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.

3 Replies to “Tastes Like Mozart, Sounds Like Chicken: The Peril of Easy Comparisons”

  1. Not on topic but of interest I'm sure. The Influence of Byzantine Music on the West.pdf
    Portable Document Format
    Constantin Floros concludes his article on “The Influence of Byzantine Music on the West” in: Crossroads | Greece as an intercultural pole of musical thought and creativity. International Musicological Conference, June 6-10 2011, Thessaloniki, Greece. Proceedings of the International Musicological Conference. KEYNOTE LECTURE. pp. 1-12 with the comment: "A fundamental difference between the Gregorian Chant and the Byzantine Music consists in the so-called Ison-technique. It is unknown in the practise of Gregorian Repertoire. There are however many indications that it was known in the early period of the old Roman Chant. In this connexion is remarkable that the Papal Chapel, the Schola cantorum, consisted of seven singers with the names Prius Scholae, Secundus Scholae, Tertius Scholae, Archiparaphonista und three further paraphonistae. What means the term paraphonista? It means one singer who sings beside the melody. This is perhaps an indication for the performance of the Ison-technique."
    The Influence of Byzantine Music on the West.pdf

  2. Just the other day, my pastor and I were chatting and he commented how I have a comparative mind, and he's noticed I often describe things by comparing them and contrasting them with other things. I had never really thought about it before, but I suppose he's right.

    So, I suppose I want to defend comparison, but only if there's suitable contrast. I think it may be helpful, for example, to say that Viola's music (with which I have no experience) is like Mozart's. But the key is not to stop there. As you expressed, it surely can't be exactly like Mozart's. So the next thought needs to be contrast. How is it different? "It's like Mozart, but…"

    Isn't it funny how even in this age of easily accessed media, we musicians still need to be fluent in the inconvenient and sometimes awkward necessity of talking about and describing music using only words?

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