Tag: interdisciplinary art

Complicity and the Chemical Senses

Blindfolded patrons sit around a table and eat various food items, smell perfume, and listen to music.

Jozef Youssef presents a multisensory meal for the launch of a new Hugo Boss fragrance. (Photo courtesy Kitchen Theory)

I spent the weekend composing two new pieces of music for another collaboration with chef Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory. This time around I was tasked with bringing out the sweet and sour elements of a lavender and pomegranate-based tapioca dessert, part of a multisensory meal that Youssef was organizing for the launch of a new Hugo Boss fragrance. (Previously, I composed music to bring out the sweet and bitter notes in Chivas Regal 18 Ultimate Cask Collection blended Scotch whisky for a similar event.)

My sweet texture is pretty similar to the sweet texture I wrote for the whisky pairing: consonant intervals and mellow timbres in a relatively high register, organized in short, ascending phrases, with a sprinkling of wind chimes.

The sour texture, while similarly drawing on the psychological literature of Charles Spence’s Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University, is a bit looser in its interpretation of the research. I used bright, buzzy timbres and descending phrases for contrast, and I picked up on an idea from the music I wrote for a 2012 Azul y Garanza Garciano to depict tartness with dissonance, not only in the musical intervals, but also in the slight detuning of my subtly shifting delay effect. To give me a wider continuum of intervals from which to choose, I composed my music in Harry Partch’s 43-note per octave scale, which allowed me to incorporate his notions of comparative consonance (the simpler the ratio, the more consonant the interval, which is the best explanation of consonance vs. dissonance I’ve encountered and serves as a finely graduated yardstick for crossmodal inquiry). I interpreted the faster tempi that have been linked to sourness in psychological studies more generally as high rhythmic density, reflected in my texture’s pulsating elements. Sourness feels higher than sweetness to me, so this piece is in a slightly higher register as well.

While I wasn’t specifically composing music to accompany a scent, scent plays a vital role in dining, and I think the challenges to accompanying scent with music are similar to taste.

Taste and smell are our chemical senses. They are what allow us to interrogate the makeup of our environment, providing information that perhaps might lead us in the direction of dinner or cause us to spit out something poisonous. The visual arts and the sonic arts arrive to us from a distance, via electromagnetic radiation or fluctuations in air pressure, but taste and smell require direct contact.

Philosophers have long debated whether the fundamentally different nature of these chemical senses precludes the elaboration of an art of ideas based on them, something that goes beyond the ancient and sophisticated traditions of perfumery or cuisine. Taste, which requires a visible delivery mechanism, perhaps has a leg up on smell, which is invisible (like music).

A few years ago, Chandler Burr lobbied New York’s Museum of Arts and Design to establish a new Department of Olfactory Art and was subsequently brought on as its head. His brief tenure culminated in the 2012 exhibition The Art of Scent 1889-2012. A man of passionate pronouncements, he comes right out and says of perfume, “It’s art.”

I’m happy to accept, along with Marcel Duchamp, that if someone proclaims his or her work as art, it’s art. However I’m not sure whether, during the long history of perfume-making, most perfumers have actually been making that claim. We’re not talking about the gradual acceptance of a new technology; unlike photography or video games (my primary arena of activity for the past twenty years, which only recently emerged from its own “is it art?” debate), perfume has been around for a very long time. It might take a little more work than the wholesale rebranding of an existing discipline to bring perfume and art into the same conversation. Perhaps we can repurpose Wittgenstein’s dictum that not every building is architecture to suggest that not every perfume is a work of olfactory art.

(Incidentally, while I’ve seen a couple of announcements in recent years about companies bringing the sense of smell into gaming, my very first game, the maybe not so great Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail!, may well be the first, way back in 1996. The game shipped with a scratch and sniff card, and at key junctures in the game, the “Cybersniff 2000” logo would flash and a sound would play (my processed voice), informing the player which of the nine squares to scratch, neatly addressing the question of synchronization. The soundtrack also featured a 12-tone faux-jazz composition, the sure mark of a young composer fresh out of music school.)

