, interventionally breached.

The novel of Call me by your Name has an exceptionally intense surface. It is exclusively told from Elio’s point of view, looking back decades later but deliberately immersing himself in his heady, seventeen-year-old libidinous moods. Of course, this kind of single-voiced narration can’t translate directly into film, and Ivory and Guadagnino deliberately eschewed verbal narration in favour of a more sensuous cinematic language of bodies, landscapes, and music.

In fact, one of the principal ways in which Elio’s introversion is communicated is through his penchant not for playing the piano, but for listening to piano music through headphones, and then transcribing it. Passing shots show him engraving passages of Schoenberg, and this kind of intellect-signalling has earnt the film some criticism. In a particularly blistering New Yorker article entitled “The, Empty, Sanitised Intimacy of Call me by your Name”, Richard Brody writes that, “the script treats [Elio and Oliver’s] intelligence like a club, their learning like membership cards, their intellectualism like a password—and, above all, their experience like baggage that’s checked at the door”. So where does experience come into play here? At what point does transcription become more than a cipher for precociousness?

Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, displays no such obviously introverted predispositions. He is gregarious, at times arrogant, and often filmed from below to the effect that he appears statuesque. Consequently, the initial set-up of the two lovers’ relationship is one of antagonism—they are radically, seemingly irreconcilably, different. When Oliver squeezes Elio’s shoulder in this volleyball scene, he baulks, and the interaction plunges Elio into moody angst for the rest of the day. Yet from this point onwards, these two seemingly incompatible egos end up merging to the extent that they literally swap names. It is in parallel along this axis, I would argue, that this film’s relationship with transcription shifts.

When Elio is forced, by his parents, from private listening to public performance, he plays Erik Satie’s Sonatine Bureaucratique. This is a parody of Muzio Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 No. 1, and is the first in a series of playful musical paraphrases that Elio plays in Call Me by Your Name. As you can see from the first few bars, Satie’s Clementi mimicry ranges from identical melodic rhythms (underlined in yellow), directly transposed melodic material (circled in blue and again in plum), and similarly somewhat abrupt and heavy-handed modulations to the dominant (underlined in magenta). A rhetoric of inversion is at play (particularly in the opening two bars), to essentially cheeky effect.

In his chapter, “Transcription, Transgression, and the (Pro)creative urge”, Ivan Raykoff cites Leonard B. Meyer’s distinction between the “faithful”, direct transcription and the extravagant self-indulgent paraphrase. Raykoff maps these two approaches to musical reproduction, and their attendant codings of morality and authenticity, directly onto the politics of heterosexual procreation. Where transcription has been heard to “birth” a composer’s essential idea after it has been engendered in the body of the feminised performer, the paraphrase is a perverse imitation which, writes Alan Walker, strives for “metamorphosis” rather than careful reproduction. Sexual metaphors abound in these discourses, particularly throughout the 19th-century sources tracked by Raykoff, in which “the paraphrase writer is often accused of ‘having his way with’ the music”. Embracing promiscuity in rightly emancipatory terms, Raykoff adds that “unconstrained by expectations of fidelity, the paraphrase invites a degree of compositional liberty, performative spectacle, and the expression of idiosyncratic identity, including even humour, irony, and parody.”

These qualities: spectacle, humour, parody, and (above all) “expressions of idiosyncratic identity”, variously become loci for Elio’s burgeoning queerness, which surface during his acts of transcription. Diegetic at first, his performance of Satie’s Clementi parody bleeds into the non-diegetic—interrupted by a scene in which Oliver in turn interrupts him masturbating—to underscore establishing shots of their worn shorts, crotches conspicuous, hanging to dry from taps. All the while, Elio pretends to ignore Oliver’s body rippling through the water they swim in. Jaunty, ironic pseudo-Clementi seems as unlikely an underscore to these sensuous scenes as it does evening family entertainment. But I suggest that this strange campness, Elio’s response to the intimacy overload of the squeezed shoulder, is part of the collection of contradictory conditions that exert the kind of pressure which can precipitate the event-structure of coming out. By shifting between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, the private and the public, under- and above-water, and the swimming trunks hung right-way-round or inside-out, Satie’s inverted, flamboyant imitation of the classical style underscores the erosion of the boundaries of Elio’s identity.

