Comp Lessons from Unlikely Teachers: Coffee

Photo by nomilknocry. CC-A.
Photo by nomilknocry. CC-A.

My mornings often start the same: a sunny alarm jingle. A lingering war with the snooze button. A reluctant trudge from the bedroom to the shower. Highlights from last night’s Daily Show or a brief spin of Nils Petter Molvaer. Finally, a bowl of freshly-made oatmeal… accompanied by lots, and lots, and lots of freshly-made coffee.

Coffee, either black or with a splash of skim milk, is a key thread in the fabric of my life. I have a cup in the morning, a cup in the afternoon, and often an emergency cup before class (likely needed because of the amount of coffee that I drink, but whatever).  It’s not just the caffeine that fuels my coffee addiction. It’s the sensory assault of complex, yet rewarding aromas and tastes that shocks one awake; the remarkable ability of a brown-black liquid to simultaneously speed up and slow down time; the delicate balance of water, grounds and time – which I haven’t yet perfected – that will determine whether the five-minute drinking experience is a rich bath of smoky, chocolaty velvet or a charred mess of disgusting, caffeinated water. Coffee is more than a start to the day: it’s a concentration etude, a meditation. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, it’s a “Buddhist catnap.”

When I make my own coffee, I use a simple Bodum French press much like this:

Photo by Joel Washing. CC-A.
Photo by Joel Washing. CC-A.

I’m by no means an artisan or a barista, but I have devised a simple formula for my morning joe. Boil water. Add about 2 1/2 tablespoons of coarse-ground coffee to the empty press – freshly ground is best. Stir in just about a teaspoon of warm water, then top off with freshly-boiled water. Wait a second while the turbulence settles, then stir the mixture with a wooden spoon (not metal, which can break the glass) and cover with the filter top. Don’t press yet – give it about three to four minutes to steep. Press gently, then pour. A thick, flavorful cup of strong coffee.

There are some key factors that drastically affect the taste of the coffee. Some are obvious: new coffee is better than old coffee, and filtered or distilled water is best. Some are less obvious: grounds should be uniform in size, which most blade grinders can’t give you; water should be added to the grounds that’s just below the boiling point, the ideal temperature to stimulate chemical reactions. One key factor that’s often overlooked: time.

Time is everywhere in French press coffee. It’s in the pressing. The pressing motion itself can’t be too quick, because the filter can allow grounds into the coffee – the pressure can even break the glass. More importantly, steeping time makes or breaks the coffee. It’s a pretty common mistake for new French press users to pour, stir, and press, with no steep time; the coffee hasn’t extracted from the grinds completely, and the result is rather unsatisfying. Everyone occasionally forgets their steeping pot and wanders off, letting the coffee steep too long. The grounds begin to disintegrate, leaking acrid sludge into an otherwise good (if lukewarm) cup. The best cup lies somewhere in the middle, a proportion only learned by time and instinct and not affected by the morning’s hurries or deadlines. If you want a good cup of coffee, you have to wait – but not too long.

Prescribed waiting with no action is, ultimately, somewhat of a foreign concept for musicians. Performers hear it all the time: “when you’re resting, remember that someone else is practicing.” In the cutthroat music world, the pressure is on to be the best, and being the best takes time. It takes hours and hours of time in the woodshed, practicing etudes, excerpts or recital pieces – and every minute spent not practicing is a guilty one, spent thinking about practicing. For composers, especially composers who are or were performers, the instinct can take over: compose more. More time behind the keyboard. More time with the score. If you’re not writing, you’re not improving. Go. Do. It’s a good habit to have, in many ways, and a popular one at that. I have many colleagues who will compose for five or six hours at a tear, before the sun rises or into the wee hours of the night. For many composers it yields good results.

But the majority of composers, I think, are like the French press. The work is necessary, and time should be spent every day with whatever project is at hand. Turn off the computer and television, and take two hours staring at that score paper. Write for that time, no matter what happens. But when that time is done… you have to wait. The ideas formulated in a composing session aren’t fixed, the way a performer’s notes are. The notes freshly laid on a composer’s manuscript are a malleable, nascent being that won’t take its true form yet. They must evolve, learn and grow into their true selves. And the music that follows them can’t truly be explored until these notes are done growing – until they’re ready.

So composition, unlike performing or other branches of music, becomes a delicate dance of doing and waiting. It becomes about knowing when to let the notes grow; knowing when to put the pencil down for the sake of the music. Knowing how to dwell on the notes in the in-between times without actually writing them. Composition becomes an art of multitasking, leading oneself through activities that are not writing while formulating new possibilities for the next time that you write. Just like French-pressed coffee, there’s a window. Let the notes gestate too long, and they can be forgotten and estranged when you sit down with them again; come back to them too soon and they’re not ready, and neither is the music that comes next.

That ability to hit the window – the drive to work when work is needed and the patience to walk away and wait – these are the most important skills, I believe, for a composer to possess. For people with the “practice or perish” mindset it’s a tall order. Still, it’s an important ability, and one I think the best composers master: once progress is made and notes are written, don’t force any more. Step away and think about them for a while. Take a walk, cook a meal or read a book. Maybe have a cup of coffee.

2 Comments

  1. I like the website update! I’m enjoying a cup of French press right now before my next schedule item. Relax, don’t check on the work I should be doing, breathe.

    Do you have a nice grinder yourself, or do you get small amounts of store-ground? I end up just grinding whole beans in the ultra-basic blade grinder, because I haven’t gotten a slightly-better burr grinder yet.

  2. I’m saving shekels for a burr grinder, but I do store-grinding right now. Ann Arbor’s got a few great coffeemakers that do supermarket delivery of beans roasted that day, so everything’s fresh. It’s wonderful.

    Thanks for reading, Nate!

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