One of the considerations is practicality. In an interview with The New York Times, Holly Hotchner, the former director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City who brought Chandler Burr on board, conceded that “perfume by its nature has to be wearable, which is not true of other art forms.” Paul A. Young, a London-based chocolatier who devised a charcoal-flavored chocolate to accompany a Francis Bacon painting at the Tate Sensorium exhibition acknowledges the assumption that food should be pleasurable when he says, “Some people will find it repulsive and not want to eat it, some will find it engaging and some people will love it.”

Music has always been considered an art form, but in the last few decades, sound art has emerged and evolved as a parallel practice distinct from music (although I think sound artists ignore the history of music at their peril). There’s no quantifiable difference between sound art and music. The materials are exactly the same; it’s a question of focus. With all of the current interest surrounding food and multisensory perception, I’ve been thinking for a while that taste and smell may be next in line to be appropriated by the art world. But this question of focus highlights the challenges that can arise when people from different creative disciplines come together (as I described in an earlier essay).

As an example, when I attended “The Architecture of Taste,” Pierre Hermé’s presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design a few years ago, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into a great chef’s creative process, and the pastry samples were amazing, but it was clear, especially during the Q&A afterwards, that he was thinking of his work in very different terms from the concerns of art and design grad students. Another leading pastry chef, Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, discussed his relationship to art in the film that documents the multimedia meal El Somni, devised alongside the other two Roca brothers, concluding simply, “I’m just a pastry chef.”

An assortment of desserts on a tray.

Desserts served at Pierre Hermé’s Harvard lecture included an “infringement citron” and other desserts made from unconventional ingredients such as wasabi. (Photo by Ben Houge.)

Dean Dutton provides a good overview of the issues surrounding the notion of olfactory art in his book The Art Instinct, and as I’ve been doing projects that combine food and music, it’s been useful for me to consider these arguments from a musical perspective.

One issue that he dismisses a bit too quickly, I think, is the idea of “internal relations.” He borrows this term from philosopher Monroe Beardsley, pointing out that, while we may recognize corresponding proportional relationships in the spatial layouts of a painting or the intervals of a musical chord, chemical compounds don’t lend themselves to this kind of perceptual organization that can serve as the basis for large, sophisticated structures. There’s no equivalent to an octave or a major 7 sharp 11 chord or a retrograde inversion that would allow a composer like Bach to spin out a ten-minute fugue from a subject of just a few notes. The wine aroma wheel is nowhere near as precise as a color wheel (can you rotate a raspberry note 180 degrees to obtain its opposite?) or the circle of fifths (what’s the secondary dominant of leather?).

A second obstacle is a question of the delivery mechanism, and here I’m thinking about a time-based sequencing or counterpoint of multiple scents that goes beyond the natural diffusion of a scent in the air once it is sprayed or applied. (This is more of an issue for scent than taste.) To think of scent in musical, time-based terms, it’s a challenge to consistently deliver a scent and take it away, allowing for temporal contrast. This issue thwarted some of the historical efforts to bring scent into cinema, such as Smell-O-Vision from 1959.

Many approaches to scent diffusion have been developed with varying levels of technological overhead. The Museum of Art and Design’s Art of Scent exhibition took place in a spare, white room, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, laudably devoid of packaging and other marketing detritus. As visitors inclined their heads over small indentations in the wall, a puff of scent emerged from a sophisticated mechanism designed by Scent Communication in Germany. At Green Aria: A Scentopera, a collaboration between entrepreneur/writer/director Stewart Matthew, perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, and composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson which premiered at the Guggenheim in New York City in 2009 (about which NewMusicBox’s Frank J. Oteri has written extensively), scent was delivered to each spectator via a “scent microphone” (functionally more like a “scent speaker”) at each seat, which could be positioned as close to the nose as desired. The inaugural installation of the recently opened Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, masterminded by cocktail impresario Dave Arnold, features a “Smell Synth” that allows visitors to experiment with different odor compound combinations at the push of a button. This echoes the “Olfactiano,” a “scent piano” developed by Peter De Cupere, which he has used for time-based scent-oriented performances such as his Scentsonata for Brussels presented at the Cordoba festival in 2004. At the Crossmodalist rehearsal I attended in London last April, the technique was low-tech but effective; I was blindfolded, and different perfumes (designed by Nadjib Achaibou to evoke concepts such as “lust” and “sorrow”) were manually wafted in my direction, sometimes simultaneously, by unseen hands at different moments of Chris Lloyd’s live performance of Liszt’s piano transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod.”