In fitting contrast to Richard Brody’s pan, The New Yorker published a second review by Anthony Lane, entitled “’Call Me by Your Name’: An Erotic Triumph”. Lane aligns the increasingly porous ego-boundaries between Elio and Oliver with the ways in which they comport their bodies: “Now one, now the other appears the more carnally confident of the two. They take a while to find parity and poise, but, once they do, they are inextricable, rendered equal by ardour; the first shot of them, at dawn, after they sleep together, is of limbs so entangled that we can’t tell whose are whose”. 

Emphasising his positive value judgement of this fluctuating and ultimately merging “carnal confidence”, he adds that, “so assailed are we by reports of harmful pleasures, and of the coercive male will being imposed through lust, that it comes as a relief to be reminded, in such style, of consensual joy.” Arguably, then, the most important function of transcription in this film is not only as a vehicle for imitation, but for Elio’s bodily agency, and—attendantly—his consent. My discussion will now turn to his most overtly embodied and active transcription: the pivotal scene in which he plays “Postillion’s Aria” by J. S. Bach.

The same Ivan Raykoff, in a recent blog post which, curiously, has almost nothing to do with transcription, has written poetically of the act of touch in this scene, reading the piano as a kind of cipher for Oliver’s body: “The original tune and the two arrangements allow Elio to touch the piano keys—and by extension to touch Oliver—in a variety of expressive ways: delicately, cleverly, intently, forcefully, madly [….] After this passive-aggressive foreplay he finally offers the original tune, revealing his true feelings through the gentler sounds his touch produces.” 

The terms of Raykoff’s reading are yet more explicit at this point in Aciman’s novel: the flirtatious dynamic of hinting and gradual revelation is made manifest by Elio’s description of Oliver’s body-language, on the threshold between indoors and outdoors. Elio writes that Oliver, “followed me halfway and, leaning on the window’s wooden frame, listened for a while”, retrospectively adding “P.S. We are not written for one instrument alone; I am not, and neither are you”. Liminal listening for organological promiscuity. The primacy of touch, and the intensity of Elio’s desire for it, is in turn refracted back onto himself via the medium of the piano: “I’ll play anything for you till you ask me to stop, till it’s time for lunch, till the skin on my fingers wears off layer after layer, because I like doing things for you”. Finally, Elio not only codes his desire sensually, but gesturally, through virtuosic flamboyance, writing, “I knew exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him the first time, and each time I played it, I was sending it to him as a little gift […] as a token of something very beautiful in me that would take no genius to figure out and that urged me to throw in an extended cadenza. Just for him.”

There is something inherently camp about the musical paraphrase: as flirtation, as a way of posturing and assuming different guises. But Zubin Kanga has also written of transcription as a queer strategy in terms of its blurring of ego boundaries, where new and pre-existing musical material enters into a playful relationship of fluctuating dominance and submission. He cites composer Michael Finnissy putting it baldly: “I always fuck my subject matter. Though the results are always different, the relationship is always intimate”. Similarly, Earl Jackson has theorised gay male sexuality in terms of “episodic fluctuations of intense awareness of self-as-other and self-for-other” in "a circulatory system of expenditure and absorption, of taking/giving and giving/taking”. This queer man’s body is "polycentric and ludic, sexually actualised as a playground". If the musical text can, for Raykoff, be a body, than the musical paraphrase is not only a vehicle for playful excess, but a similarly polycentric, giving-and-taking body, which derives its identity from the joyful mutability of that identity. The “intimacy” of the transcriber “fucking” their subject matter is not that they take on a masquerade of chance costumes, but derive pleasure from the very act of both assuming and making themselves vulnerable to, music once identified with another.

