My email inbox likes to throw a curveball at me every now and then. Much as I hadn’t expected spring in the UK to announce its arrival with freezing temperatures and pistol whips of arctic hail, the suggestion from VAN’s dear editors that I undertake some of the stranger habits of composers was one I never saw coming. But in a year full of both surprises and the occasional flirtation with the idea of overhauling my approach to fitness, food, and freedom, what harm could it do?
I’m not a composer. Nor am I a particularly great musician. But I have, despite my best efforts, managed to hold a writing job for the past few years that requires sitting down and staring at a blank screen with a view to getting shit done. In this respect—and only in this respect—I’d like to do classical music the monumental disservice of drawing comparisons between myself and the likes of Dvořák, Satie, Grieg, Stravinsky, and even Beethoven. They may not have squatted in an IKEA office chair and strained against the dull glare of a screen, but they did conjure up something from nothing.
Even in the days before life hacking podcasts and motivational TED Talks, fostering genius took work, and each of these composers did so through the adoption of life habits that range from the quirky and cute to the straight-up bizarre. In the interests of science, and all the while upholding VAN’s stringent code of research ethics, I put some of these composers’ habits to the test over a traditional working week to see if I could better my personal goals, kick some key performance indicator ass, and become more productive.
Grieg’s lucky charms
I thought I’d ease myself in with Edvard Grieg’s lucky toy trio of a troll, pig, and frog. Grieg is said to have placed the toys on his desk while writing, and on his nightstand in the evenings, where he would pat each one on the head in turn and wish them good night. He kept the frog (which was made of cloth) in his pocket and rubbed it for good luck before concerts.
Thanks to COVID, I’ve been stuck halfway through a move from Berlin to London for the past year, riding out successive pandemic waves at my family home. As luck would have it, this meant that boxes of childhood miscellany condemned to the damp basement were within easy reach. It’s here that I find three Trolls, a grimacing pig figurine, and a bejeweled green frog. Each of my Trolls sports a matted, but nevertheless wild, coiffeur – one pink, one blue, and one green – and each is completely unclothed save from a football, guitar, and pair of rollerblades respectively. The backs of their heads have been branded with the name “Weetos,” signifying their origins in a brand of chocolate breakfast cereal from the early 2000s. I haven’t seen so many bare arses in one place since leaving Berlin, and I’m hit by a pang of heimweh.
“Is this what has become of Grieg’s lore-steeped Norwegian troll?” I ask myself while contemplating each one between my forefinger and thumb. Perhaps it is fitting that in the age of late-capitalist consumerism, they have hidden themselves in boxes of sugary snacks rather than the isolated reaches of the Scandinavian tundra, and now nakedly reflect the banality of our own cultural pursuits back at us—football, popular rock music, and rollerblading. That said, I do as Grieg did, and pat each one in turn on its pot belly and bare bottom. I feel somehow secure. The frog watches on askew; its green skin is the color of jealousy. I rub it too, but its diamante scales make me shudder. The pig takes no notice.
Beethoven’s disappointing coffee recipe
I hasten to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee to calm my nerves. Following Beethoven’s personal coffee recipe, I count out exactly 60 beans and grind them. Now, Beethoven was a pretty small guy, but the paltry dusting of coffee stuck around the edges of my grinder leaves me in disbelief. I scoop it into a moka pot (Beethoven used a glass balloon contraption that works in a similar way) and boil it up. It’s not bad, but it’s decidedly anemic. The caffeine kick is entirely absent, and I weave my way back to my trolls, pig, and frog with cup in hand in a half-stupor. Progress this day is slower than usual.
The next day I wake up to another flaccid Beethoven brew. His morning hygiene routine involved standing half-dressed before a mirror and pouring enormous pitchers of water over his hands while singing loudly to himself (flooding the bathroom floor in the process). I wonder if this might add the spark the coffee ration lacks, but I feel it’s a step too far and opt for the shower instead.
Satie’s minimalist diet
I decide that today is as good a day as any to begin exploring Erik Satie’s strange dietary habits. Satie was a bona-fide culinary eccentric, who documented his inability to eat anything other than white foods in minute detail:
Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20 pm. […] My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I have a good appetite but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.
