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.

We are the “Large Array”

If you’ve ever seen the film version of Carl Sagan’s “Contact,” you’ve seen two of many magnificent earthbound radio telescope installations, namely the Large Telescope in Arracebo, Puerto Rico and the Very Large Array of dish telescopes in the New Mexico desert. Jodie Foster’s character resolutely believes that “little green men” have and are trying to contact “us.” So, she and her crew relentlessly listen for frequencies that are unidentifiably “foreign” to cosmological emmissions.

I’ve had my second bout of bronchitis at a colloquium this year, but got antibiotics called in from California which I got onboard immediately. That allowed me to participate in my schola and choir for each day, amid getting some rest at other points of the day. But, during yesterday’s Mass (Latin OF) and Wednesday’s EF I purposefully sat in the very back- does that make me a real Catholic or just a conscientious PIP?- even though bronchitis isn’t contagious.

The Reverend Doctor Ed Schaefer’s schola chanted the Latin Introit from the very front of the nave on the gospel side. From the back of the church I could hardly hear them without intensive focus on my part. When I psychologically adjusted to that I heard first the men effortlessly sailing through the antiphon in a manner that would suggest an almost sotto voce vocal technique, but it really wasn’t. They sang with what Horst Buchholz says, “sing with two ears, not one mouth.” And then the more accessible treble women took over the antiphon adding the beauty of womenchant with almost sheer perfection. I had to write down, “I’m listening to angelic choirs (literally?) crossing, or permeating the noises and frequencies that reverberate through both the cosmos and our earth. AKA, “Contact.”

It was yet another revelation to me from yet another moment in a colloquium. Actuoso means that, like those telescopes, we have to have our human “operator,” our will and desire, predisposed to listen for those beatific sounds. Maybe all of them won’t be perfect or pretty or pristine, but they’re there at every Mass. And if you don’t understand what I’m saying, get thee to a colloquium.