Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Taste of Music

Poussin Saltimbocca: the fourth course at the
Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I love to cook. I believe it's the only non-musical activity I engage in on a regular basis. Mostly, I like to prepare heavy Greek and Italian dishes with some side trips into certain Latin cuisines. There are obvious connections between cooking and composing, of course. The combining of ingredients is much like the combining of musical sounds. Chefs develop an individual style usually based upon their training and background much as a composer develops a unique musical voice. Good chefs are also mindful of time - making sure that different ingredients begin cooking at separate times in order to insure that all items are warm and ready for the table at the same time. This is very similar to a composer's concern for unveiling musical materials in a proper pace as the piece moves along in time in order to to maintain a sense of structure. I also can't help but be reminded of the similarity between chefs and composers when, after spending hours (sometimes days) in the cooking process, those at the table finish off the meal in minutes (or seconds if you count hungry teenagers). How like the process of crafting a piece of music this is! Composing a piece may take weeks (or more) to compose and rehearse and then is seemingly over in the blink of an eye at the premiere.

Sumac Dusted Carolina Bison: the fifth course at the
Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
Two recent events have also reminded me of another way cooking is like composing. The first of these events took place several weeks ago as my wife and I celebrated our 20th Wedding Anniversary at the gorgeous Grove Park Inn located in Asheville, North Carolina. We just happened to plan our stay during a culinary weekend and thus had an opportunity to enjoy a five-hour, six-course meal at the resort's acclaimed Horizons Restaurant. The striking aspect of this meal was its collaborative nature. Four chefs combined to present the six courses. Each course was paired with a different wine and/or drink with the wine maker and distillery manager also on hand. Intricately prepared, each course needed to work in context with the others. Care was also taken to select a compatible winemaker and then to be sure that the pairings worked with the different offerings. This task of pairing wine and food was left to yet a different member of the culinary staff. One of the more unique, experimental and perhaps even risky collaborations occurred at the beginning of the meal. The person responsible for the pairings created an aperitif that consisted of 1 part Four Roses Bourbon and 2 parts Niagra Ice Wine. Both the distillery manager from Four Roses Bourbon and wine maker of Sparkman Cellars admitted later that they each had grave doubts about the concoction. However both of them - along with the rest of us - were pleasantly surprised. The drink was delicious both as a refreshing stand alone offering as well as the prelude to the amazing meal to come. Somehow this collaboration seemed more intimate. It's one thing to try and pair disparate items and quite another to literally mix them together to create something wonderful.

Candied Ginger Carrot Cake: the sixth course
at the Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
The thoughts of this type of collaboration were brought back to mind at the second event that reminded of the connection between food and music. This event is more recent. I have just returned from Huntsville, Alabama where the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra performed an older piece of mine entitled epiphanies. I have to admit that I was a little surprised at just how really good this group is! In addition to being able to work with a fine orchestra, I had the good fortune of also having an opportunity to work with conductor Daniel Boico, who, at the time of this writing, is currently serving as the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. I say that I am fortunate to have worked with this conductor not so much because he is a very fine artist - which he certainly is - but also because of his collaborative nature. In my first meeting with him prior to a rehearsal, Boico went over the piece with me and shared his thoughts about how he was interpreting the music. It was immediately evident to me that he had spent some time with the work and had definite ideas of how to proceed. And yet, he wanted to talk things over with me first. He sought my opinion on his ideas. There have been many times in the past when a conductor - especially an orchestral conductor - has simply pushed an interpretation without consultation. Sometimes I have never been invited to attend even a single rehearsal. This is not collaboration. Rather, it is an occupational hazard of being a composer. Boico certainly had strong opinions about how and why he might change a tempo marking here or there. Yet he always had a rationale for his decision; a rationale he shared with me. There was an immediate trust that was formed between us. This trust allowed me to let his vision of the music mix with mine to create something wonderful in the same way that the Niagra Bourbon Cocktail had at our dinner weeks ago. 

As I always remind my students, I believe that the act of composing music goes through five stages: first is a conceptual stage; second an active writing stage; third a notation/engraving/part preparation stage; fourth, the rehearsal stage wherein collaboration takes place with performers; and fifth, the created stage wherein the music is brought to life for an audience. It is the fourth stage that many of us overlook. Rather than thinking a piece is completed after a double bar is drawn, it is vital for composers to recognize that collaboration is part of the compositional process. Both my meal at the Grove Park Inn and my work with Daniel Boico and the Huntsville Symphony have reminded how important it is to work with performers as a piece begins to come alive in sound. Great collaboration usually leads to great art - whether in matters of food or sound.