A third consideration is representation. I’ve written in the past about what I called the “abstract” quality that food and sound share. By this I meant that, while music can be linked to an external narrative via text or theatrical context, coherence is essentially the result of internal relations, to return to Monroe Beardsley’s term, i.e., a note has meaning in the context of a chord or scale or harmonic structure and how these structures evolve in time. Even without recourse to the same kinds of internal relations as music, tastes and scents are constructed and developed by combining chemical compounds. This is in contrast to the visual and literary arts like painting, sculpture, choreography, cinema, literature, poetry, and video games, in which meaning-making via external representation is the norm. I think it’s important to consider that an extracted chemical essence of an object is still a form or an attribute of the object; the scent of a rose derived from a rose cannot be said to represent a rose in the way that a painting represents a rose, because in a real sense that essence actually is the rose. Representation is the use of one thing to depict another thing; as Magritte put it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” and no pipe extracts are required to produce a painting of a pipe.

My usage is different from the way the term is used, for example, in Annick Le Guérer’s article “Olfaction and Cognition: a Philosophical and Psychoanalytic View” in the weighty 2002 compendium Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition. Here, the historical assertion (shared by numerous philosophers) is that scent is not “capable of abstraction,” by which she means that a common attribute cannot be extracted from multiple scents in the way that we might refer to an abstract color. This is reflected in the lack of vocabulary for describing scents (at least in English); we generally simply describe scents according to their sources or, in the case of synthetic compounds, by analogy.

So perhaps my earlier usage of the term is nonstandard, but I think the ideas are related: just as mimetic music was by far the exception prior to the advent of recording technology (with timpani evoking thunder in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique serving as an example of a rare exception), it’s difficult for a taste or a smell to be “about” anything other than itself.

I’ve heard people assert that what music represents is emotion, and I could imagine this argument being applied to smell or taste, but evoking and representing are not the same thing. As Frank J. Oteri pointed out in our recent correspondence on the subject, “Associations (e.g. major = happy, minor = sad) are the result of acculturation and not universal. The same, though, could be said for scent.” He notes the curious coincidence that, as I mentioned above, music and scent are completely invisible.

I’ve also heard some people conflate tonality with representation, and there certainly are clear parallels between figurative painting in the visual arts and tonal structures in music, but tonality strictly speaking still does not represent anything outside of music’s “internal relations,” and in fact it is these relations that give tonality meaning. Nonetheless it is certainly worth observing that abstraction in painting and tonality in music experienced parallel ruptures in the tumultuous early 20th century, and it is surely a result of the same cultural forces that Chanel No. 5 was introduced in 1921, unprecedented in its lack of reference to natural scents, “a perfume like nothing else,” in the words of Coco Chanel.

At a certain point, while pondering these questions, I realized that music has been here before. Like many undergraduate music students, I read about the absolute vs. program music debate in my music history classes, and (like a lot of students, I suspect) I was left wondering what the big deal was. On one side of this virulent debate you had Richard Wagner espousing opera as a total art form driven by narrative and deriving power from the coupling of art forms, while on the other side Eduard Hanslick argued for purely instrumental music as the art form’s pinnacle of expression. I recently picked up Mark Evan Bonds’s excellent new book on the subject and realized just how far back this question goes. He organizes his argument around the ideas of essence (what music is) and effect (what it does). This historical perspective has the potential to serve as a useful framing device for discussions of an art based on the chemical senses.

There is a category of “olfactory artists” that has emerged as a distinct practice from that of perfumers, and it seems to be expanding rapidly. Many of the artists working with scent are not working only with scent, and often they’re not working alone. Some of these artists are crafting the scents themselves, but oftentimes the chemical component is outsourced. Pamela Rosenkranz worked with perfumers Dominique Ropion and Frédéric Malle and sound designer Emar Vegt on Our Product, an installation at this year’s Venice Biennale that presented a huge pool of liquid the color of an averaged European.skin tone. Belgian artist Peter De Cupere, perhaps the best known artist in this arena, has been working with scent since the 90s, often incorporating smells into large-scale mixed media sculptures, as in The Smell of a Stranger, presented at the Havana Biennial, which engineers indigenous Cuban plants to give off scents redolent of Western culture. Brian Goeltzenleuchter has been working on a project to capture the smell of each neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Arnica Yi’s 6,070,430k of Digital Spit, presented last summer at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, bridged the worlds of scent and taste by building an immersive installation inspired by the “Mint Pond” dish at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli restaurant. She notes, “I think the most radical artistic statements are being made in the world of cuisine. That interest translates and seeps into my approach to smell. Even though I don’t work with food, I feel the sensibilities are shared.”

