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Point/counterpoint


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 02:24 AM

I write this while listening to Bach’s c minor concerto for violin and oboe, BWV 1060. While this piece may not reach the heights of Bach’s contrapuntal architectures found in, for example, The Art of Fugue, it has a lovely series of exchanges between the two principal instruments, each sometimes stepping forward, the sweetness of the violin and the austerity of the oboe combining to produce something more than either can individually.

Those with a reasonably speedy Internet connection can listen to the first movement of this lovely piece, as played by the Aulos Ensemble:

I was struck by how rarely menus are constructed around point and counterpoint – alternating warm and cold dishes, for example, or sweet and savoury, or rich and meagre. Why is it not possible to introduce a theme at the outset, then return to it later in the menu? Have members encountered contrapuntal menus? Are there chefs who think explicitly in this manner? Are point and counterpoint impossible in the medium of food?
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#2 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 05:07 AM

Are point and counterpoint impossible in the medium of food?

No, providing you are prepared to insert several eating implements into your mouth at the same time! :biggrin:
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#3 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 07:32 AM

Of course Jonathan’s question deserves a more serious response. I yield to no one in my passion for J.S. Bach. I enthusiastically recommend the recent Brilliant edition (that’s the label’s name) of his complete works in a boxed set of 160 CDs for a bargain £250. They have been leased from a variety of sources, but all 200-odd surviving cantatas (out of a probable 300) have been specially recorded for this release in Dutch performances under a single conductor that are among the best I’ve heard.

Having declared my loyalty to Western music’s greatest composer, I must nevertheless question his relevance to cuisine, of whatever ethnic origin. Music, including polyphony, exists along a strict continuum that does not allow us to stop and savour it except by artificial means that do violence to its intentions. There have been some modern composers, such as Charles Ives, who have delighted in bringing together clashing juxtapositions such as marching bands approaching from different compass points, but these are in the nature of collages or cut-ups in which we recognize fragments of the familiar incongrously juxtaposed.

Efforts to mix methods and formal structures from different disciplines, thus converting them into metaphors, can be amusing – Satie, when accused of writing music which lacked form, wrote a series of compositions “in the shape of a pear” – but the novelty soon wears off. A single meal’s dishes may be combined in any manner that a chef is willing to accommodate (particularly easy in a buffet or a Chinese banquet), but to compare one’s successive mouthfuls with the structure of various art forms would, I think, verge on the precious.
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#4 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 07:59 AM

I intended the music/cuisine comparison as a loose comparison rather than an exact analogy.

Nonetheless I think that the analogy is defensible. We know that some chefs view their work as entertainment rather than nutrition -- a staged sequence of experiences. Here is Michael Ruhlman in The Soul of a Chef, writing about a meal he had at the French Laundry, in California:

It lasted more than four and a half hours. I did not order. [Thomas] Keller would thus cook for me ... sending me an array of canapés before the chef's tasting began … nineteen courses in all, with five desserts, four half bottles of wine, and a double espresso. Midway through the meal I needed the bathroom and a minute to stretch my legs. When I returned, Laura [the general manager] noted that "Thomas was mad" when informed I was up. ...

I wondered about it from his point of view. He was working to serve me an extraordinary meal. It was not unlike my walking out of a theater during a performance put on for my benefit, and he thought it terrifically rude ... the knowledge of his irritation made me realize that he was actually performing. Indeed this meal entertained me like a play or orchestral performance. The work of a single distinctive mind and voice performing at its peak for an eager and receptive audience.

Perhaps opera is the best analogy for a meal of this sort.

So I will repeat my questions: not "is it art?" but "is there scope for contrapuntal construction in a menu?" and "does any chef actually try to do this?"
Jonathan Day
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#5 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 08:20 AM

So I will repeat my questions: not "is it art?" but "is there scope for contrapuntal construction in a menu?" and "does any chef actually try to do this?"

To the first question, the answer is, I think, that "counterpoint" is not a useful term to describe a technique of contrast that is often used, whether or not the chef would consciously give it a label.

The second question throws it wide open. Whatever, the concept, however ludicrous, a modern chef will be found to exemplify it. The spectrum from the inventive through the fantastic to the decadent is all too well represented, particularly at the further end.
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#6 Deacon

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 08:21 AM

Are point and counterpoint impossible in the medium of food?

