What Chefs Can Teach Composers

It’s not a show I usu­ally watch, but I hap­pened across some­thing called Hell’s Kitchen on tele­vi­sion the other night. For the unini­ti­ated, it’s a real­ity TV show in which a celebrity chef, Gor­don Ram­sey, (pic­tured here) tutors sev­eral appren­tice chefs. Troubles¬†ensue: the risotto gets burned, the pork is raw, the pasta is ready but the sauce isn’t. This results in pur­port­edly amus­ing tirades by Gor­don Ram­sey, who¬†yells and screams at his charges. A fun fea­ture of the show is the con­stant *bleep­ing* out of shouted obscen­i­ties.

I thought, “Who are these peo­ple sit­ting here wait­ing for food? Who would ever want to eat in this restau­rant??” Cer­tainly we would not sit still in a restau­rant that couldn’t get its act together. We would move on to some dif­fer­ent din­ing establishment.

Yet, clas­si­cal music audi­ences are expected to sit still through all man­ner of swill. And audi­ences have become fed up with it and moved on. You’ve cer­tainly been to a restau­rant where the food was bad, or the ser­vice was bad, and you left vow­ing never to eat there again. This has cer­tainly hap­pened in clas­si­cal music.

Of course, taste is in the mouth of the beholder–or the ears of the lis­tener. Yet we must acknowl­edge there’s a rea­son why choco­late cake is more pop­u­lar than broccoli.

Ah,” the avant-garde will say, “but broc­coli is good for you! Cake is noth­ing more than sweet, empty calo­ries; we can’t live on only choco­late.” True. But the finer din­ing options out there –the Miche­lin three-star restau­rants– are able to serve up com­plex menu items that are good for you and appeal to an audi­ence. There’s a dif­fer­ence between The Four Sea­sons and Burger King.

The philoso­pher Theodor Adorno stip­u­lated that com­posers are free to com­pose with no need to sat­isfy an audience’s hunger. That’s okay as far as it goes, but I, for one, do want my music to be con­sumed by audi­ences. So I aim to cre­ate in that same arena that a chef does: Some­thing enjoy­ably nutri­tious and palat­able, but com­plex, too.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.