Soundscape for Pamela Rosenkranz – Our Product. Swiss Pavilion at Biennale Venice 2015 from Emar Vegt on Vimeo.
The high degree of collaboration that many artists are already exploring points one way forward for an art of the chemical senses. Maybe the lack of “internal relations” and problems of diffusion preclude certain types of standalone olfactory expressions, but by linking art forms, sophisticated new kinds of experiences are possible. Let music aid with the time-based elements. It’s not unlike setting a text or scoring a film; another art form defines the structure. Ramón Perisé of Mugaritz writes that, “how cooking can participate in a multisensory spectacle is something that, in my opinion, is in the first phases of exploration.” The idea of putting different art forms together into a multimedia event is the reason I chose the term “food opera” for my project in the first place.

Listening to music is something we do together. So is dining. As I’ve been working on my food opera project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the overlap between these two spaces: the restaurant and the concert hall. Food represents community, maybe literally, in the same sense of the word I used when writing about “representation” earlier. When we think of fellowship, we often speak of breaking bread together. Dining is one mode of being in the world together.

To orchestrate a communal dining experience as an artwork is the kind of tactic associated with the relational aesthetics movement of the 90’s. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 piece Untitled (Free), now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, involved distributing free curry and rice to visitors in a gallery space, and since then, Tiravanija has presented a number of other pieces that involve people coming together to eat. Together with his longtime gallerist, Gavin Brown (a collaborator on the original exhibition of Untitled [Free]), he has been developing a commercial kitchen in Hancock, NY, called Unclebrother. In a recent interview, he highlighted some of the same community-oriented values I emphasize in my work, “It’s about eating from your surroundings.”

This is a big part of what my food opera project is about. I have observed that these events promote community in a unique way. Because each seat in a restaurant has its own speaker and functions as a source of music, diners become more aware of the people around them and in fact depend on the presence of other diners to complete their experience. The music foregrounded at each diner’s table becomes the accompaniment for the person at the adjacent table, such that everyone in the restaurant is involved, through their choice of dish and the rhythms of their meal, in facilitating the overall musical experience. There’s a lateral exchange of information that is unlike a typical concert; sound passes not just from performer to audience, but from diner to diner. This strikes me as a rich yet underexplored model for musical communication (something I’ve also explored in my piece The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias, a setting of a Greek poem by Constantine P. Cavafy for unamplified voice and audience mobile devices).

At several events, we’ve gone so far as to incorporate field recordings from the farms that provide the ingredients and interviews with farmers into the soundscape, since Jason Bond, the chef with whom I’ve collaborated on these projects, is a passionate supporter of local, sustainable agriculture. We used sound to literally bring farm to table. My hope is that diners leave the restaurant with an increased sense of their interdependent roles in a larger ecosystem, which may encourage more responsible food consumption choices.

When I was attempting, in my poor Spanish, to describe this aspect of my work to chef Dani Lasa at Mugaritz, he understood immediately and responded with the perfect word: “complicidad.” Complicity. I asked if Mugaritz had ever done a dish involving sound, not in their various multimedia collaborations, but actually in the dining room. Dani told me about a dish called Mortar Soup with Spices, Seeds, Fish Broth, and Fresh Herbs. No matter at what stage people were in their meals, the entire restaurant was served the dish at the same time, and as each diner applied the pestle to the mortar, the whole room rang with a sound like Tibetan singing bowls. This experience was enabled by the restaurant, but enacted by each individual diner; everyone was complicit in the resulting sound.

A mortar, a pestle, and food.

Sopa de mortero con especias, semillas, caldo de pescados y hierbas frescas. (Photo courtesy Mugaritz.)

This is the goal of my food operas: to bring things together, connecting creative disciplines, connecting farms to restaurants, connecting people to their environments and to each other.