No, but in my case it usually takes the form of one surly waiter and one polite waiter.

#7 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 08:37 AM

"counterpoint" is not a useful term to describe a technique of contrast that is often used, whether or not the chef would consciously give it a label.

Why not? Could you please expand on this?
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#8 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 08:39 AM

Perhaps opera is the best analogy for a meal of this sort.

Why not an opera whose performance takes place in a banquet hall, during which a succession of appropriate courses is consumed? An English National Opera performance of Prokovief's Love of Three Oranges included odor-producing scratch cards which the audience was instructed to activate on cue. Fortunately, the performance smelled much better than the cards. :biggrin:
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#9 Fat Guy

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 08:39 AM

Assuming we're talking only about the universe of chefs who put together serious degustation menus, I don't know of any chef who doesn't try to do it.

Contrasts of flavor, texture, and temperature -- both within individual dishes and as between multiple dishes in a progression -- are some of the most basic elements chefs consider when creating dishes and menus. There can be other factors too, for example some chefs (like some musicians) will try to create uniformity -- non-contrast -- when composing certain types of dishes and menus. You also might not see a lot of cold dishes in winter -- a species of factor that isn't really present in music. But I bet if somebody posted any randomly selected degustation menu from any good restaurant we could go through it and find a host of contrasts of exactly the type being discussed here.

Of course the chefs most explicitly devoted to the notion of contrast (this is the food word for counterpoint, in my opinion) are the pastry chefs. Look at most any modern plated dessert from a serious pastry chef and you'll find hot and cold, sweet and bitter, crunchy and luscious; or you'll find the opposite: an essay on one particular attribute of flavor, temperature, and texture. When you get to the higher levels of dining you will often get three or more dessert courses, and the contrasts and integration become even more evident: perhaps a cool, refreshing fruit sorbet in a fruit soup with little chunks of fruit that follows the heaviest savory course; next, a fully constructed plated dessert focusing on, perhaps, caramel; finally, little chocolates and mini-pastries, intensely flavored and bite-sized. You get the idea.

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#10 Nick

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:04 AM

It seems to me that if point and counterpoint were to occur in food we would need two chefs to provide this. As Jonathon said in his original post, "....it has a lovely series of exchanges between the two principal instruments, each sometimes stepping forward, the sweetness of the violin and the austerity of the oboe combining to produce something more than either can individually."

Two chefs working in harmony could, I think, do this.

#11 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:04 AM

Steven has described the situation succinctly, without resorting to metaphor. I don't think that "counterpoint" contributes anything in the way of understanding or clarification.
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#12 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:04 AM

"Contrast" isn't quite what I was getting at.

"Counterpoint" in baroque music usually refers to a second theme that not only contrasts with the first but returns, again and again: not just contrast but alternation. A theme that runs from one end of the composition to the other.

Hence, one could counterpoise "the raw and the cooked" in a meal, as in the following menu. It isn't intended as a paragon of gastronomic architecture just an illustration of how one might alternate two themes.

Oysters on the half shell

Chorizo sausages served with sautéed potatoes (both in small dice, served very hot)

A cold (uncooked) soup of tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions

Elvers (tiny eels) poached in olive oil and garlic; again, served very hot

Beef tartare

Artichokes à la barigoule, served hot with a mirepoix of vegetables and perhaps some dice of foie gras added to the mirepoix at the last minute

A salad of herbs and small lettuces

A hot dessert, e.g. a soufflé pralinée

That perfect peach we keep hearing about


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#13 Fat Guy

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:13 AM

There is a specific musical definition of counterpoint. From the Virginia Tech multimedia music dictionary:

"Counterpoint. The art of combining two or more melodies to be performed simultaneously and musically. In counterpoint, the melody is supported by another melody rather than by chords."

I might suggest, though, that counterpoint in music represents the specific application of a term that has a general meaning of "use of contrast or interplay of elements" (selectively quoted from Merriam-Webster).

Thus in seeking a culinary definition of counterpoint one would not look to the question of melodies and chords. One would look to the issue of "contrast or interplay of elements."

"The raw and the cooked" certainly exemplifies one way of doing it. A "surf and turf" menu, alternating fish and meat courses, would also do it. But I think in cuisine, counterpoint is really just what I described above. In other words, there can be counterpoint in a single dish.

