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On Painting with a Limited Palate

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Culinary metaphors appear frequently in both my coaching and my writing about music. It’s a relatable sphere of experience – everyone has experience of eating – and I enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour in its own right.

A recent bout of covid has got me thinking about cooking as a compositional metaphor in a new way. A week after my symptoms first started that my sense of smell went on the wonk. It didn’t stop me cooking – we still needed to eat, after all, and when you’re stuck at home self-isolating, cooking is a good way to pass the time, as everyone discovered last year in lockdown.

But creating and consuming meals without the olfactory dimension is a very different experience from usual. For one thing, it made me notice anew how much I navigate my way round the kitchen by smell: judging spicing levels, gauging doneness. Now I have to work by theory rather than by feel: how much ginger would you expect a recipe to specify for this quantity?; how long should this take to cook?

Also, without aromatics, your focus is thrown back onto the primary dimensions of flavour: salt, sour, bitter, sweet, plus chilli heat which of course is a sensation rather than a flavour. (You don’t have taste buds in your eyelids, but you know if you’ve not washed your hands properly between chopping chilis and rubbing your eyes.) This affects both your experience of individual ingredients and their combinations.

Cardamoms, for example, have much more of a bitter edge than you’d normally notice when your attention is hijacked by their bright perfumey aura. And the way that tang of lemon and the spikiness of salt don’t just balance each other, but somehow amplify each other becomes a much more salient part of the equation.

The other structural dimension that really comes into its own texture or mouthfeel. The interplay of soft with crunchy, chewy with melty, hydrating with creamy really come to the fore as central to shaping the eating experience.

Whilst I am obviously looking forward to the return of my sense of smell, the discipline of having only a pared-down set of dimensions to work with will certainly have refined how I think in the kitchen, and has added a new degree of control over what I do.

It feels akin to a visual artist being required to work in monochrome, without the aid of colour. There’s a whole world of aesthetic and expressive possibilities removed, but by the same token you can’t hide poor drawing or inadequate control of light and shade behind the glitz of chromatic variation.

Of course this got me thinking about the musical equivalent of this. Lady Gaga’s contention that if a song is any good you should be able to play it on the piano comes to mind as relevant – a nicely pragmatic measure of basic structural integrity.

It occurred to me that what I spend a lot of my life doing is already in a pretty pared down state. Four-part a cappella is timbrally monochrome, eschewing the sonic bamboozlement of orchestration, and, in limiting the number of voices available, requires a perpetual attention to harmonic structure. When you have amenity of divisi or instruments to guarantee the completeness of your chords, life feels simultaneously much easier and rather over-generous – you have greater freedom and flexibility, but also the risk of overdoing it, or of losing consistency as you can add in extra stuff willy-nilly.

Anyway, now I’ve worked through that metaphor, you know the source of that irritating misspelling in my title. It’s not a typo, it’s a pun. No less irritating for all that, but I’ve been stuck at home for 10 days now and I’ll take my entertainment where I can.

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