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Articles and Essays

When Metaphors Break Down

Metaphors are very mechanical and prone to break down. They are useful to understand a concept through analogy or through abstraction, but sometimes the concept itself is replaced by the semiotic representation of it, e.g. believing that a fruit in the shape of a heart is good for the heart, or a phallic vegetable is good as a aphrodisiac, or that walnuts and cauliflower are good for the brain.

In music, alternate keyboard systems have been devised that remap the understanding of theory, e.g. a triad is a triangle, as with Ableton Push. While this is true, triads are three pitches that can be voiced in three different ways. When we redistribute the pitches--and reconfigure the triangle--the metaphor is broken--but the analogy remains.

A triad is three notes, but three-note chords are not always triads and they are not triangular in metaphorical terms.

So what is the use of metaphor once it has been used up, or if they become too esoteric or cryptic, or used by only a small community?

A mind-burning experience

For the musician just learning harmony, any metaphors are useful, as they can be visualized in the mind by associating an object with the information--essentially a mnemonic device. I learned harmony and intervals by visualizing finger positions on a fretboard. The guitar fretboard is like Ableton Push in that it is a grid, and grids are generally good for learning and memorizing by way of a mnemonic mapping. Perhaps my use of visualized grids has corrupted my approach to music in certain ways. There's really no way to avoid being burned-in, regardless of the methods used to organize learned data. Pianists no doubt get burned-in, but the piano is still the best kind of "burning" a musician can have, although knowing how to press keys does not necessarily lead to the other aspects of musical education.

Metaphors in some aspects can corrupt thought. They are useful in encoding memories to enhance remembering, or to simply jump-start inspiration. This was the thinking behind my book on Alternate Tunings. While any one of the tunings can become a "standard" (as open G became in Blues) they typically (at least in my use of them) rebound back to standard tuning. The fingerings that produced a G chord in DADAGAD is still a G major triad. I can visualize the fingering in my head, but it is not corrupting my understanding of rudiments. Sometimes alternate systems can be used to destroy standards (at least temporarily) to see what the standards might be hiding. High levels of creativity or novel ways of thinking cannot be obtained without taking experimental risks. To paraphrase a Brian Eno strategy: "Go to an extreme and retreat to a more useful position" sums up what such a creative "dalliance" might entail. Alternate systems also weave in new limitations and constraints into the creative process, taking you completely out of your usual way of working, including writing with the piano at the center of everything. Composers always did it this way, but it is all that was available, and none dared to take any risks, although I suspect it was contemplated.

Existing works as self-contained metaphors

When classic novels get pushed through the blockbuster mill, younger generations get a re-contextualized version, usually obscuring the core themes essential to the original story. Culture is a tool that the youngest generations use to shape their overall understanding of culture in terms the relevancy of the Now. But it also can be included under the broader rubric of creative license--and to remove remix from the equation would be to cut off its nose to spite its face.

It's easier to proceed with a revisionist view than to consider what actually happened historically. We never steel ourselves against the notion that the present is not just the present, but very dependent on the past. To metaphorize is to anesthetize a fulsome experience of the world. Sometimes entire works become complete metaphors of history, like taking the entire decade of the 1920s and using it as a retro treatment of contemporary society. Just because the 20s ended in economic depression doesn't directly overlay the 2010s--just as a triangular shape does not become a perfect metaphor for understanding triads.

As much as metaphors are useful to making crucial creative connections, they are fairly flimsy things that don't last for very long. Typically they don't hold up as limiting device, constraint or heuristic because they easily disintegrate. Alternate tunings easily crumble for me, but it's just the shell that breaks, revealing the core of an idea, that I can port over to a piano or guitar and develop it from there. But the metaphor was instrumental in getting it to that point, and for this reason alone, worth using.

Lee Barry
May 6, 2013