Unsure of whether Deliveroo would be able to fill an order for shredded bones and moldy fruit, I choose eggs on white bread as a suitable alternative that’s in keeping with Satie’s requirements. With my weak coffee the whole thing feels a bit 1950s Britain, a bit like the post-war fodder that would populate my grandparents’ kitchen cupboards. I dwell upon Satie’s fear of choking in dead silence, chewing carefully so as to mitigate my own gastric garroting.
My meal embodies the same kind of uncomfortable serenity that the “Trois Gymnopédies” bring to bear. It’s a sense of comfort within one’s own madness, and in my decaffeinated morning stupor I begin to wonder if there’s something deeper going on here. What if, like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, I have become so wholly swept up in serving the ego through fantastical dietary stipulations and enchanted figurines that I have found myself looking down from the precipice of madness? I take another sip of coffee, finish my eggs, and give the pig a rub.
Stravinsky in the upside-down
Sitting down to write this piece, I find myself once again staring into the void. I turn to Stravinsky’s stringent daily routine for answers. The composer would start each day with exercise, and, when faced with writer’s block, would do a brief headstand to clear his brain. After a year of home workouts dictated by cyclical lockdowns, I’m no stranger to inversion now and then. Having flipped myself feet-upwards and back again, an initial dizziness gives way to inspiration and I begin to write.
I decide to continue with the headstands intermittently throughout the week, whenever words fail me, or I need a creative kick. Progress seems good, and I throw myself quite literally head-first into Stravinsky’s way of doing things. Whenever the weak coffee leaves me waning, or the white food leaves me wanting, a quick topsy-turvy trick is all I need. I establish my own white recipes, leaving Satie to his shredded bones, animal fats, and moldy fruits, but goring myself instead on eggs, bread, fish, and cheese. My faith is even restored in Beethoven, whose favorite dish of macaroni with parmesan becomes a staple.
Trainspotting with Dvořák
With only Dvořák’s penchant for train spotting uncharted, I choose a dull afternoon to pull on an oversized mackintosh, grab a notepad, prepare a flask of 60-bean coffee, and look up the timetables.
Dvořák had a well-documented obsession with trains since his early childhood just north of Prague in Nelahozeves, where the construction and subsequent running of a new railway line brought people from all over Europe to his doorstep. But while he had leviathan steam engines rolling past on rails that connected the continent’s cultures like some vast steel neural network, I have the reduced passenger service from my semi-rural hometown to Leeds to check off on my list, and, if I’m lucky, the northbound 17:07 to Carlisle. This would usually be a Pacer train— a special kind of screeching torture device built from the body of a bus and place atop four wheels (instead of the usual eight) by British Rail in the 1980s. A freight train passes, and I scramble to write something down as I believe is the norm for trainspotting. I realize I don’t know what to write, so I jot down “freight train” and close the notepad.
I compare my own experience of the railways to that of the Czech composer. What would substitute the folk rhythms of the “Slavonic Dances” if Dvořák had grown up watching trains wheeze from one drab northern English town to another rather than pulsing through the vascular system of Europe? Instead of the tunnel-building Italians who brought new sights and sounds to central Czechia making their way up and down the tracks, I see only unfamiliar station staff who eye me with suspicion from a small ticket booth. Feeling decidedly uninspired, I sip from my flask. The coffee tastes worse now. Aware of being watched, I move shiftily away from the tracks. Feeling like some kind of social outcast, I reach into my pocket to rub whichever troll, frog, or pig I first lay hands on, and make my way home.
That night, I see visions of trolls and trains. I sleep restlessly in a fever dream brought on by colorless food, decaffeinated cups of composer’s coffee, and from masochistic yoga poses that have poured all the malnourished blood in my body into my troubled head. I awake in a fit of range and confusion, lash out towards my nightstand, and cast the figurines to the floor. As I stare at them in their naked, forlorn state, they stare back at me in mine. I curse Grieg for his enchanted Norwegian suspicions, Beethoven for his miserable coffee, and Satie for eating bones. I resent Stravinsky’s athleticism, and the excitement and rigor that Dvořák found in the railways. I am tired.
Tomorrow I will pour myself the strongest coffee known to mankind, feast on a kaleidoscopic tapestry of vegetables and fruits, and return these childish toys to their place. I will rest assured in the conclusion that such eccentricities are symptoms of, and not catalysts for, profound creativity. I will never wear a long mackintosh again, and I will never tell anybody that, for a short period, I was a trainspotter. ¶