The Cooking/Composing Analogy

Written by peterkienle on September 15, 2012

This is one of the many things which I only discovered a little later in my life.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading through a book called “Cooking for Geeks” by Jeff Potter. Amongst many cool recipes and cooking related interviews it contains tons of scientific information about what is happening during food preparation.

If you asked me today when I started to cook I would tell you that I always loved preparing my own food. That is of course not quite true because obviously my mother was the boss in her kitchen and only once I moved out at the tender age of 18 was I confronted with the need to think about what to eat and how to make it. Since my hometown was pretty devoid of any interesting places to get lunch and I was notoriously short on cash that only left the choice of somehow learning how to prepare food myself.

Naturally I started out trying to recreate my favorite dishes from home. But I wasn’t very successful. Most kinds of meat are very unforgiving if ill prepared and I quickly turned into a vegetarian because at least most vegetables can be eaten raw. Some of my favorite home-foods, like Maultaschen (literally “Mouth Pockets” – some kind of huge ravioli) were far beyond reach because creating them required complicated procedures. You could buy those ready made but they just never were as good as Mom’s. So, very slowly, out of the necessity of pickiness, I developed some things I could cook and actually liked to eat.

When I moved to the US in 1988 the availability of Fast Food at every corner was shocking. Still a vegetarian, though, choices were limited. And I guess what could be seen as the main attraction of franchised fast food joints turned out to be one of it’s main turn-offs: A Pizza Hut pizza tastes the same where ever you go. After about a decade of being my own chef switching to eating manufactured food didn’t work. So I kept cooking my own food.

Fast forward to 2006. After reading Ray Kurzweil’s “Fantastic Voyage” (which is about a lot of other health stuff besides food) I became obsessed (at least that’s what my wife and kids called it) with eating healthy. It turned out that spaghetti and tomato sauce isn’t necessarily as healthy as I thought – I still have to convince my kids, though. Surprisingly, our bodies don’t always crave what’s good for them. Due to increased exercise and more conscious diet I lost a few pounds and all of a sudden needed belts for most of my pants. A few years later I found out that my blood pressure was a bit high. That really sucked. I worked around with my diet (less carbs, increased potassium through fresh spinach and cantaloupes, watch that salt!), started jogging, and bought an exercise bike. It actually worked – at least something did, as the blood pressure went to normal.

And what exactly does that have to do with composing music?

Since my humble beginnings as a guitarist at age 14 or so I liked to compose. The music I did like to listen to was never prefect. Even the epic “Dark Side of the Moon” had some sections I could do without and other sections I would have liked to be longer. So I think I started to play and write music to make it just the way I wanted. In the process noticing that this is just not that easy. You have to learn about your ingredients. You have to have a way of writing down your ideas. You can’t get sucked into your music so deeply that you lose your bearings or some kind of objectivity. (Now, improvising is a bit different because I want to be sucked in. It’s almost schizophrenic because your are the maker of the music and also the emotional recipient).

These days I feel I am able to write much better music with much less material. I used to write fusion tunes with lots of notes just as I used to make soups with lots of spices. That kind of experimentation is all good but in the end the simpler stuff rules. That totally complex C13#11b9 chord will stick out in a mostly basic triad-based tune. Now I feel I can actually let the music speak for itself just as I don’t need to cover up a perfectly good lentil-chickpea soup with all the spices from my spice rack.

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