Ben Houge’s Food Operas Turn Your Plate into a Stage

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Ben Houge’s Food Operas Turn Your Plate into a Stage

Walk from your office in crisp fall air and a strong wind. Step into Zeitgeist, a music venue known for promoting new and adventurous music. A hostess greets you, offers you a cocktail with blueberry-infused gin, freshly squeezed lemonade, Prosecco, and a mint sprig. Smell these summer scents, and notice the tinkling of the gentlest wind chimes. The Prosecco’s bubbles burst in your mouth, tickle your nose. Is there a musical element that corresponds to fizz?, a card at your seat asks. You take another sip, listen to the changing chimes, the gentle hum of a clarinet, the marimba bringing it all together.

Ben Houge wants you to hear your food. No, that’s not quite it. He wants the music you hear while dining to complement the flavors playing around your palate. Using research that explains correlations between taste and sound, Ben has visited various cities and composed what he calls food operas, working with local chefs and musicians to create a wholly unique and customized experience where taste and sound work in tandem. During the food opera, you sit with other diners as you would at a restaurant, a speaker at your place the only indicator that you’re in for something a little off the beaten path. When he’s not behind his laptop, orchestrating the flow of music, Ben circles among the tables, much like a restaurant owner or manager, chatting with guests and checking sound levels.

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After attending Saint Paul’s food opera back in October, I was happily bowled over not only by delicate potato mille feuille and a luscious link of chicken boudin blanc with black truffle but also by the interplay of clarinets and bowed cymbals that somehow made the dish even richer and more elegant. I had to know more about Ben’s work, how his background as a composer for videogames influences this work, and how he makes music out of wild rice.

Paste: How did you start doing food operas? Can you give me some background on your other work?

Ben Houge: I grew up singing in church choirs, studying classical piano, and fiddling with synthesizers, and I studied classical music in college and grad school, including the classical electro-acoustic music tradition. But most of my career has been spent developing audio for the videogame industry in Seattle and Shanghai (including seven years at Sierra and four years at Ubisoft). Now, I’m teaching game audio and other aspects of music technology in Boston at Berklee College of Music.

I’ve always been a food enthusiast. At one point in 2006 while I was living in Shanghai, in the throes of designing a music playback system as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar, I was at Jade 36, one of my favorite restaurants, back when Paul Pairet was the chef. I realized that the music deployment system I was developing for EndWar—not the music itself, but how the music worked—could also be applied to provide a soundtrack to a meal.

Paste: How has composing for videogames affected how you compose for food operas?

BH: The twin challenge of game music is this: first, to decide how to respond to and accommodate the unpredictable input from a player, and second, to decide what to do between events (the simplest and most obvious approach is to loop a piece of music over and over, but there are many much more satisfying solutions).

Music is ubiquitous in restaurants, but there’s typically no synchronization at all to the indeterminate rhythms of a meal. This is unavoidable when everyone’s hearing the same music playing over the restaurant’s speakers but coming and going at different times and eating at their own paces. It occurred to me that you could consider a meal to be a time-based art form, just like ballet or theater, and I posited that the reason we didn’t have a sophisticated art form pairing music with a meal was primarily due to the inherent difficulty in delivering a tightly synchronized soundtrack to each diner.

Since 1996, when I started working in the game industry, it’s been my job to think about the unique challenges of real-time, responsive music, and the epiphany I mentioned above set me off down the path of these food operas. I framed it as a technological problem, and I realized that videogame technology presented the solution.

Paste: How have the food operas changed and developed over time? What have you learned?

BH: It’s definitely been a journey of exploration. By now, I’ve built up a repertoire of things that I know work. I’ve also developed an evolving theory of the different modes at which music can meet a dish: things like taste, texture, morphology, appearance, and homogeneity. There are a lot of different ways to perceive and evaluate a dish, and music can connect at any number of levels.

On earlier projects, I was presenting something people had probably not experienced before, so I didn’t want the music to be too strange or unfamiliar. But with the Saint Paul Food Opera (SPFO), I wanted to take advantage of Zeitgeist’s reputation and their following of intrepid concertgoers to stretch out stylistically from what I’d done before. So, I incorporated different ways of structuring harmony and emphasized some unconventional playing techniques. I was pleased that people were very game to come along for the ride. I wonder if the sheer novelty of the format doesn’t encourage people to be open-minded to new sounds as well as new tastes.

One of the other things I’ve learned is how to structure a large-scale dining experience. My earlier food opera projects relied on chefs to varying degrees to guide or suggest the overall form of the evening. But with the SPFO, we worked with five chefs. I had to figure out the structure myself, all eight courses, which was more than I’d ever done before; previously five was the max.

The process for creating the SPFO was a bit unique, given that I live in Boston. I started by doing as much research as I could online. Then, on each visit to the Twin Cities, I went to as many of the restaurants on our list as I could, to try to get a sense of each chef’s style. I then wrote music based on the elements I thought would work well with the overall arc of the event, thinking of the fun things Leonard Anderson of Tongue in Cheek does with salty or pickled flavors, or some of the funky, gamey flavors Adam Eaton of Saint Dinette puts into some of his dishes. Then I told them the elements I was interested in and played them the music, and they had an opportunity to respond. I could make additional tweaks while assembling the final sequence.

Paste: When I attended the SPFO, I intentionally hadn’t researched anything because I wanted to be surprised. I didn’t know if it would be in a traditional concert setting or if there would be live musicians. But the food opera was closer to sitting in a restaurant with the best playlist imaginable. My colleagues and I left feeling refreshed and energized by the whole experience. Tell me about your process for creating music that syncs with each food opera’s menu. In other words: how do you create atmosphere? What does salted caramel sound like?