I hesitate to add this coda, but I feel this is an important point. I’ve been writing this essay in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and in Beirut before that, and of course you can keep going as far back as you like. In these factious times, more than ever we need to find ways to understand those whom we perceive as being different from ourselves as part of the same ecosystem, complicit in the well being of the world. As someone who’s lived a third of his life outside of his home country, I believe that cultivating empathy for others via direct interaction is the best hope for peace. One of the best ways to do this is to come together over a meal. Just as our chemical senses—Le Guérer uses the term “proximity senses”—require contact to perceive our surroundings, we need situations that allow us to come together and better understand our neighbors on this planet. When we break bread together, a meal can do that.

Vinfonies, Nessun Dorma, and Gastromorphology

A bottle of wine and a wine glass on a tale alongside an electronic keyboard, music notation paper, headphones, and a computer screen.

(Photo by Ben Houge)

At just about every technology-oriented conference I go to, I bump into some representative of the Music Technology Group of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Probably best known for developing the Reactable, the interactive music control system prominently used by Björk, the MTG is one of the most well regarded centers for music technology in Europe. I believe it was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco back in 2012 where I first met the MTG’s Jordi Janer, who has been conducting fascinating research into voice analysis and audio source separation, work that he has made available commercially via his side company, Voctro Labs.

Jordi has another side project as one of the founders of Vinfonies, a series of events pairing wine and music that goes back to 2009. Jordi himself has done a number of sound installations related to various aspects of viticulture, developing pieces based on resonating cava bottles, an interactive grape press, and the sonic byproducts of fermentation. With my food opera events I’ve sought to bring the sounds of the farm into an urban restaurant, but Vinfonies goes the other direction, using the festival as a way to bring wine-themed new media art to rural settings. The events happen annually at harvest time in Vilafranca del Penedès (part of the well-regarded Penedès winemaking region, one of Spain’s sixty-five or so regions that have earned the Denominación de Origen appellation) about 50km from Barcelona. The festival includes concerts, sound installations, and wine tasting sessions. Similar to the work of Spanish sound artist Francisco López, participants experience the wine and music pairings blindfolded, eliminating visual distractions to focus on taste, smell, touch, and sound.

While I was living in Spain, I had a chance to reconnect with Jordi at Music Hack Day Barcelona, sponsored by the MTG as part of the huge Sónar electronic music festival. (Check out my brainwave sonification hack from 2014.) The MTG partnered with Berklee to bring computer music pioneer John Chowning to Spain for a series of events last summer (including his first visit to Valencia since he docked there in 1953, back when he was a drummer in the U.S. Navy), and in the planning conversations, Jordi and I realized we shared an interest in music and gastronomy. He invited me to write a piece for the 2015 edition of Vinfonies, which took place last September. Over the summer, he mailed me a bottle of Azul y Garanza 2012 Garciano (the name, which might perplex some oenophiles, derives from its composition: 50% Garnacha, 50% Graciano), and I set to work composing my musical accompaniment.

BTW, a playlist of previous Vinfonies compositions (including one by Edwin Van Der Heide, whose fascinating sound installation “Spectral Diffractions” took over Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion as part of Sónar in 2014) is available on SoundCloud.

Composing music to accompany a taste-based experience presents some unique challenges, particularly when it comes to synchronization. One of the epiphanies that sparked my food opera project was the recognition of a meal as a time-based art form. It’s easy to recognize several time scales to a meal, from the succession of courses (even simply saving dessert for last) to the entropy that occurs as a hot dish cools or a frozen dish melts to the succession of individual bites.

Recognizing these time scales is straightforward, but synchronizing music to them is a much trickier proposition. Typically, restaurants don’t even try, and in this they resemble far too many video games that simply loop the same piece of music over and over or shuffle a playlist: the only point of coordination between the music and the restaurant is that while you’re in this space, this is the music that’s playing. (See the paper I presented at Invisible Places Sounding Cities in Portugal for a more detailed discussion.) A few restaurants that explicitly stress the multisensory angle go further: Ultraviolet or the various Kitchen Theory dinners will present a track of music synchronized with each course, but for this to work, everyone has to be eating at the same time. This approach—when the dish is served, someone presses play on the CD player—works best when there are a greater number of relatively small dishes that don’t take too long to eat.

