Monday, April 5, 2010

food for thought

So what do French culinary trends and classical music have in common? A few things. I should warn you, if there is an opposite of a foodie, that's probably me. But reading Adam Gopnik's article in last week's New Yorker on Le Fooding, a new French eating sensation, reminded me of a lot of issues inherent in today's classical world. Read the article here, and then come back.

Basically, Le Fooding is a recent stylistic movement in French cuisine which turns away from the apparently stuffy, traditional French food scene as epitomized by the Michelin guide and its star ratings. This rejection of the strict and bourgeois conventions of gourmet food embraces chefs not trained in France, restaurants serving unconventional dishes, and a re-evaluation of meal habits in order to re-inject an enthusiasm and liveliness into French food:

"Food and feeling--that's the heart of eat and drink with feeling. We wanted cooks who cooked with the whole of their selves and souls, not technicians of the table. French cuisine was caught in a museum culture: the dictatorship of a fossilized idea of gastronomy...We wanted to be outside that, sur la pont, on the bridge, in front, defining everything that is new. We wanted to escape--foie gras, volaille de besse, all the cliches." - founder Alexander Cammas

Sound familiar? The ossification of classical music into a "museum culture," (and, if it were actually like real, interesting museums, that would be great) has been pretty much the number one complaint for quite some time now. Cammas and his group believe that food must always be new: "We want food to be a series of provocations, not mechanical pleasures. Food must belong to its time." This sentiment echoes through hundreds of years of art, from Wagner's "Kinder macht neues!" to Ezra Pound's "Make it new." Many, many visionaries of art (and cuisine) believe that their creations must not only exist in their time, but also epitomize and even anticipate their own Zeitgeist.

So, where does that leave our big ol' fossilized orchestras? Is it enough for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to do some kickass Mahler, or the Vienna Philharmonic, that bastion of conservatism, to hire a female concertmaster (mistress?) for some Strauss waltzes? Is leading an incredibly thrilling performance of music a hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred years old, in an aesthetic style at least sixty years old, using cultural practices solidified in the 1930s, creating music that's relevant to today? In other words, does great music of the past, presented in a backwards-looking model, belong to our time?

I'm not talking about HIP performance, which I think confronts musical dilemmas of the past and thus creates music relevant to the present (especially the most recent trend of improvising in period style). I'm thinking more about your average giant orchestra playing old music, conducted in a style created in the late 19th century and codified by the mid-twentieth.

Now back to the article. Gopnik: "American critics had been complaining for a while that French cooking, which had led the world in the idea that food might be art, had become stereotyped, unreal, and remote from life, and the complaint had at moments echoed in France." In classical music, this idea is traced mostly back to German Romanticism. A slight misreading of the gravity of Wagner led to pretty much all classical music being treated as seriously as Wagner, and by the 1950s Rossini was put on a pedestal. All classical music became die heilige deutsche Kunst, even if the composers never intended it that way (even the term classical does injustice to the lighter works of the last few hundred years). Which led to our rituals about applause, the organization of the symphony concert (when was the last time you heard excerpted movements from a symphony, typical in the 19th century?), and the treatment of opera as a form of essentially 100% absolute music.

But let's go ahead and defend some of that, because Gopnik does, at least in terms of food. Le Fooding doesn't seem all that revolutionary: "The real absence in France was not of good food but of what might be called think food...where food is devoted to an idea, whether of molecular transformations or of whole-beast eating...I realized the absence of think food was no an absence that truly, in my heart, I regretted. There are enough ideas in life without having them all on your plate."

Not all orchestras have to re-evaluate every way they play their music, or present their music, in order to succeed artistically. Music is a vehicle for ideas, but it is also a vehicle for emotions. I don't mean to imply that passive listening--treating classical music as a kind of comfort food for the ears--is in any way an acceptable method (though it is a popular one). But sometimes, a thrilling performance can be enough. This is an issue especially with the Chicago Symphony, whose upcoming season is filled with what look to be thrilling performances, but is also utterly bereft of ideas. I wish the orchestra could find a happy middle ground, filled with Muti's strange little chestnuts by Cherubini but also with a grand scheme for how to build an intelligent season.

And some of the rituals of the classical concert experience exist for a reason. Not clapping between most movements of most Mahler symphonies is probably a good idea. Not smoking during an opera performance, or eating a meal, definitely good ideas (although I do have a dream of one day eating pizza while seeing the Ring).

I realize I have conflated a number of different issues with the current classical scene. But the great thing about having a blog is, who cares? It's fun to write about.

Anyway, we have come mostly full circle. Not all music has to march squarely into the future. We can look behind. Revolutionary or not, music making (and food eating) should always be exciting.


  1. Pretty much all Italian opera would be more enjoyable with a nice Montepulciano in hand, I'd say.

  2. Interesting post on your interesting blog.
    However, I don't think the situation with out orchestras is quite as bad as you make it sound.
    Many do in fact play new works with more frequency than you might think, such as the New York Philharmonic, which despite the critical drubbing it has taken in recent years for its supposed "stodginess, has played new works by just about every important composer of our time,even before the much-touted arrival of Alan Gilbert.
    There is absolutely no lack of new music today;the popularity of the beloved masterpieces of the past hasn't prevented composer such as Glass,Adams,Corigliano,Kaaia Saariaho,Rouse,Thomas Ades,Henze,Bolcom, Carter,and many others from being widely performed.
    In fact, there's greater diversity of rewpertoire being performed today by our orchestras then ever before.
    Critics,composers and musicologists who complain that "in the past,all(or most) music was new at concerts" fail to take certain facts into consideration.
    In the time of Haydn,Mozart and Beethoven, the orchestra as we know it was a new thing; they didn't have the enormous accumulation of repertoire which exists today.
    And there were far fewer concerts than today, and only a tiny fraction of all the orchestras
    which now exist.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Robert. I actually mostly agree. Just like Gopnik, I don't think everything old/traditonal is bad, and I think there's a proper way to integrate the repertoire entrenchment with creative programming of new music. I'm really pointing out that many people's perception of the orchestra as a conservative unit, and Le Fooding's view of French cuisine, are quite similar and have a number of interesting parallels.

    The canon does make sense, as does the accumulation of repertoire, and I think that's the best thing about the orchestra. Yes, most American orchestras are playing works by our most important composers, but it's usually not enough of them and not enough of their music (with recent exceptions in L.A. and New York). Also, it's not just about New Music--it's also about programming creatively and intelligently, something very rare. It would be great if "think" music/programming, to paraphrase Gopnik, were the norm. The overture/concerto/symphony format in orchestral concerts, which still seems to pervade, usually does not work.