The restaurants that are inviting their customers to follow them down these unfamiliar paths will always and necessarily be a little bit ahead of us. [The new book] “Modernist Cuisine” is going to be the definitive reference point for this new cooking for many years to come. There’s something exciting about that, and there’s a sense of loss in it, too–a little like the nostalgia we feel for the time when the most advanced composers alive wrote tunes that anyone could hum.
This quote in John Lanchester’s New Yorker article on the revolution going on in restaurant cooking has had me simmering all morning. In modernist cuisine or molecular gastronomy, chefs are bringing chemistry and technology into the kitchen, producing things like “deep-fried hollandaise, foie gras tied into a knot, and instant tofu noodles,” just like mother absolutely never made.
That last sentence of Lanchester’s article hints at the sentiment that composers have abandoned their audience, producing only “challenging” music that can’t be internalized by the listener. He draws a creative parallel, but leaves something out of the picture in both the food and music worlds, and suggests a gloomy vision of our cultural attitudes toward both.
To illustrate how this new way of cooking is leaving home cooks behind, Lanchester describes his failed attempt to make “reverse-spherical mozzarella balls,” a kind of deconstructed mozzarella using Algin, a coagulator favored in Modernist restaurants. He uses a Spherification kit sold by Texturas. The results have the texture of snot, Lanchester’s young son points out.
Is this experience the same as being left cold by a “modern-sounding” piece of music? Can’t be. Just like diners in a restaurant, the audience is there to consume, not create. Besides, modernist cuisine gets better press than contemporary music ever did. And while this baffling new cuisine may spark nostalgia for meatloaf, its growing popularity suggests that plenty of people are greedy to swallow it down.
Not so with new music – since time immemorial. Every new composer who pushed the listener’s boundaries endured some pillory before enjoying immortality. Brahms was criticized for not writing enough melodies in his 2nd Symphony (that’s the one with his lullaby in the strings). Just take a look at how people despaired of this unpleasant new direction in music, “bereft of all tonality.” (Boston Daily Advertiser, on Brahms’ Second Symphony, October 31, 1882.)
There was a time when advanced French culinary techniques were not accessible to the home cook. Today, anyone can cook like Julia Child. Anyone. There was a time when most of today’s classical warhorses were considered wildly challenging, even Debussy’s gorgeous Afternoon of the Faun (“seems to need a veterinary surgeon,” griped one critic), until audiences caught up. It took a while, but we’ve made these pieces our own, and even found some hummable tunes in them. (“The orchestra did wonderful work in all this tiresome waste of endless harmony.” The Boston Herald on Brahms’ First Symphony, December 31, 1883.)
But I wonder if the music comparison is even valid. Even if I can hum a Bach tune, I couldn’t buy a Fuguification kit anywhere to make the kind of music he did at home. And so what if we can’t hum it? Doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. And plenty of people seem to agree.
But Lanchester need not worry that contemporary music will become as unorthodox as contemporary cuisine. High modernism is, sadly, dead. The mainstream of contemporary composition has moved away from the likes of Babbitt, Stockhausen, and Xenakis. Instead, one can now find just about everything under the sun, including the sincere yet saccharine sounds of cream puff composers.