To coordinate music with individual bites is still trickier. One clever solution is the Tasteful Turntable, devised by Lars and Nikolaj Kynde to synchronize several small bites with key moments in a soundtrack presented to four diners at a time. Another, somewhat less practical approach is Naoya Koizumi’s Chewing Jockey, which uses a photoreflector sensor and a bone conduction speaker to alter the sound of chewing. But when the dining experience is opened up to multiple diners eating asynchronously (i.e., the way the usually eat), the logistics of synchronization become much harder to address. One solution is to give diners headphones, as Heston Blumenthal does in his famous Sound of the Sea dish, or in performance artist Marina Abramović’s collaboration with chef Kevin Lasko, Volcano Flambé. Headphones works as a personal experience, potentially a profound one, but they also cut people off from the environment and those around them. The other solution is to put a speaker at each seat, broadcasting sound unfettered into the restaurant space, and then (this is the hard part) avoiding cacophony by finding a way to incorporate the bleed of music from adjacent tables into the experience, so that all the sound in the restaurant is coordinated. This is what I’ve done in my food operas, and from my observation, this is the only solution that scales to an evening-length experience.

This solution requires all of the musical compositions written for a food opera to be modular, so that they can be put together in any combination and still sound harmonious. At the events I organized with chef Jason Bond in his restaurant Bondir, there were five courses, and diners chose between two possible dishes per course, so that’s up to ten different pieces of music that could be playing at the same time, each at different points in the composition, from the twenty-six seats in the restaurant. I wrote custom software to generate a new version of each musical texture and play it on the correct speaker every time a diner was served the corresponding dish; because the music was generated on the fly, the software could also ensure that all of these individual streams of music were coordinated in harmony and rhythm. In order to make this coordination as apparent as possible, I limited myself to a diatonic scale (slowly transposing over the course of the evening, with all of the music in the restaurant programmed to conform to the current key) and a steady underlying beat referential of 188 beats per minute.

However, with this Vinfonies commission as a stand-alone piece, I had no such constraints, and so I made it an objective to make the most of my liberty. I also wanted to avoid some of the techniques I had used in the past that I decided were a bit “too easy,” so I decided to eschew steady drones, for example, and the overt diatonicism and rhythmic grid of my previous work.

When I’m developing music to accompany some gustatory stimulus, my process isn’t so different from how I’d approach a video game or a choreography: I sample the experience of the thing I’m scoring (or at least a description or concept art or whatever state of completion the thing is in), evaluate my response, and try to capture what I hear in my mind’s ear. In this, the composer has a great advantage over the researcher; whereas academic studies might try to compare the appropriateness of different types of wine to existing music (as in a recent study contrasting Debussy with Rachmaninoff), a composer can hone in on and express an ideal imagined sound without having to choose between existing examples. (This may lead to less quantifiable data, but in some ways it resembles another study, in which participants were asked to find the single note on a keyboard that best corresponded to a scent stimulus.)

An interesting point came up in Oxford last February, when I collaborated with researcher and wine expert Janice Wang in an event at Alistair Cooper’s 1855 Oxford Wine Bar. We presented three pairs of wines alongside three pairs of musical textures and asked participants to determine which musical texture best matched each wine. In the ensuing conversation, it became clear that some people chose music to evoke the wine, whereas others chose music to complement the wine. This may be frustrating to the researcher, but it’s exciting to the composer, at it shows how much room there is for creativity in devising music/food pairings. Music really can serve as another kind of seasoning, flexible in the same way that an ingredient like mint might be equally at home in a sweet or savory dish. We can recognize this phenomenon from the world of film scoring; it’s an exercise we even give to students at Berklee, to compose different soundtracks to the same film clip to give it a different emotional spin, to make it happy or sad, wistful, nostalgic, or ominous.

The Azul y Garanza 2012 Garciano provided a great opportunity to stretch out a bit. It’s a complex wine, and working at the intersection of food and music, I’m sometimes bemused by the fact that, while it’s common for people to decry complexity in music, complexity in wine is pretty universally considered a positive attribute. Jordi Janer shares an interesting observation on this point; he tells me that when pairing music and wine at the Vinfonies events, he’s found participants much more receptive to challenging, experimental soundtracks than they might ordinarily be. Unlike the whisky project I wrote about earlier, my objective here was not to translate aspects of the wine into sound so much as to create a sonic context for it, and in this case I envisioned a kind of mysterious, mystical setting.

