Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tastes Like Mozart, Sounds Like Chicken: The Peril of Easy Comparisons

When I read National Geographic magazine as a child, explorers eating exotic foods, such as alligator, always seemed to characterize the meat as "tastes like chicken." Actually, only chicken tastes like chicken and gator really tastes like gator.

I previewed a recording of Anselm Viola's Missa Alma Redepmtoris Mater this morning. Viola was an 18th-century priest composer at Montserrat.  My first thought was "sounds like Mozart." And then I realized that was a limiting approach. Viola's music sounds like music composed at that place with those musicians at that time. (Incdentally, this is one of the few works of his that survived the destruction of the library and music archives of the monastery by Napoleon's troops.) I needed to listen to his music as his music, not calculating how it measured up to another composer.

The easy comparisons to familiar meats and composers have their value.  You'll try something if you think it's similar to food or music you already enjoy.  At that same time in terms of music, it makes it all too easy to place composers and styles in neat boxes - and it seems the fewer the boxes, the better.

Try listening "out of the box," as we say in corporate newspeak. Or try "no boxes" at all.