Berklee students compose music for a feast
To compose music to accompany a plate of butter-basted rib-eye steak, Thomas Olivier-Beuf, 23, reminisced of home. He remembered Sunday dinners of roast beef at his grandmother’s in France. He remembered the sound of his mother’s fingers lightly touching harp strings. He considered the tenderness of the medium-rare meat and what nostalgia would taste like in a dish.
The sound of trumpets made the melody light yet final. Hopeful, yet sad.
On a Wednesday afternoon in August, nine students from Berklee College of Music took part in a culinary experience that engaged all the senses.
In a class called Music+Food, the steak was part of a four-course meal prepared at America’s Test Kitchen in Brookline. Students first toured the test kitchen in July, meeting the chefs and learning about the menu. Then they were given their assignment: compose music to accompany the dishes.
Three weeks later, they sat together around the same table and shared the same meal — while listening to the scores it inspired.
It’s the first semester of the class, offered through Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship. It’s the brainchild of Ben Houge, a composer and associate professor in the Electronic Production and Design Department.
The goal is to help students consider unexpected avenues and new audiences for their music. Much like writing a video game score, composers can subtly (or not so subtly) influence the dining experience. And by solving creative challenges alongside chefs, Houge hopes to help students strengthen communication and collaboration skills.
“The big picture has students looking at the aesthetics, the psychological and technological aspects of pairing music with a meal,” Houge said. “It’s a soundtrack for a four-course meal. I think there’s been a growing interest in what sound can bring to the dining experience.”
Houge has been working in the realm of food and music since 2010.
He’s collaborated with a number of local and international chefs to create these audiogustatory experiences, including Jason Bond of Bondir in Cambridge; Jozef Youssef with London’s Kitchen Theory; Todd Maul, a James Beard-award-nominated bartender formerly of Café ArtScience in Kendall Square; and many others.
In January, Houge teamed up with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a pre-concert “food opera” titled “Cena concertante alla maniera di Vivaldi.” It was a four-course meal with a real-time musical accompaniment based on Antonio Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C delivered to diners via 64 coordinated iPads. Last month, Houge worked with London’s Borough Market on a reimagined Ploughman’s Lunch at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.
Houge was hired at Berklee in 2011 to teach video-game scoring, and his focus is to show that game audio techniques have increasing application outside that industry.
“Perception of flavor is not on the tongue but in the brain,” Houge said. “High-frequency sounds make foods taste sweeter, while low frequencies make things taste more bitter.”
Houge said the idea of pairing food and music is not new. In the early 1900s, Italian futurists, known for their interest in speed and technology, proposed combining sounds with food by playing the sound of croaking of frogs while eating frog legs.
In 2007, British chef Heston Blumenthal developed a dish called “The Sound of the Sea,” at his restaurant The Fat Duck, pairing it with sounds of the seashore. It was based on research out of Oxford University that showed that people rated seafood as tasting fresher when they listened to these ocean sounds while eating.
In Houge’s class, the premise was about creating an atmosphere rather than the individual rhythms of each bite.
On that second visit back to the test kitchen Aug. 9, students began their listening journey with a carbonated blood orange shrub beverage.
Music student Claire Lim, 21, paired the drink with rising bubbly sounds, futuristic elements, and the deep tones of a marimba, a xylophone of African origin.
“When we first came to the test kitchen to try out the drink, there were actually a few different flavors,” Lim said. “But mostly the things that really caught my attention were the contrast of the acidity and the fruitiness, as well as the general overall texture.”
For the rib-eye steak, the chefs said they weren’t so focused on the appearance of the dish. They developed the recipe based on auditory cues, the sounds the steak made while it sizzled to perfection.
Gareth Wong, 22, a Berklee student from Malaysia, said he appreciated what the class taught him about working with others artists — whether they be musicians or chefs.
“I think it’s taught me about how to collaborate,” Wong said. “The language is a big part of it. The way you describe what you want in music, it’s the same [in cooking or art]. That’s my biggest takeaway.”
In writing the score for a creamy corn bucatini with corn ricotta and basil, students considered the bite of the spice, the creaminess of the ricotta, and the zest of basil. The music had smooth, creamy elements. With a dessert that combined a chocolate financier with olive oil ice cream, the music had a duality to it, two different sounds emphasizing two different tastes.
“I wasn’t expecting the sounds to be so diverse,” said Jessica Richmond, 28, of Alberta, Canada. “I’d like to try loud dishes. The music was calming. It’d be fun to do a big, aggressive sound.”