I decided to stick mostly to an octatonic scale, allowing the music to float for long stretches without reinforcing a particular key. I sought a harmonic language that was more dissonant than what I had used in the past. The spiky, disjunct marimba patterns evoke a bit of the spicy quality of the wine. The music has no pulse, evoking a kind of timelessness. I wanted a density to the music that reflected the wine’s complexity, and the delay lines help achieve that, providing a sense of depth; I imagine myself peering into the wine as though it were a dense forest. I tend to prefer delay lines to reverberation in these kinds of pieces, and I think there’s also something liquid in the rolling echoes. The lengths of my delays are periodically changing, which results in a bit of pitch shifting during the transition, and this subtle detuning evokes a kind of tartness. (I’m not sure if this kind of detuning has been subjected to a formal study, but I wonder if there isn’t a link to the expression “a sour note.”) Periodically, as a kind of refrain, a jutting theme outlines an augmented chord, stretching out over a tenth, and alters the mode, swapping a D sharp for a D natural, serving as a kind of punctuation. At these moments, a sustained bed based on cello sounds makes a rare excursion into bass clef territory. In some of my previous work, low cello phrases have been successfully linked to tannins in wine, so I decided to include cello here for the same reason. But in general, the frequency range of the music is in a high register, which reflects the sweet and sour fruit components I notice in the wine. Musical ideas float along as objects for the listener’s consideration, not developed, but juxtaposed for the listener to parse and contemplate. Overall, the music is peaceful, emphasizing stability and resolution, reflecting this well-balanced wine.

(If this description is a bit tedious, note that one of my original reasons for pairing music with food was the recognition of how poor words are for describing music and food, suspecting that they might do a better job of describing each other.)

The instrumentation comes from manipulated recordings of myself (whistling and playing piano strings with mallets) and my Berklee Valencia colleagues Victor Mendoza (marimba master) and Sergio Martínez (percussion savant), with Berklee alum Ro Rowan’s cello recurring periodically.

In the above description, you may readily detect the influence of a composer whose music has deeply influenced my thinking about real-time musical systems and video games—Olivier Messiaen. Much of his music exists in a continuous present, which is exactly what game music must do, as it waits for the next event to signal a transition. By making this piece almost a kind of homage, I sought to link my work to an ongoing musical tradition, something I think is important when venturing into new territory, especially in light of some of the cultural crosstalk I mentioned in my previous post.

My compositional process was idiosyncratic. First I determined the scale and the types of sonorities and simultaneities I wanted to use, and I sketched these out on staff paper, along with some thematic ideas. Then I took some of the instrumental recordings I had prepared to use as source material and turned them into playable instruments in Max/MSP. I wrote a program that would take any note I played on the keyboard and build one of my previously determined chords, in any approved inversion, on top of it; in this way I generated the “mallet piano” part, allowing me to manually control the range, rhythm, and dynamics of that part, while letting the computer generate the chords. Then I wrote a program that would look at the notes of the most recent two chords played by the mallet piano and choose from among them to generate a melody to play on the marimba; whenever I pushed a button, a new melody would be generated according to parameters I specified, and a different button allowed me to repeat a phrase with subtle rhythmic variations. The whistle part, except for the recurring theme (which was played manually), was also generated by looking at the most recent mallet piano chords and choosing a note from among them, although in this case I was determining the octave transposition, rhythm, volume, and duration manually by playing the keyboard. The rattle and cello parts were performed or input manually. To sequence everything into the requested time frame, I used Ableton Live, embedding my Max patches as instruments using Max for Live.

But wait: for this Vinfonies commission, since a linear recording of about three minutes’ duration was what was requested, I could have composed and sequenced everything linearly. So why this weird process involving programmed behaviors?