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#14 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:22 AM

"Counterpoint" in baroque music usually refers to a second theme that not only contrasts with the first but returns, again and again: not just contrast but alternation. A theme that runs from one end of the composition to the other.

Whoops! Counterpoint in its more complex forms such as a double fugue may include more than one theme, but it is most commonly a single theme worked against itself in two or more key signatures, usually a four or a fifth apart. In its simplest form it is merely a round or a canon, in which the line is delayed but unaltered.

Thematic contrast is more typical of sonata allegro form, and even this may be reduced to a single theme in which the contrast is only one of key signatures.
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#15 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:26 AM

Why not an opera whose performance takes place in a banquet hall, during which a succession of appropriate courses is consumed? An English National Opera performance of Prokovief's Love of Three Oranges included odor-producing scratch cards which the audience was instructed to activate on cue.

Your example immediately brought to mind a guy I was at school with: Peter Sellars, the theatre and opera director, who later produced contemporary visions of Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni (modern staging with the music completely unchanged and beautifully delivered) and collaborated with John Adams on the premiere of his Nixon in China and other works.

Last year Peter was artistic director of the Adelaide (Australia) Festival. Have a look at the programme: click here. Chamber music, theatre, discussion, film, food, textiles and many other arts come together in an event that must have been memorable.

A few food-related events from the festival:

The edible library

Edible harmony

Good food for hospital patients

The ritual of coffee

I won't deny that decadence and innovation-for-its-own sake are out there; but I do think that comparisons between food and other human endeavours can be useful and productive. In the long run, I hope that Symposium can bring artists and thinkers to eGullet from disciplines other than cookery or food writing -- and those, like John Thorne, who have wisdom in multiple domains and understand the boundaries of food as a means of expression.
Jonathan Day
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#16 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 09:55 AM

Oh dear! Don't get me started on Peter Sellars. I was the sound designer at Glyndebourne for Nigel Osborne's "Electrification of the Soviet Union", which Peter directed. He succeeded in making a complex but coherent libretto so incomprehensible that for several weeks of rehearsal I couldn't understand what was going on -- until I got hold of a copy of the librettist's original text in which he had sketched the stage directions as he imagined them. Everything fell into place.

When the production went to Berlin, Sellars appeared in a radio roundtable discussion, along with the composer and librettist, and thoroughly trashed them both, together with the opera they had written. I learned later that he had ambitions of directing in Berlin and so had disassociated himself from a work which he knew the Brechtians wouldn't like.

Sellars is popular with producers for two reasons: his productions are always controversial and get a lot of attention -- the ultimate fusion chef -- and they are, if necessary, very cheap to realize. Cosi in a Cape Cod dune shack -- very economical!
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#17 robert brown

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 11:45 AM

When Jonathan first composed this topic two months ago, I thought it would not go very far, especially now considering that it comes on just after the "Balance" thread. I was wrong about that one.

NickN raises an interesting point about having more than one chef preparing a dinner. It used to happen quite a bit in Europe. Of course those meals were more like no-choice banquets that no doubt put a premium on both balance and counterpoint. I have to wonder then, as I approach the phenomenon from my customary institutional/socio-economic perspective, if concepts such as balance contrast, counterpoint, and whatever are a result of less or total lack of choice in present-day eating out. I hardly recall them being bandied about in the 1970s and 1980s. To me there is way (lingo, perhaps) that certain contemporary chefs talk about food or meals that did not exist before. This is a potentially rich topic for another day (unless, of course, Jonathan posts it).

#18 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 12:14 PM

To me there is way (lingo, perhaps) that certain contemporary chefs talk about food or meals that did not exist before.

Perhaps this should be a separate topic, but it nevertheless relates to the use of musical terms when talking about food. There is an inexorable trend, born of advertising, to invent catchy new words for familiar concepts. It's called jargon, and there are dictionaries devoted to it which become obsolete as soon as they are published. But it's not surprising that a public which demands endlessly new sensations would want new words to describe them -- or new words for old sensations when inventiveness is exhausted.
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#19 Pan

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Posted 16 February 2003 - 11:35 PM

Whoops! Counterpoint in its more complex forms such as a double fugue may include more than one theme, but it is most commonly a single theme worked against itself in two or more key signatures, usually a four or a fifth apart. In its simplest form it is merely a round or a canon, in which the line is delayed but unaltered.

