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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: culinary arts

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From Coi

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“Perfect food is born of perfect order.” – Daniel Patterson, Coi

I have written previously on this blog (see culinary arts posts) about connections between cooking and music. To add to that mix, I recently read Daniel Patterson’s excellent Coi cookbook. The book is structured around a series of short narratives that provide context for his recipes. For me, the narratives steal the show insofar as they engage with the themes of perception, taste, memory, style, and creativity.

Patterson makes a distinction between being able to perceive and distinguish among different tastes, and having the know-how and experience to understand what these perceptions and distinctions mean. They key, he says, is having a well-honed sensory memory: “Sensory memory is the most important attribute of a cook. Without a database of experiences to contextualize flavor, a good palette means nothing” (142). Patterson’s dishes grow out of his experiences–many of them fleeting, by now only traces of a memory of an experience. One dish, “Summer, Frozen In Time” (plum, frozen meringues, yogurt), he describes in terms of references that seem more experiential than specifically food-related:

“This is a dish of memory triggered by form and smell, with points of reference that are so varied that they defy easy categorization. I created it thinking about the way time seems to move differently during the warm months–one minute lasting an eternity, the next passing in a rush” (146).

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Drawing analogies with writing and music, Patterson also discusses style in cooking–that combination of elements that add up to a recognizable imprint: “In writing, it’s called voice. In music, it might be called sound, the combination of tone and rhythm that makes a performance unique” (180). In Patterson’s case, some of his style, his voice, is the result of removing the non-essential from his dishes, or distilling his ingredients down to their essence. In a passage on what makes minimalism (in cookery or the arts), the chef quotes the architect John Pawson: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction” (242).

Ultimately, what makes Coi so interesting is how poetically it describes the varied sources of Patterson’s creativity. Chefs are like composers and writers and artists in this regard–they receive inspiration and ideas from all over. The techniques of their craft are ways to reign in and organize this inspiration and these ideas, but the creative process remains fickle–always an open-ended, ever-shifting flood of sensations to pay attention to, distill, and make sense of. And the smallest details matter. Patterson: “sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is finding that one grace note, that little twist of technique, seasoning or texture, that lifts a dish, making it extraordinary” (198).

Near the end of his book, Patterson recalls San Francisco when he first arrived there from the East coast in the late 1980s. One evening, a cab driver tells him about a time in 1968 when he saw the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk standing alone by the roadside, looking up at the sky. Patterson, who plays piano, recalls listening to Monk when he was a kid:

“[Monk] was my hero, with his jerky syncopation, idiosyncratic voice, and harmonic dissonance that would resolve, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, into the sweetest melody you’d ever heard. His sense of balance was perfect: complexly wrought, deeply human” (282).

None of this seems to have anything to do with the book’s final recipe on the facing page. Or does it?

 

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From El Bulli

“Order, order, order, that’s how you create.”–Ferran Adria

If you have an interest in creativity, there are a number of reasons to recommend watching the film Cooking In Progress. The film tracks Ferran Adria and his crew from the famous El Bulli restaurant in a coastal town in north-east Spain. El Bulli is now closed–Adria has since turned his energy to opening a culinary and creativity center, as well as Bullipedia, a website database for mapping all the world’s culinary knowledge. When the restaurant was open, it operated for only six months of each year. For the other six months, Adria concentrated on culinary research at a kitchen lab in Barcelona. The key, as he puts it, is to “separate creativity from production.”

Much of the film takes place at the lab. We see Adria’s head chefs running experiment after experiment on different ingredients and different cooking techniques. Every once in a while Adria pops in and has a taste, frowns, makes suggestions for variations or alternate combinations, and his team’s R&D continues. As the El Bulli chefs experiment, they also meticulously document their findings by noting measured amounts, taking pictures, and rating the taste of their dishes. They’re like scientists running tests, then pouring over their results on giant note boards and laptop computers.

A few comments by Adria stood out for me. The first is his conviction that one needs to create time for oneself in order to have time to create. Sounds simple, but it’s really the most crucial first step of any endeavor. The whole point of closing El Bulli for six months of the year, after all, was to literally produce time. Another Adria comment is his notion of the importance of doing “creative audits” of one’s work to identify trends, habits, ruts, and evidence of what work has worked and what hasn’t. Creative auditing is necessary as a way to keep track of one’s progress and keep at bay–as much as possible–the overwhelming sense of all the possibilities not yet explored. As Adria puts it, “our problem is that there are a thousand combinations.” Finally, I was also struck by Adria’s constant awareness of the bottom line of all the culinary research in his lab: taste. In one scene, Adria describes the sensation in more poetic and adventurous terms. “At the moment” he says, “what matters is whether something is magical, and whether it opens a new path.” The chef/scientist/artist seeks through taste a sense of “surprise, emotion, and a new texture.”

