Sounds Like Chicken, Tastes Like Mozart: 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 it as “tasting like chicken.”  Well, if you’ve ever eaten anything described that way, you know the characterization is two things:  wrong and unfair.  Nothing tastes like chicken except chicken and gator really tastes just like gator.

Previewing a recording of the Missa Alma Redemptoris Mater by Anselm Viola, an 18th-century priest composer at Montserrat, my first thought was “sounds like Mozart.”  And then as I listened more deeply, I realized “No, it sounds like this composer writing in this place for those singers at that time.”  (Incidentally, this is one of the few works of Viola that survived the destruction of the monastery’s library and musical archives by the Napoleonic forces in 1811-1812.)

The easy comparisons of meats and compositional styles can be helpful.  People will eat the exotic food or listen to an unfamiliar composer since they like the one they know.  But it still puts the less-known into an all too convenient box and can blind us to the unique qualities of things in themselves.

In short, use those easy comparisons when they are useful, but try to get “out of the box.”  Even better, of course, no boxes when we listen.