Different key signatures are very rarely necessary, even if there is a pitch interval between the different voices. After all, typical Western scales and modes have 7 different tones so, for example, in C Major/Ionian, answering C-G-E-A with F-C-A-D (canonic imitation at the interval of a Perfect 4th) does not take one into a different key, let alone necessitate a new key signature. Also, canons can be at the unison; in fact, all rounds are, by definition (though octave variations can be easily tolerated in informal situations, such as singing a round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with friends).

I agree that imitative polyphony is more common than the use of two or more dissimilar but equally emphasized melodies at the same time.

As for the topic of this thread, what I think is lacking in the analogy between counterpoint and anything in cooking is that counterpoint is overlapping or simultaneous. If anything, there could be said to be counterpoint within a dish or between a main and side dish, but not between dishes eaten in sequence (e.g., one could refer to "counterpoint" between the meat or fish main dish and the potato or green vegetable side dish). Sequential contrast could be analogized to a rhapsody, a rondo, or various other musical forms, but not to counterpoint. But I fail to see what's gained by referring to counterpoint in regard to food at all, rather than simply to "contrast," as "counterpoint" is a specifically musical term with two specific technical meanings. Music and food are both pleasures of human existence, but they are quite distinct from each other and each must be understood and enjoyed in its own terms.

Edited by Pan, 17 February 2003 - 02:00 PM.


#20 oraklet

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Posted 17 February 2003 - 03:12 AM

the theoretical apparatuses of music or the visual arts are, as far as i know, pretty well advanced compared to that of food and wine. so, when trying to describe what's going on in a fine meal, it's tempting to use the vocabulary of music or visual art. it's never the less inadequate, and probably wrong. gastronomy will have to find it's own ways of theorizing - without analogies. it will perhaps be developed, now that accademia seems to have finally discovered it.
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#21 Fat Guy

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Posted 17 February 2003 - 10:55 AM

it will perhaps be developed, now that accademia seems to have finally discovered it.

Heaven help us. Let's hope the chefs sort it out first.

(Symposium Admins: Do I sense a topic here?)

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#22 ballast_regime

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Posted 17 February 2003 - 04:00 PM

i still have a hard time swallowing the comparison between music and food, which is OK, since i'm from kansas. the reasons for my hesitation have been vented here before, especially because i think there's a lot to be learned from pretty much all artistic media; nor do i find there to be such a degree of similarity between the two that music should be the most oft-paralleled art form. i think this issue, though, has been well-answered by most people: le fat guy correctly pointed out that every chef uses counterpoint (in the populist "contrasting" definition), and jonathan day has rightly said that it wouldn't be hard for a chef to compose a menu that resembles the traditional understanding of counterpoint (as two alternating themes or melodies throughout the composition). my question is, why would a chef want to use counterpoint (in the second, more refined sense)? should a chef try and accomplish the technical constructions found in other arts, importing into his or her kitchen?

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#23 oraklet

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Posted 18 February 2003 - 03:49 AM

it will perhaps be developed, now that accademia seems to have finally discovered it.

Heaven help us. Let's hope the chefs sort it out first.

hehe. i can understand your feelings, but please remember that vasari and gombrich have done more for coherent thinking in the visual arts than have michelangelo or klee. not all human sciences stink!
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#24 Fat Guy

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Posted 19 February 2003 - 07:11 PM

why would a chef want to use counterpoint (in the second, more refined sense)?  should a chef try and accomplish the technical constructions found in other arts, importing into his or her kitchen?

I think the answer to that is that a chef should do whatever makes the meal better -- and that's not just a question of making the best dish. Sequence and theme are critical to the enjoyment of a meal, especially a multi-course tasting. Whether counterpoint is a meaningful concept as inherited from music isn't something I think needs to be answered. But if counterpoint means simultaneous themes, it's fine with me if a chef wants to do that and does it well. The raw-and-cooked concept Jonathan presented might be restated better -- more counterpoint-ish -- as a series of dishes, each of which contains a raw and a cooked example of the same ingredient. So you'd have tuna tartare paired with seared tuna, or whatever. I guess it could work.

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