Food Editor Adrian Paradis talks with the composer of Practices of Everyday Life | Cooking
A: What drew you to cooking?
N: I get this question often and I never have a good answer for it. First of all, I’m pretty obsessed with cooking, but in an inventive way that involves improvising. That it involves resources and time and structure and improvisation are all elements that are interesting to me. You’re drawing on knowledge, you’re drawing on resources, but at the same time, there is a constant invention. If you don’t have something, you use something else and this could lead to something completely different. There is quite a bit of give and take between control and contingency, let’s say. As someone who cooks, you don’t control everything. You guide something and let the materials do their thing. So it’s co-expressed and a co-creative process.
A lot of my work in technology also involves scenarios that are playful, but co-expressive. That’s one aspect. In the case of the concert, it will be a performer because it is songified. Tony, the dancer/chef, is also a performer and so are the media and sound artists. They are all, almost, chemically bound together. The other aspect is that I am pretty interested in multi-sensory creations. Cooking, and the process of cooking, is a very multi-sensory process. Often technology misses that multi-sensory aspect. It becomes an interface where you touch it and something happens. I’m trying to get away from that and get into processes that enchant all of our senses at once, whether that’s the concert experience, or the cooking experience—I’ve tried both.
Sometimes I go through everyday life and think, “What if this food starts oozing sounds?” In the concert experience, I’ve thought what if the audio-visual concert is not technological and it’s food and you can smell it.
A: What are some of the other practices?
I have another work in the series called Practice of Everyday Life | Mixology. This one is quite different in that it’s not a concert. It’s a real, everyday life expense. I’ve done in some bars with mixologists.
The one that I am really working towards is to do a real surgery, happening on a stage. Not that I have a desire to grotesque. It will be quite beautiful. I might have taken the cooking experience and make it more disturbing because it is so mundane that people forget, but with the surgery it’s the other way around.
I’m working with surgeons in Munich, right now. My research involves songifying the biomedical data that they might need to perform the surgeries better in real time. So if, for example, they can’t see where they are placing the needle in a non-invasive surgery, they can guide it sonically.
I’m also planning a fake concerto with a masseuse, but the masseuse is actually a percussionist working on cyborg flesh. So the body will be augmented with sensors and as the body is modified to be songified and creates a contemporary percussion piece.
A: I’m curious, how closely did you work with the chef and performer Tony Cong and how closely did you get to know him?
N: Very very closely. Tony is a professional dancer. He’s world famous now, so he really is attached to his body and knows what he’s doing. He’s also a professional chef, so when I approached him, he was happy to cross both his disciplines. This gave him an opportunity to do so in an honest, non-romanticized way. There are far too many projects of people cooking with music playing in the background. This is definitely not that. Tony just started cooking, and we started watching. We wondered if we could augment electronically, and enchant the potential for improvisation. Imagine, for example, if you squeeze a lemon and it makes a nice sound. We wanted to augment that farther so we could potentially improvise sounds.
We invented a whole bunch of technologies and real-time instruments that don’t just amplify sounds, but truly augment them. We have a mortar and pestle that sounds like a crazy synthesizer, a cutting board that has a human-like sound, but it can also like a drum and base instrument. Tony was asked to perform his cooking in a very ritualistic way, but he was also asked to be playful if he felt like it. So he would start playing and develop a vocabulary of how this could become playful and improvised.
When Everyday Life goes to the theatrical zone, as the audience you also feel that it is not acted. It comes from a place where the person on the stage is doing something mundane, but they start really becoming engaged. Out of that we developed an overall structure with Michael Montanaro, the choreographer, but it’s important to note that the piece was not choreographed. That gave us the macro structure based on the recipe that Tony improvised.
A: Do you make something edible at the end? Or is it more about the performance of cooking?
N: No, it was pretty important to us that Tony was actually cooking. At the end, people will actually eat what he made. It’s absolutely delicious. From Tony’s perspective, if you every sit very close, you will see that is an absolute mess. To keep musical, but also keep time and deal with hot oil and things that keep their own time, that aspect of contingency control, from Tony’s perspective, is multiplied by 1,000.
While controlling the food he has to watch his actions, but then everything has to sound good. He has to work with all these other components on the stage and it’s truly messy, but I like messy processes. It’s that fake cleanliness of the digital that we are trying to get away from.
A: So are the “augmented” sounds of the cooking a combination of the physical sounds, say of the chopping, with a digital layer added to it?
N: It’s pretty important to distinguish this work from similar works that would amplify and process the sounds, and the works that would keep some of the sounds and then add compositions on top. Even though I really don’t picture myself as a technological demo, or anything of that sort, but our philosophies of technology and the influences under it are pretty unique in that we’ve orchestrated the materials themselves.
For example, the cutting board could sound like a drum and base instrument, or have a very human-like quality. It’s also very different from technologies that just trigger sounds depending on how you touch them. These are truly augmented so it’s a form of virtual reality that’s happening at real time on the stage. If Tony scratches the board, sometimes it will sound like vowels, but if he bangs it will sound like a gong. So the cooking properties are all hyper-physical. This allows for a lot of improvisation on Tony’s part, while it allows me to orchestrate the event to fit it into a musical structure. It’s the best of both worlds.
A: So what’s it like trying to compose these sounds with food in mind? Does this have an influence on your decisions?
N: It’s definitely all interrelated. In fact, I don’t even call them sound compositions anymore. I call them multi-sensory gestural sound compositions. What is composed is not the sounds, but the relationship between gestures, materials, and sounds. This meant a couple of things.
For example, when Tony is cutting the chicken, you’re enveloped in this rhythmic environment, but the sounds that come from the chicken sound as if the chicken is made of glass. Tony looks like a doctor performing surgery, trying to save this chicken’s life, but he’s butchering the thing instead. We get away form the romantic food notions to the point that people are scared of enjoying it. The music is exciting, and they are watching something visually entertaining, but then they watch a doctor save and butcher this thing.
It creates a very complex emotional space for people that allows them to draw all sorts of new relations from these food objects. This is the most extreme example in the piece, in terms of its politics. The other parts are just very ritualized, such as a slow breaking of an egg that resonates.
A: Where do you source your products from for each show?
I have them sourced locally. I don’t travel around the world with chickens. We arrive and don’t get anyone to do our shopping for us. As much as possible, we go to the farmers’ market and buy every ingredient with care and bring it to the venue with us. Without being attached to any of the labels, such as organic or not, we try to find locally sourced from someone we can have a conversation with and who is excited about their products. We try our best not to be wasteful. After every rehearsal we take the bones home and do something with them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.