More Cookery-Music Connections: Texture and Timbre

by Thomas Brett

In a video podcast lecture available on iTunes U, the chef Grant Achatz discusses the creative process involved in arriving at new dishes.  In a short video from the lecture Achatz introduces what he calls “flavor bouncing.”  He begins with a single ingredient/flavor (white beans) and then maps a list of possible other ingredients/flavors (bacon, beer, almonds…) that could successfully “bounce off” or go with the first one.  The only rule of this creative game is that all of the subsequent ingredients must go with one another as well.  The approach is interesting insofar as it is at once straightforward, disciplined, and associative. There’s no firm right or wrong here, only something that either works or doesn’t.  (Similarly, the musician Daniel Lanois, in his recent book Soul Mining, uses a food analogy when he describes how “harmonic interplay is a result of a collision of ingredients.”)

Chefs spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of flavor and taste compatibilities.  In music, analogous issues are played out in the domains of what could be termed its euphonic (melody, harmony) and groove elements (rhythm).  Composers, like chefs, can play with affinities and expectations, consonance and dissonances in their compositions and performances.  Change a combination of pitches and you move from happy towards sad; construct just the right rhythm and you’ll compel a dance.

Chefs such as Achatz (and Adria mentioned in my last post) also think about the impact of a food’s texture to how we experience it.  Certainly texture finds an analogue in the musical notion of timbre. Achatz describes texture simply as a “sensation”–not a taste per se, but important enough to impact how we experience the food.  In music, the texture or quality or “color” of a sound is known as its timbre, and a shift in timbre can radically change how we perceive a sound.  Consider some different (electronically produced) timbres on the sound example linked here.

What you hear is the pitch d (i.e. the frequency 294 Hz)  but sounded through eight different timbres: a sine tone, a piano, a flute, a dulcimer, a violin, a steel pan, a marimba, and an electronic “pad” sound. Each instrument/sound is sounding at the same pitch but with a different timbre, and this makes each one feel different.

In many musics, timbre is somewhat preset due to enduring instrument combinations: the string quartet, the piano-bass-drums jazz trio, the gamelan, the electric guitar-dominated rock band, and so forth.  If you make electronic music with computer software, however, you undoubtedly have at your fingertips more timbres or sound textures than you know what to do with.  These days, sounds are often organized into soundbanks of presets which are themselves organized around timbrally similar groups of sounds (strings, pads, metallic percussion, etc.). And if that isn’t enough, you can create your own sounds from scratch or tweak the presets beyond recognition.  While there are conventions of musical style, there are theoretically no rules and you’re on your own figuring out which sounds suit your sensibility.

Whatever you choose to do, you’re faced–like a chef bouncing flavors around–with the question of timbre and which sounds “go” well with one another.  Some musicians address this question by severely limiting their soundsets (think about some really minimal techno), others by almost never repeating the same sound twice (listen to an Autechre album, for instance).

So, the world of cookery and chefs working with food, flavor, taste and texture makes an interesting parallel space for thinking about analogous issues facing musicians and composers working with sound; I think the similarities are there.  Moreover, cooking and music making are both ephemeral yet pleasure-filled and sensual activities that demand a full mind-body, feeling and thinking response from us…