There is something very musical about all this. Beyond the techniques, the equipment, beyond the ideas and flavor (or sound) combinations that may seem good in theory, there is the question of how the food (or the music) actually makes us feel in practice. Inevitably, the science always encounters the subjective I–me the taster (or me the listener). Near the end of the film, we see Adria tasting an oil, ice, and tangerine concoction. He looks up from his plate, glancing wide-eyed around the room. “This is it” he says simply.

Notes On Magnus Nilsson’s “Faviken”

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In Bill Buford’s insightful essay that introduces Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken cookbook (Phaidon), Nilsson speaks of feeling, touch, and vibration when explaining the transcendent quality of French chef Michel Bras‘ cooking:

“I don’t think I can describe it. Or not in technical terms, because it has nothing to do with technique (…) It’s in an extra feeling that Bras has for the food (…) It’s a touch. He has a way of communicating with the dish. A plate comes alive when he makes it, and it vibrates. Do you understand? It actually vibrates, especially if you’re open to that kind of experience.”

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!

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As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

On Repetition: “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”

“I would see ideas in dreams.” – Jiro Ono

Just as I was beginning to think I might know something about repetition, I watched a film that made me rethink that notion. The film is David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011) which follows around 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono as he works in his tiny Tokyo restaurant with his son, Yoshikazu. Jiro loves what he does and has been doing it for a very, very long time.

What is fascinating about this movie is how simple and repetitious Jiro’s work appears to be, while at the same time how resonant it is–for him and for his customers who eat what is widely considered to be the best sushi in the world. Every day, for the past seventy years or so, Jiro comes to the restaurant and makes sushi: pressing a small piece of fish on top of some rice gently shaped in his fingers, painting on a little special glaze, and then plating the finished food for immediate consumption. Like a musician playing onstage, it’s an evanescent performance that comes and goes in mere (delicious) moments. But Jiro extends this moment, coming to work seven days a week, year after year, decade after decade, in constant pursuit of the elusive “perfect” piece of sushi. Moreover, the chef claims that he uses no secret techniques or ingredients in his work (besides the freshest fish, and what is that special glaze anyway?) and that he’s not trying to be special or unique. So how is Jiro’s food so tasty (earning the restaurant 3 Michelin stars) and how does the chef remain so engaged and driven? In short, what makes him tick?

In part, the answer seems to lie in transformative power of repetition itself. Through the film we learn about Jiro’s notion that “ultimate simplicity leads to purity” and the importance of repeating the same routine every day in pursuit of perfection. We also learn about the Japanese concept of shokunin which describes someone along the lines of a craftsman or an artisan, but with a spiritual/ethical dimension added in that requires that one’s work be approached conscientiously, with commitment, and for the betterment of humanity. While shokunin may seem like a step beyond sushi making, it nevertheless encapsulates Jiro’s approach. Thoughtful repetition affords him an ongoing opportunity to transform his outwardly simple work into something very special. Just as ultimate simplicity leads to purity, so too perhaps can purity achieved through simplicity become a form of deep complexity.

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Jiro Dreams Of Sushi has a repetitious soundtrack too, using as it does a fair amount of music by the contemporary classical composers Philip Glass and Max Richter (plus some Tchaikovsky, Bach and Mozart). The music adds a layer of insistence of the film, but I wonder if all this was necessary? I say this because there were a few moments in the film when the music distracted me and got me thinking: how quickly some forms of musical minimalism have become shorthand for conveying, in a contemporary language, the sensation of urgent constant forward motion tinged with a kind of wistfulness at the very fact of time’s passing. Do we need this kind of musical meta-commentary on Jiro’s life? The film could have used traditional Japanese music, or maybe jettisoned the soundtrack altogether.

In this clip from the film, a food critic who is sitting at the end of the sushi bar watching others eat describes how the unfolding of a Jiro sushi meal is similar to a performance of classical music:

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

On Matthew Herbert’s One Pig

Several years ago I read an interview with the English experimental electronic musician Matthew Herbert in Tape Op magazine and I remember him going on about the importance of his audio samples. Herbert didn’t want to use just any old sound sample. He wanted to use sounds that had some meaning for him–sounds that had some reason for being in the mix. Herbert then went on to talk about the creative possibilities of using a homemade sample of say, a cardboard cereal box in place of say, a conventional kick drum sound. Reading this I remember thinking: “Why does it matter so much where the sound comes from? Isn’t the main thing just what can be done to transform the sound?  Well yes and no.  For many electronic musicians, finding unique sound sources is an integral part of the compositional process. To make an analogy with cooking, this level of awareness of one’s musical “ingredients” brings to mind chefs who insist on sourcing local produce and livestock to make a tight “farm to table” feedback loop. The argument, whether in music or food, is that it’s good to know the source of what you’re listening to or eating. Right?

