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Ben Houge: Symphony for the Devilled

Ben Houge: Symphony for the Devilled

Composer, sound artist and academic Ben Houge explains how he's applying video game technology to the multi-sensory dining experience.

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At Boston’s Symphony Hall in early 2017, elegantly dressed concert-goers are being treated to a four course, pre-performance meal prepared by chef David Verdo, soundtracked and inspired by archival recordings of the hall’s house band, aka the Boston Symphony Orchestra, tackling Vivaldi. As glasses clink and waiters glide between tables, in the background, sits a conductor of sorts, Ben Houge. At the end of the meal he goes round to every table, to check on the diners’ satisfaction. “How did you enjoy the music?” he asks.

Houge, an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, has been staging these ‘food operas,’ which pair sound and music with multi-course meals created by top chefs – he's worked with the likes of Jozef Youssef of London's Kitchen Theory think tank and Jason Bond of Cambridge, MA's Bondir restaurant – since 2012. He believes you can enhance flavour, emotion and the overall dining experience by pairing food with sound, in much the same way as you would with wine. His is the thinking of academics like Dr Charles Spence at the Crossmodal Research Lab at the University of Oxford, who believes sound is the “forgotten flavour sense,” and some of the world’s best chefs, such as the Roca brothers and Paul Pairet, who have made sound an integral part of their groundbreaking multi-sensory dining experiences, at El Somni and Ultraviolet respectively.

“There’s definitely a growing body of research that shows that sound can influence taste – that taste actually happens in the brain, not on the tongue,” say Houge. “Usually that’s not my overt goal. Think about the relationship between music and film, where you can imagine the same scene being played out with different music – the impression is different. You can make it nostalgic, or ominous … or romantic.”

The idea for the project was seeded in Houge back when he was working in video game development in Shanghai. He realised that the sound technology he was working with, real time music systems that could react to unpredictable events in games, could also be applied to “unpredictable events of everyday life, for example a dining room.” Diners could enjoy individual sonic experiences that could be coordinated so that the room didn't descend into dissonance. Such software can for example, ensure each channel is playing phrases in the same musical key.

Having used specially designed tabletop speakers, one per diner, for earlier events, Houge was glad he says, to have the use of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s own stash of iPads and to lose the sea of wires as a result. Each iPad also displayed thought provoking ideas about flavour and sound. Controlling it all, somewhere out of the way of the diners and the service staff, would be Houge, quite literally triggering sounds, as plates hit tables, through a specially devised, non-public enterprise app.

He hopes that the experience is something diners can drop in and out of – not for him the more immersive experience of say, Heston Blumenthal’s famous The Sound of the Sea dish, which requires the diner to wear headphones pumping ambient seaside sounds. He doesn’t want to diminish the social aspect of eating out. “If you want to tune into it there’s a profound experience to be had there, but you can also, at times, let it fade into the background,” he says.

The sounds themselves are sometimes samples of live musicians – Houge plays a few instruments himself – manipulated to create short pieces of music or textures, again very popular in video games, or, as in the case of Symphony Hall event, archive recordings. For this, an obviously delighted Houge was given access to the digital files of the Orchestra performing a Vivaldi piccolo concerto in the 1990s, plus two of their more recent Vivaldi performances. He was able, drawing on available crossmodal psychology evidence, to create a list of possible ideas and ingredients to give to chef Verdo. “The piccolo is the highest frequency instrument in the orchestra. What sorts of tastes are associated with high frequency sounds? Sweet and sour,” says Houge. “Also, there are a lot of fast rhythms in [the piccolo concerto], which are also associated with sour tastes.”

A Food Opera event

Houge says the desire to take the concept even further is what motivates him. He wants to create an experience where every bite, every sip is soundtracked. “As this project has evolved you try and think more and more about tight synchronisation between the gestures and rhythms of eating and the sonic experience,” he says. “Not just sonically, the whole multimedia experience, lighting as well. So I have been looking at ways to attach sensors to some of the dining implements, accelerometers on forks, capacitive sensors on cups and things like that so the music system can know when the liquid touches your tongue and can cause something to happen.” He wants to develop the app to be completely automatic, so he can scale up the size of the events, and to create a custom device – he can’t always rely on iPad handouts from generous cultural institutions.

He’s also thinking about incorporating the human voice into a future food opera – notice, up to now, they are still referred to as operas – and has previously played field recordings of farms during a dinner to try to get diners to think about exactly where their food is coming from. “Even though I framed it as a technological question in the beginning, I’m very interested in what kind of stories this medium can tell. It’s a really unique format for communicating ideas,” he says.

Next up though is another performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in January 2018, this time featuring the music of French Romantic composer, Étienne Méhul. As with the Vivaldi event, diners will enjoy a four-course dinner and a performance of the featured music afterwards. He is also, intriguingly, working on a project with one of the world’s most creative restaurant teams, from the two Michelin star Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastián, in collaboration with the Barcelona-based theatre group La Fura dels Baus, due to be unveiled next year. He’s tight lipped on exactly what this will involve, though he says the collaborators are looking to question and break established perceptions of service and the trusting relationships therein.

And then there’s the teaching. In the first semester of 2017, Houge tasked the students in his 'Music + Food' class at Berklee to score a four course meal in collaboration with America’s Test Kitchen, which is based nearby. The students’ ability to easily distinguish between ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ music affirmed to Houge that the ‘wacky ideas’ he’d been working on perhaps weren’t as wacky as he’d thought. “Research shows that dissonance is something people associate with sour tastes. That metaphor has crept into our every day vocabulary – if someone plays a wrong note, it’s a ‘sour’ note … I was pleased to see this is not just one man’s folly,” he says.

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