It comes back to the idea of synchronization. In most cases, eating and drinking are activities that can continue for an indeterminate duration, so I’ve been very interested in composing music that can continue indefinitely. (This is the same problem we face in video games, and much of my creative effort since starting in the game industry in 1996 has been addressed to it.) It’s possible that someday I might want to use this music again and present it in a real-time, indeterminate duration form. If I do, having these algorithmic processes already in place will make it easy to adapt; by reducing the input into the system (playing single notes or pushing buttons instead of playing full chords or phrases), I make it easier to replace my manual input with some automated mechanism. I also wanted to fit this piece into my growing body of “food opera” work, using instruments that I’ve built from acoustic samples in Max as my orchestra, organized around generative or procedural processes to accommodate the constraints of modular, real-time deployment discussed earlier. And I have to admit, composing algorithmic music in this way is simply an interesting challenge. So, since much of my work hovers around this idea, it just made sense to apply the techniques on my current workbench to this new commission. But more than any of these considerations, I feel that this approach to composing—using algorithms to develop textures of indeterminate duration—brings to the fore not just what things sound like, but how they work, and I fundamentally think there’s a real link between the way this music works and the way eating or drinking works.

Wine, perhaps more than any other comestible, brings the question of time to the fore. One of the commonly discussed attributes of a wine at a wine tasting is its finish, how long it lingers on the palette after tasting, which I’ve heard some sommeliers describe in very precise measurements. But thinking about how a sensation changes in the mouth is not limited to wine. After I gave my presentation to the R&D team at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England, last June, I sat around with some of the chefs and played some of my musical textures, while we tasted caramel and graphed flavor profile changes over time on paper.

When I was studying computer music back in grad school at the University of Washington in Seattle, I remember encountering Dennis Smalley’s concept of spectromorphology. It was fascinating to think of a method for categorizing the different ways a sound could transform over time. Electronic musicians synthesizing sounds are familiar with the concept of an envelope, a shape that describes how a parameter changes over time (the most common variant being an Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelope, allowing a synthesist to specify different volume levels for different points in time), and game audio designers are familiar with the concept of a real-time parameter curve (RTPC) that links these parameters to real-time input. I have often wondered about a taste-based equivalent. Is there something about our rich musical language for working with time that can apply to the rhythms of the kitchen? How precisely can we quantify and categorize the way that taste sensations change over time? Maybe we could call it “gastromorphology.”

This issue comes up at the end of one of NPR’s recent features on Charles Spence. First Spence is quoted:

[For example,] a dark chocolate or coffee-tasting dessert, then something like Pavarotti’s [performance of Puccini’s] “Nessun Dorma,” making much more low-pitched sounds, seem to be the perfect complement to help bring out those bitter tastes in the dark chocolate or the coffee.

Then the author of the article gets in a little zinger of a last word:

Of course, ‘Nessun Dorma’ gets a little more high-pitched near the end—so there are still challenges in finding the perfect sound for a constant flavor experience.

This is exactly the problem I’m working to solve. “Nessun Dorma” does change at the end, building to a glorious climax; like most music, it evolves. This is the form of the work, and determining the form is traditionally a big part of the composer’s job. When composing for dance or film or setting text, that evolution may be hitched to another structure, but the end result is a fixed trajectory over time. And this is also why it may be problematic to use a finished piece by Debussy or Rachmaninoff in evaluating taste to music correspondences. Not only are there so many parameters to track, but the rate of change of these parameters (what we might call morphology, or, at a higher level, simply musical form) is also changing at a rate that is likely very different from the rate of change of the tasting experience.

So I return to Messiaen as a useful reference point. I sometimes find myself in the semantically awkward situation of using the antonyms “static” and “dynamic” to refer to the same thing. Sound by its nature is motion, vibration; it is dynamic. But when I talk about static music, I mean music that isn’t going anywhere, music that is nonteleological, music that is not progressing towards a specific goal. I often talk to students of game music about the challenge of taking the pre-rendered dramatic trajectory out of a piece of music they’re writing, so that the game can put it back in. Messiaen exemplifies this kind of stasis.

This project draws on a lot of ideas: Messiaen’s approach to static music, video game music that responds to user input, algorithmic or generative processes, crossmodal sensation, multimedia pairings, the rhythmic profile of a meal. Taken together, they suggest a flexible, dynamic approach to composition, and the applications are not limited to wine, or to a meal. In fact, a real-time, responsive system such as I’ve described could be equally put to use to create a customized soundtrack for any of the unpredictable events of daily life, opening up a whole new arena for creative work.