Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Perfection or, As cooking is to composition

Tonight I made a perfect meal. I'm not bragging. Much. There really is a point to this, however circuitous it may seem at first. I was at a loss as what to cook, and it had been a while since I'd had both the time and inclination to stand over the stove and fuss with food. I'd thought something with chanterelles, since they're in season in these parts. But passing the fish counter at my local box supermarket, I spied the best-looking piece of salmon I've seen in ages, and I had to make it mine. The rest of the menu came together quickly.

I made a thyme risotto, starting with oil, shallots, carnaroli rice and vermouth. (Most recipes use white wine, but super-dry vermouth is cheaper and more flavorful.) I added stock, stirring carefully, keeping the rice moist and letting the stock absorb slowly. I was pissed off when my last risotto turned out dry because I left it too long, and I was determined not to let it happen again. At the end I stirred in a lump of butter to make it creamy, a dusting of parmesan for tang, and some seasoning and fresh thyme leaves. The salmon came out of the oven at exactly the right time, a delicate crust of sea salt and white pepper on the surface, the fragrance of the lemon oil I rubbed into it present but not dominating. The texture was the best part: cooked through at the extremities but still tender and moist, warm but still almost raw in the center. A salad of oak leaf lettuce and arugula, dressed with walnut oil and red wine vinegar, was a cleansing complement. I'm still drinking the excellent, shockingly cheap '06 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I picked up on a whim. (Note to wine buffs: fill your cellars with '06 Kiwi Sauvignon.)

I write this as a longish segue into the idea of perfection. Every so often, I'm able to walk into the kitchen and execute a technically perfect dish, sometimes even a full meal, as with tonight. I'm a big fan of chefs like Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay, who write at length about the technical processes necessary to make a dish perfect. Keller especially has a Zen-like approach to cooking which, as pretentious as it sounds, is really quite rational. He writes in great detail about the chemistry of food, and what certain processes do to ingredients as they cook, the effects of temperature, time, type of heat, etc.
Keller also has a very down-to-earth attitude toward the idea of perfection. Perfection, he writes, doesn't exist. As soon as you achieve it, it's gone, shifting to a higher level. In order to reach it again, you have to start over from scratch. (I said it was Zen-like.) He tells a great story about learning to make Hollandaise, a finicky, time-consuming sauce that utterly baffles me, by just making it over and over again, always trying to refine it to its ultimate incarnation, and never feeling it was quite right. Great food isn't always so much about top-notch ingredients. Those are nice when you can get them, and anyone can take foie gras and make it taste good. But more often than not it's about taking something ordinary and, through the rational application of craft, achieving something extraordinary. Great cooking is about transcending the ingredient.

There's something in this idea that intersects with composing, I think. I frequently find myself nonplussed when looking at a score of a piece I like for the very first time. Those great sonorities I heard in a performance or on a recording seem banal on paper, the shimmering colors I was hoping to gain insight from turn out to just be a diatonic pitch set of some sort, or a simple atonal structure. What makes it special is the way the composer uses it, the way one idea moves to another, the way an utterly ordinary harmonic idea suddenly appears in a fresh light because of the thing that came before it. I tend to study scores for hints on chord voicing, introduction of new ideas (on the rare occasions I choose to do such a thing), or orchestration. For this reason, I think that, apart from technique, spontaneity in the use of materials is the determining factor in whether music is merely successful and well worked-out, or downright brilliant.

When you're cooking, technique is paramount. There's a sequence of steps in making braised lamb shanks that can't really be skipped if you want to develop the flavors in the right way. This is what we call craft. Equally important is knowing by sight, smell, and touch when to do certain things, knowing the precise moment at which doing something will make the difference between a good dish and a great dish, but if you follow the steps, it's hard to go wrong. I once had a conversation
with a couple of senior Finnish composers Рthou shalt not drop names Рabout why so many composers seem drawn to cooking as a hobby. Both of them were enthusiastic home cooks, and we spent some time rhapsodizing about making stock, tending a slow-cooked dish while sipping a glass of wine, and prepping fish for saut̩ing. I think what it comes down to is the difference in the ratio of craft versus creativity inherent in the two pursuits.

Composing, no matter how much technique you may have, tends to be largely a product of the moment, a flash of an idea that gets the engine moving, and technique supports the idea by giving voice to it, an audible working out of that flash if you will. No matter how great your technique, you can't survive on that alone if your ideas are uninteresting. The composers I most admire are the ones who can take a totally run-of-the-mill, simple idea and present it in a fresh and unexpected way. In cooking, while there's room for creativity, there's a certain process that must be gone through in order to achieve quality. Follow that process, and you rarely mess up. After a day spent in the studio, during which you may or may not have made any progress on a piece – progress sometimes being measured in tiny, tiny increments – you can still walk into the kitchen, apply a technique, and achieve something perfect, or at least close thereto. Herein lies the appeal of cooking and other like hobbies for creative artists: the result. A result. Something tangible, in which the progress can be measured and quantified, which beings pleasure and enjoyment, something in which the inspiration of the moment helps, but really is secondary to just applying the process. While I was working on my god-awful, hard-to-write, due-far-too-soon horn trio last winter, nothing gave me more pleasure, and more relaxation, than going into the kitchen and spending three hours on a pot of lamb shanks, teasing the sauce to the perfect level of reduction, waiting till the meat falls off the bone. It was satisfying to walk away from an activity in which technique only gets you so far, go through the pantry, and make something incredible. I've had similarly satisfying, though far less successful experiences with pottery. (Rule #1: Never get attached to your piece.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. I tend to get hyper-involved with my material, and have difficulty viewing it dispassionately. Perfection in composing, for me, is often a question of just giving up on getting it the way I want and letting the piece be what it is, settling for what does the job, knowing I can choose to fix it after I've heard it. But having another outlet for a certain amount of creativity is welcome, and knowing I'll get some sustenance from the result is what keeps cooking from being the same kind of frustration that composing can be. I now pause to wonder whether, if I spent as much time reading about music as I do reading guys like Keller, I might find composing a tad less daunting.

No comments: