On the power and impotence of metaphors

Posted on September 1, 2010


I recently read a book that talked about metaphors. Metaphors can obviously make powerful inferences and implications in our minds about the object being “metaphored” and profoundly impact the way we perceive that object- for better or worse. So I asked myself: “Self, how do metaphors affect the way you perceive classical music?”

While looking through the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure online, I didn’t have to go far to find some metaphors about classical music. Needless to say, I didn’t like them.

Ex. 1: “Principal Guest Conductor Douglas Boyd leads a program of sumptuous French works.”

Sumptous?!??! I’ve never used that word in my life. I had to look it up to make sure I knew what it meant (I did). I know it’s an adjective and not a metaphor, but because I usually hear that word in the context of describing food (although I know it can describe other super-nice things), it functions like a metaphor in my mind. Food metaphor for music? Not working for me. Especially fancy food I can’t afford.

Ex. 2: “Peter Oundjian (conductor) offers a musical potpourri of works by Rossini and Vaughan Williams, including Greensleeves.”

Oh my…musical potpourri. Makes me think of bathrooms. Bed, Bath and Beyond. I don’t think I’m going to go there. Like Frank the Tank, I don’t know if I’m gonna have enough time.

I don’t even like this one:

“Miss Battle (Kathleen Battle, American soprano) will entertain with a program of classical gems, American standards and spirituals.”

Classical “gems.” So good music is like precious stones or fine jewelry. You’d think that someone who loves The Repertoire would agree with that one,  but I still think that’s kinda lame and cheesy. I don’t know why. And if metaphors about The Repertoire are weird to MY mind, I can imagine the negative feelings a non-classical music lover feels when he/she comes across them.

But I also feel hypocritical. When the metaphors are more “common,” I think they sound stupid. Too simple. Too plain. This means that there are really no musical metaphors that I can think of that I approve of; none that I can think of that have an identifiable positive affect on my attitude towards music. For some reason, I perceive the metaphors as false or insincere. This troubles me for a number reasons, but especially because another one of my passions seems to have my intellectual permission to use any and all metaphors, no matter how outlandish, extreme, or offensive: sports.

Sports are “good theater.” Fans “follow their teams religiously.” Athletes refer to themselves as “warriors” and talk about how they “battle” on the court or on the field. Quarterbacks “orchestrate” game-winning drives, or they’re the “maestros” of the offense. Back when the Rams were good, head coach Mike Martz’s efforts to achieve offensive perfection with Kurt Warner and “The Greatest Show on Turf” were often compared to that of a mad scientist in a laboratory. There are TONS of these, and my mind accepts and approves of all of them. Then throw in headlines like “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Immaculate Reception,” and “The Second Coming” – the title of an article in this month’s edition of Denver’s 5280 magazine about Tim Tebow- and it’s easy to see why so many people (including myself) perceive sports to be more important than they really are. People connect sports to everything else that matters in life by metaphor, and in so doing, make it possible to find culture, fine art, family, science, victory in battle, and even God on the ESPN “family of networks.” And when you can find and experience these fantastic, life-enhancing sensations all in one place…well, why do you need anything else?

So why is it that I allow the sports world to use nearly any metaphor it wants but won’t let classical music use any? I have no clue. Does anyone else have this problem? Am I making any sense? Or am I just rambling like Billy Madison did at the end of the academic decathalon, prompting the Knibb High School principal to say this:


If you feel like that principal after reading this post, my apologies. Ultimately, I think that metaphors are good things, and that they should be good for music, so I’m going to try and work on allowing my mind to be more accepting of metaphors that place classical music in a positive light (even if they sound dumb at first), and I would encourage you to do the same. Not only that, but I would strongly encourage you to remember that a metaphor that describes something either positively or negatively is not ultimately the object itself. And as far as classical music goes, if you are willing to take some time to strip away the high-society metaphors (and stereotypes) that are inevitably joined to classical music at the hip and find the music itself, I guarantee you’ll find a sumptuous gem or two.

Just hopefully no potpourri.

Music I DARE you to listen to

I strongly encourage you to check out the Berlin Phil’s Youtube Channel this week when you’re on Youtube watching Charlie bite his brother’s finger for the 25th time or reliving the Double Rainbow guy’s, um, joy(?). The Berlin Phil has posted dozens of clips from performances from the past couple of years. Most of the clips are around 3 minutes in length. All feature high-impact sections of music, have exceptional sound and production quality, and are filmed in HD (which is great except for when you have to look at Sir Simon Rattle’s nose hair). For the longest time (woa-OH-oh), the fine arts world was so far behind Hollywood when it came to using technology to present an enhance our art, and it was embarassing. But the arts are catching up quickly, and the so-called “Digital Concert Hall” is great evidence of that.

Dare: Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead” as conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. If you’ve only heard of Dudamel, this gives you a chance to see his fro in action on the conductor’s podium. If it weren’t for this video, I still wouldn’t really know what it’s like to watch him conduct. It does seem like the orchestra has a little bit of a different energy when he is conducting them than when the other cats are up there, which is really amazing. That fool is my age. And if you go to the 2:45 mark in the clip, you’ll see what I think might be the finest 15-second snippet of conducting I’ve ever seen. He’s incredibly intense, but still remarkably clear, and the way he leads the orchestra so seemlessly from an incredibly loud, accented section of the piece into that unison decrescendo with his body, hands AND hair is freaking awesome. Notice that right at the end of the clip, the unison sound in the strings starts with the intensity from the accented section, but morphs into this softer sound that has a different character entirely, even though the pitch hasn’t changed. And notice how it happens directly as a response to what Dudamel and his hair are doing. Great conducting. When is that guy gonna ink a deal with Vidal Sassoon or Paul Mitchell? Or insure his locks like Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers did recently? Dudamel’s hair HAS to be worth more than Polamalu’s.

Here’s the clip:

Double dare: Click on a title on any video on that Berlin Phil channel that catches your attention for some reason. Maybe it’s the title. Maybe you recognize a composer’s or the conductor’s name. Maybe the composer’s name sounds weird and exotic so you want to hear their music. I don’t want to tell you what to choose. You do what you want. I know people are busy, but if you don’t have the time to click on three or four 3-minute videos between now and next Wednesday, you either:

a. have poor time management skills

b. you really ARE that busy. In this case, you need to chill before you kill yourself, or

c. you’re my biggest pet peeve: the “I don’t/didn’t have time for that” person. Whatever. Yeah you did. You just chose to use your time differently. That’s fine too, but don’t lie with the stupid “no time” bit.  You just didn’t want to do it.

Physical challenge: watch every clip on the Berlin Phil channel- even the ones where the conductors are talking/being interviewed. If you do this and you don’t normally listen to very much classical music, please let me know. I might just need to send you a token of my appreciation.

Until next Wednesday, you stay classy Planet Earth. And thanks for stopping by.

But…mainly, stay classy.

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Posted in: Music