Tasty as Brahms...?

During recent email discussions with a certain brother of mine, the question of whether food could eventually constitute an artform like music or painting was debated. I was arguing that it could not and I felt pretty sure about this, but I was also aware that I didn't want the alternative view to be correct. Music is very dear to my heart and so the idea that a good meal could ever do for someone what a beautiful piece of music does for me was intolerable.

Well, the intolerability of an idea is never a good enough reason to throw it out so I've been thinking about it some more. I find the question of "what is art?" an interesting one to grapple with so I thought I'd write down some thoughts about it.

To make up for the wordiness of this post, and to help illustrate the subject matter, I've added a piece of music by Brahms below, which I hope you will listen to and enjoy. I first heard this piece at a recital in Cork and went home to download it immediately afterwards. Brahms wrote it for Clara Schumann (whom he is thought to have secretly loved), on the death of her son. One doesn't need to know this to appreciate the piece but it certainly explains the gut-wrenching sadness that it seems to express. There are relatively few pieces of music that move me quite as much as this one. I can think of some from other genres, such as jazz (Brad Mehldau playing the Beatles tune 'Blackbird'), but generally the romantic era (covering most of the 1800s) of Western music provides the most examples. Music from before that wasn't as explicitly bound up with human emotion but while Bach's music from the early 18th Century might not move me to tears, it nevertheless has the ability to transfix me with its utter musical perfection. So the value of art does not lie in its ability to convey human emotions, at least not solely, for then Bach would not be so highly valued. This is good news for the pro-food side of the debate - I can't imagine being moved to tears by a meal.

So why do we value Bach's music, if not for its emotive qualities? What other qualities does it have? The pro-fooders might like to believe that his achievement was to create particularly good concoctions of sounds, utilising all the "ingredients" that were available to him in a very intelligent and pleasing way, such that they uplift those whose aural pallate is trained to be able to distinguish them. You can see how easy it would be then to draw an analogy with food and state that there is no essential difference. Well, what "ingredients" exactly did Bach have at his disposal? He had individual notes and combinations of notes (like individual flavours and concoctions of flavours? Hmmm, we'll see...) He also had rhythm, dynamic contrast (spice?), the contrasting timbres of different instruments, different keys, different harmonic textures (monophonic, homophonic or polyphonic, like in his fugues - I guess this could be likened to whether contrasting flavours in your mouth seem to be doing their own independent thing or melding together to form one harmonious new flavour). I have no problem with analogies being drawn with any of these latter musical components when it comes to food, but the first one - the most basic of all - is different: the notes and combinations of notes that Bach had as his raw materials are not like tastes on the tongue, as I will try to explain. Bach, of all composers, understood the connection between music and mathematics, as originally discovered by Pythagoras in the 6th century BC.

Musical notes have very special relationships with each other. They can be looked at as mathematical ratios, whereby, for example, the ratio of a note to its counterpart one octave lower is 2:1 (if you have a string vibrating at a certain frequency, say a violin string producing the note A, then if you halve that string, the note produced will be A again but an octave higher). The interval of a perfect fifth, eg. the notes C and G together, represents a frequency ratio of 3:2. Without going into too much detail about this, the point I'm trying to make is that no combination of notes can escape its equivalency in a mathematical ratio. Flavours on the tongue have no such equivalency - combinations in food are completely arbitrary, so while there are things like contrast and spiciness that can be added to the raw materials, the raw materials themselves are of no other realm than the realm of taste. Music, on the other hand, could be looked at as the audible language of the realm of mathematics, and so when things like contrast, rhythm and texture are added to it, they are being added to something that already has some kind of universality.

I don't think it is necessary to spend too much time thinking about the nature of music - at this point the question needs to be asked: why think about food as art at all? The idea seems to be that because we have a sense to perceive it with, and music is percieved through one of our senses - then food is the equivalent for the sense of taste of what music is for the sense of hearing. But this is not true. The fact that the pallate can be so highly developed as to be able to discriminate and appreciate extremely subtle and sophisticated flavours can certainly be likened to a trained musical ear able to pick out complicated chords. But the trained ear being able to pick out all sorts of contrived sounds does not confer the status of art on those sounds. I will concede that gastronomy could be likened to what is known as "sound art", the use of electronic and natural sounds of all kinds to create audio experiences, but the jury is still out on whether even this is art at all. It seems to me that both of these things - "sound art" and "food art" - rely far too much on the senses, whereas in the more traditional artforms, the connection with one or other of our senses is either secondary (where the sense is merely a conduit to the mind) or completely absent, as in the case of literature.

To explain what I mean by the connection between an art form and one of our senses being secondary, music is the perfect example. Right now I have the music from the dance scene in The Snowman going through my head. My ears are not involved at all at this point and yet I am perceiving the music. My aural sense was merely a vehicle for the music to pass into my mind. With the new arts discussed above, the experience through the sense in question is the art; there is nothing more. And to me that seems like a poor conception of what art is.

There is so much more to think about on this topic but I'm afraid I'll never finish this post if I try to explore it all. I do hope to explore it in a lot more detail at some point because as I said at the beginning it is something I find fascinating. Maybe one day I'll even do more than a blog post about it - who knows...

Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 In G Major, Op. 78, 1st movement, Itzhak Perlman & Vladimir Ashkenazy