Cookin’ Up Some Music

Speaking as someone who enjoys cooking as well as composing, I wanted to take a moment to detail how my efforts in the kitchen help me relate to my efforts in the studio. After spending most of the last year living away from home, I’m thrilled to be home with a working oven and some familiar kitchen utensils. So what can a composer learn from the experience of baking a pie?

A good recipe and some technique will take you far, but the ability to sense when the thing is done might be most important of all. It was long after I acquired some facility with generating musical material that I came to appreciate this quality of “done-ness” and came closer to approximating the compositional equivalent of the ideal pastry crust: neither underdeveloped nor overwrought.

A recipe is very different from a blueprint, both less precise and easier to modify than a structural representation. A recipe describes a process, which creates some broad structural side effects; these structural facets are implications of the process. So one can’t convey a pinpointed, structural change (e.g., baking a pie with one slice already removed) via a recipe alone without employing something more like a blueprint—whose weakness is its specificity and disconnect from the actual process of creation/cooking. Recipes, by contrast, have a vagueness that more readily accommodates variation within the process, and minor variations can have much larger global impact. When I am creating a notated score, I want it to resemble as much as possible a recipe rather than a blueprint because I want to create room for performer input and variation rather than limiting the performer more than I already have.

Every home cook knows that love is a key ingredient; as corny as it sounds, it’s also the reason that home-cooked meals usually remind us of intimacy and affection, and the personal connection between the cook and those who partake of the meal is expressed in a degree of customization unavailable in pre-packaged food or most restaurants. So much of cooking is about slowly developing flavors and textures, not always controlling them so much as guiding them and subtly shepherding them to an acceptable, servable result. This is an attitude of nurturing that I find useful to tap into when composing—it keeps me in touch with the ultimate point of writing music, and also keeps me from being discouraged with initial ideas that might really create something magical if adopt an attitude of care in cultivating them through much exploration.

The best food in the world isn’t appreciated if one isn’t actually hungry. When serving up our musical compositions, one must likewise empathize with our future audience in order to “portion out” out music in a way that will have the biggest impact; i.e. the presentation of materials goes a long way to affect how those materials are perceived.

The way that (normal, non-professionals) react to a meal is all at once. While we may be able to point out what it is we like about the food, that’s not how we arrived at our own impression; that impression crystallized all at once into a sensation of great complexity that we either enjoyed or did not. Similarly, we can’t expect anyone to appreciate the artistry and detail in our musical works if those elements don’t first harmonize to create a favorable initial impression.

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