It sure seems like composers love to make food and drink. Whether grilling, brewing, roasting, or frying, I’m always seeing composers sharing their latest culinary creations. Since this week is Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to reflect on this music-cooking connection.
Let’s start with the given–music and cuisine are both creative acts. Both involve disparate elements combined in different ways to make a whole new experience. Depending on the techniques and specific balance of elements, each experience can be completely different.
Don’t steal this idea, but I’ve been thinking about making a cookbook where you can make some kind of filling or topping with veggies, add a sauce, and add a starch, like noodles or a tortilla. Think about it–you can saute some onion, garlic, mushrooms, and peppers. Add some tomato sauce and “Italian” herbs like oregano and basil, and you’ve got a pasta sauce. Or, you could add some “Mexican” herbs like oregano and cumin, and you’ve got some veggie fajitas. I got the idea while making some faux-moo shu (tofu, carrots, and cabbage with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce on a tortilla).
Likewise, you can have the same exact instruments–like a string quartet–with very different results!
Working within a genre
In many ways, cooking is making something personal within a genre, like “quiches” or “chilis.” There are thousands of recipes for any given genre, or subgenre (“white chili,” “vegetarian chili”). Figuring out what elements you like best (adding that extra ½ tsp of cayenne, putting in half a can of beer) makes the dish “yours.”
Musicians talk a good bit about genre, which means a few different things. The string quartet is an instrumentation (two violins, viola, cello) as well as a genre (a “substantial” piece for those instruments, in multiple movements). Rock and Dubstep are genres as well. There are certain tropes that make those genres identifiable (electric guitar, The Drop), even though there are numerous examples of any given trope not showing up in a song in a genre. My favorite band, Morphine, is unmistakably Rock, and they used guitar on just a couple of songs. The bass and saxophones take on the role of the guitar. In food, an element can take the role of another, such as lentils standing in for meat. What defines a genre is the attitude and roles more than the exact elements.
For those who like to make food, there seems to be two main personalities–cooks and bakers. Cooks are those who enjoy making meals, bakers are those who prefer to make treats. You can be both, but like any pop-culture dichotomy, you are really one or the other (Beatles/Stones, Trek/Wars, etc.). The main difference between cooks and bakers is a willingness (and perhaps enjoyment) of improvisation.
While there is obviously technique to cooking, it’s more flexible than baking. You can “save” many dishes by turning the heat down, adding water, cooking it longer, etc. And from my experience it’s a lot easier to “invent” something if you think in broad categories like soups, pastas, or stir-fries.
Baking is much less forgiving than cooking. Following a baking recipe means following well-tested directions for amounts of ingredients, proper temperature, and time. Once something is in the oven, it will work or it won’t. But following a recipe, honing techniques of folding in, swirling, layering, and decorating can be quite fulfilling. And I suppose that’s why shows like The Great British Baking Show and Holiday Baking Championship are so addictive; they show an accessible artistry of baking in the use of bright colors, shapes to resemble other objects, etc.
But to get good at baking or cooking, one needs to understand processes and techniques. It didn’t dawn on me for a long time the difference it makes to chop things in different sizes. Salting to bring out moisture. Soaking to pull out starch. Heating the pan, then the oil, then the ingredients to cook more evenly.
For some composers process is the main focus (like Steve Reich explains), but I think that it’s in the back of all composers’ minds. How should this gesture unfold? How can I bring out this resonance? How can I balance this particular instrumentation, or chord?
Sharing and love
In the end, composing music and creating a meal are about sharing an experience. Cooking a romantic dinner might be like writing a short solo piece. Composing for your concert band might be like cooking a huge turkey, dressing, and mashed potatoes for your students.
As a composer, you’re communicating primarily with your partners, the performers. Maybe you don’t know them, but you still want to impress them with your skill, your level of care, your interesting ideas, and your acknowledgement of their interests and preferences.