Like the great chefs with their carefully sourced ingredients, Herbert cares a lot about the provenance of his sounds. His latest musical project, One Pig, bridges the realms of food and sound by following the 25-month life of a pig on a farm. Herbert recorded sounds from the pig’s life at one- to two-week intervals–including sounds of the animal being butchered and finally, eaten. Then he made music out of the sound samples. This is by no means easy listening music though. Says Herbert: “My motivation was the acknowledge the realities of what it is to eat meat. It’s not about the music so much as it is about the story—the moral and emotional aspects of it as well.”

Here is a video about the making of One Pig:

Heston Blumenthal On Multisensory Experiences

The self-taught English chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck restaurant and famous for pushing the bounds of cookery, is interested in how sensory context affects our experience of food.  In a recorded statement of his philosophy available for listening (as an MP3 file) on his website, Blumenthal notes that even sound can play an important role in our perception of food.  His first example is an experiment he did with his staff, where they wore headphones hooked up to a microphone that amplified the crunch of potato chips as they ate them (!).  It turns out that the amplified chips were perceived as actually being crisper.  His second example of sound’s role in affecting our perception of food is this: Can sound can be used to trigger our memories while we eat?  To explore this question, Blumenthal fed his dining patrons oysters while playing them (via an iPod hidden in a real seashell) “sounds of the sea, punctuated with the occasional squawk of a seagull.”  Blumenthal found that sound–especially ocean sounds that trigger powerful memories for some people–had a tremendous effect on how the food tasted for diners; in fact, some diners were so moved by the experience that they broke down in tears.  The experiment confirmed for Blumenthal the power of using the senses as a tool for tapping into the mysterious regions of memory.  And of course, a new dish was born: Sound Of The Sea.

You can listen to Heston Blumenthal tell the stories here.

And that sea and swawking seagull soundscape that diners hear as they eat can be heard here.

Creative Strategies From elBulli’s Cookery

This blog post is not about music or sound per se, but about the creative process of cooking.  I am a big fan of books about cookery, and they can be read from a sideways perspective–thinking by analogy about how they may offer insight onto other domains.  With that said, every once in a while you encounter a book that is not only beautiful but inspiring and thought-provoking too.  One such book is A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon 2008).  Adria is a Catalonian chef famous for his innovations associated with the “molecular gastronomy” movement in cookery.  In fact, one could argue that Adria is the prime architect of this meticulously adventurous and scientifically precise approach to preparing, cooking, and conceiving of food.  His restaurant elBulli is open just six months of the year, and Adria spends the other six in research and development mode, designing new dishes, new flavors, and trying things with food that have never been done before.  He’s a creative artist who just happens to work with edible things.

In A Day at elBulli, Adria and Phaidon have created a 528-page wonder of a manual on creativity that I think is applicable well outside of the culinary arts.  The book follows a typical day in the elBulli universe, from daybreak to closing time, beginning with the backdrop for the restaurant–pictures of Cap de Creus park and the natural textures of its environs: water, stone, trees and sky.  From here, the book proceeds in 5-minute increments, tracking the assembling of a multi-hour elBulli meal by a crew of cooks, from shopping to prepping and cooking and serving.  The rhythm of the day is documented through hundreds of photographs, recipes, and quotations.

But what really makes the book extraordinary as a creative manual are three different 4-page inserts (complete with different sized paper) titled “Creative methods” (I, II, and III).  Here we get a glimpse of the conceptual framework underlying the restaurant’s machinery, and Adria outlines a number of ideas that could be of interest to anyone interested in the creative process.  In Creative Methods I, he discusses traditional and local cuisines, influence, and technique-concept searching.  In Part II, he explains and defines the concepts of association, inspiration, adaptation, deconstruction, and minimalism as they apply to his work.  And Part III discusses the importance of the senses, including the sixth sense that Adria describes as “pleasure experienced by the mind.  [This] sense often relies on setting up a tension or a contrast between the guest’s own knowledge and experiences, and the elements in the dish in front of him.”

These inserts inspire the reader to think systematically about his or her creative process in whatever field they work in.  Not to control everything down to the tiniest detail, but rather to try to cultivate a sense of order over what is potentially an endless universe of flavor (or sound, or texture, or color, or textual) combinations made possible through transformative techniques.  A Day at elBulli chronicles that sense of possibility by documenting how experience is organized at a most singular restaurant.

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