BH: I’m so pleased you felt refreshed and energized. I believe our unique speaker configuration is directly related to this perception. Since we have a speaker at each seat, the volume doesn’t have to be turned up so loud, and the music is distributed evenly. I feel this eliminates a subconscious stress point that we often experience in loud restaurants. Perhaps more interesting, I believe having music emanate from each seat in the restaurant reinforces the sense of community among diners. In a way, you’re dependent upon the actions of the people around you to complete your experience, and I hope this encourages participants to consider their connection to the wider community and environment.

One of the things I like to point out about this project is that it reintroduces a sense of immediacy to the act of listening to music, which has become a background activity in the era of the iPod. Food requires your active participation; you can’t download a meal for later. Of course that very attribute turns into a challenge when working with chefs in a different time zone. But by working with this number of chefs, we were able to create a sense of community and camaraderie between all of the participants and between the culinary world and the music world.

Paste: A lot of studies have come out about how sound affects how we taste wine, or how candy packaging affects how we taste chocolate. When you compose a food opera, what research are you drawing on?

BH: When I started out, it was all based on intuition, very similar to how I would score something more traditional. I’d take a bite and think about what I was experiencing and what music would be a suitable accompaniment. I didn’t know about the work of Charles Spence and Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, but I’ve been happy to observe that we arrived at many of the same conclusions. Now, I’ve built up a repertoire of the kinds of things that work: smooth legato lines for a creamy texture, or short, bright, high frequency notes for spice.

All of these common links and associations that have been identified, they all serve as ingredients or building blocks. I don’t think it’s useful to feel bound by them, but they provide a point of departure. I think there’s a point at which the very necessary and useful work of the psychologist ends, and the work of the artist begins. Most dishes are composed of multiple ingredients, organized together into a balanced whole. There can be any number of satisfying soundtracks to a dish, just like a film soundtrack, and it’s up to the composer to decide which elements in a dish to reinforce or perhaps subvert. It’s a creative act, and that’s why I consider the work I’m doing to be enabling a new kind of aesthetic expression.

Paste: During the SPFO, each course came with a card that not only explained the dish and the accompanying music, but it also included a question to provoke discussion among diners. One question has stuck with me: “If science shows a correlation between sound and taste perception, how much of composition is intuition, as opposed to data mapping?” Where did that question come from, and what do you hope to accomplish with these questions?

BH: We did two preview events prior to the main SPFO events. Participants at these preview events had lots of questions, everything from the crossmodal psychology research to the real-time music technology to antecedents for the aesthetic consideration of food in the art world. I happily spent a lot of time explaining and answering questions at these previews. But for the final event, I wanted something unbroken and continuous, a multisensory experience as opposed to a lecture/presentation. At one of the preview events, composer Philip Blackburn encouraged us to compose that part of the experience as well, which I thought was really good advice.

Our solution was to present these cards, and I thought it provided another interesting layer of counterpoint: you’re hearing things, tasting things, and reading things. We thought this was a good approach to parceling out the information one topic at a time, presenting a question to consider as well as a relevant fact. We hoped this would get people thinking and talking about new possibilities suggested by the format of a food opera.

That particular question is a bit of a strange one, but it gets at what to me is an important point: As people are becoming more aware of the links between certain frequencies and certain tastes, I want to be clear that this is not some automatic kind of data mapping, as if there is one scientifically proven soundtrack for each ingredient and that’s the end of the discussion. Instead I feel like it’s only the very beginning of a conversation about what an audiogustatory experience can be. There is still tremendous creative leeway in how the science is incorporated (or perhaps willingly ignored) in the creation of a new soundtrack for a meal.

Paste: Let’s talk more about the live experience of the food opera. You developed your own software for the food operas so you can manipulate your compositions live to sync the music with the meal and the tone of each performance. How do you read the room?

BH: With the first few events, I wanted to make a point that this system could support and accompany the rhythms of asynchronous dining. In the events we did with Jason Bond at Bondir in Cambridge, we took reservations over a five-hour period, and people could come anywhere in that time frame. This means you could be on your first course while the table next to you could be on their fourth course, and the music was designed to be modular, so that it sounded harmonious in any combination. So most of the hard work was in the composition stage. At those events, I mostly watched as the dishes came out and advanced to the next piece of music when the plate went down.

For the SPFO, since we were working with five chefs and eight courses in a space that was not a restaurant, we decided to serve things in a more synchronous way. So instead of the potential for the music of all of the different courses to play at once, at the SPFO it was a maximum of two at a time. There was a lovely crossfade as one end of the dining area was served the next dish, and eventually that dish’s music would take over the whole room. I took advantage of that fact to write music that was more diverse. This also allowed me to play with coordinated musical behaviors that would affect everyone at once.

One of my favorite moments was during the second course, “Blast,” written for Leonard Anderson’s dish. That was a moment where I cued the music as I felt was needed, and I could play it at several levels of intensity. With that dish, in particular, I had real-time control over how the music was winding down towards the end of the course, which I felt was important, as it was one of the more brash and aggressive musical accompaniments. At the push of a button, I could start a wave of clarinet multiphonics starting at one end of the room and slowly washing over to the opposite side. Just such a rich, lush, enveloping sound that I thought supported the creamy burrata as well as the saltiness of the “everything bagel” spices in the brashness of the clarinet’s timbre.

Coming up for Ben is a food opera with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that will use the audience’s mobile devices as a medium for performance. He also recently received the Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship from Berklee College of Music to fund the next phase of food opera research. You can learn more about his research and his work at