Campness, writes Moe Meyer in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, is “an ontological challenge which displaces bourgeois notions of the Self as unique, abiding, and continuous while substituting instead a concept of the Self as performative, improvisational, discontinuous, and processually constituted by repetitive and stylised acts”. By repeating the phrase that “must have stirred” Oliver as if until “wearing” his “finger skin-away”, literally breaching the boundaries of his own body, Elio derives empowerment from the virtuosic cadenza of giving his body as a gift. When music is transcribed, it is taken up, played with, subjected to, and redressed. Its very identity is rendered ambiguous. But more than that, this redressing reflects a far deeper redressing on the part of the transcriber; the stakes are higher for Elio’s identity than they are for Bach’s. In this sense of ecstatic, carnally porous giving and taking, what this scene constitutes, much like this infamous scene in which the image of the shorts returns later on, is a something of a gesture of radical submissiveness, perhaps even cinematic power-bottoming.

If these musical paraphrases are camp not just in their excesses but in their discontinuities, then how do they fit into the event-structures of the coming-out or the coming-of-age? Are they only nominally “out”, extroverted on the surface but all code and subtext in their meanings? To draw this paper to a close I would like to invoke Jack Halberstam’s concept of “queer time”: the “strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” by which queer people depart from the social expectations imposed by a dominant heterosexual culture (such as marriage, vocation, the nuclear family, and so on). It is, writes Halberstam, an “art of failure”. Queer time eschews the value systems of capitalism and the family to, and I repeat Meyer, “displace bourgeois notions of the Self as unique, abiding, and continuous”. To come out, then, can also be to check out of heterosexual time. But, crucially, the intervention necessary for the coming-out-event need not be negative; the “artfulness” of Halberstam’s failure lies in the very embracement of rejecting the ordinary by which failure is reclaimed—almost as if it were a slur. So when, for Raykoff, “the musical paraphrase elicits pleasure in its humour, irony, and camp potential” it also “exercises spirituality in its transcendence over mundane literalness and its affirmation of metamorphosis over stasis”.

My final question is, what is this if not a rhetoric of authenticity? “Spirituality”, “transcendence”, “artfulness”; these are all words that we’re used to hearing, and critiquing, in relation to the musical work. Are we simply re-inscribing, in new flamboyant guises, heterosexual texts? I don’t think so. Because queer authenticity, like queer time, is eccentric. It constructs a closet in the same breath as destroying it; revealing it to be only an expedient ontology: disclosure itself, that was always intended to be thrown wide. And just as the queer art of failure is secretly in fact a triumph, so too is queer authenticity secretly not the reification of a fixed identity, but identity’s painful, pleasurable, and ecstatic emancipation. Emancipation, not fixed or reliant on “faithful” reproduction, inscribed on each body as the last, but, through Halberstam, considered an art. Here is an art existing in the same wilfully ambiguous processes that are at work in the musical paraphrase; processes of giving and taking, pleasure and pain, intimacy, parody, and love.


Aciman, André. Call Me by Your Name. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Brody, Richard. 2017. “The Empty, Sanitized Intimacy Of “Call Me By Your Name”. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-empty-sanitized-intimacy-of-call-me-by-your-name Accessed 1st May 2018.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. John Hope Franklin Center Book. Durham, NC: Duke UP.
Jackson, Earl Jr. "Scandalous Subjects: Robert Glück's Embodied Narratives." Differences 3.2 (Summer 1991): 112-34.

Kanga, Zubin. “‘They’re Writing Songs Of Love, But Not for Me’: Queer Narratives, Themes and Strategies in Michael Finnissy’s Gershwin Arrangements.” Unpublished, 2014.

Lane, Anthony. 2017. “‘Call Me By Your Name’: An Erotic Triumph”. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/call-me-by-your-name-an-erotic-triumph. Accessed 1st May 2018.

Meyer, Moe. The Politics and Poetics of Camp. London: Routledge, 1994.

Raykoff, Ivan. “Transcription, Transgression, and the (Pro)creative Urge” in Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, eds. Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity. University of Illinois Press, 2002: 150-76.
———2018. “Music And Touch In Call Me By Your Name”. OUP Blog. https://blog.oup.com/2018/01/music-touch-call- me-by-your-name/. Accessed 1st May 2018.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. London: University of California Press, 2008.


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