Ben Houge brings his "food operas" to Boston's Berklee College of Music. 

Elisabeth Sherman
August 03, 2017

We call cooking the "culinary arts" and, like any great art form, food can be elevated to an even higher level through collaboration. And while the parallels between visual arts and what goes on your plate are pretty clear, composer and Berklee College of Music professor Ben Houge wants to teach people how music can make their meals all the more meaningful by providing a musical score to accompany them. In fact, Houge is sharing that vision with a new generation of music students as he teaches Berklee’s Music + Food class, where he and his pupils study how a sound can enhance the texture, taste, and even temperature of a dish.

Courtesy of Bruce T. Martin

Before he began teaching, Houge spent much of his career scoring video games. He thinks that music and sound can help enhance what certain dishes and meals represent. In a classroom setting, the exercise might, at first glance seem futile. Why score a meal at all? But Houge says that if music can “transform an image to make it happy or nostalgic,” it can do the same for food, which has, according to Houge, a similar narrative structure.

Take two different types of soup, a white gazpacho and a ginger carrot soup with tarragon crème fraiche both created by the executive sous chef of Berklee's dining hall, Elliot Burleson. Houge presented his students with descriptions of each one. The crème fraiche made the flavor of the carrot soup linger longer on the palate, while the gazpacho’s flavor faded faster. Houge asked his students to compose music that would reflect the shifting intensity of the soup’s flavor.

“There was a bloom to the ginger over time,” Houge explained. “People were interested in the cream, because it lingered on the palate. [The students] composed lower frequency music with warmer tones.”

Another exercise required that students pair their compositions to the temperature of a tomato soup with basil in a hot and cold treatment. For the cold soup, students gravitated toward compositions with “higher frequencies, and sparkling, crisp sounds.”

Houge urges his students to create musical compositions that don’t just mirror the elements of the dish, but rather support or respond to it in some way. He lives out this philosophy in his meal scoring experiments outside of academia.

Houge has been creating music to pair with food through a series of collaborations—which he calls “food operas”—with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and chefs like Jason Bond of Cambridge’s Bondir. He recalls one dinner in which the chef served a frothy asparagus foam. Houge decided to pair it with the sound of wind chimes, reminiscent, to his mind, of the foam’s popping bubbles.

Houge has set up a several dinners at this restaurant, where diners were equipped with an iPad or speaker that Houge controlled from behind the scenes. He would change the song to accompany each course as it arrived at the table.

“In the class as well in the events with chefs, music and food together, it helps people focus. The music can suggest different ways to think about the dining experience. It gets people to pay attention,” said Houge.

There’s also an element of sustainability to Houge’s food operas: At one event at Bondir, which serves farm-to-table meals, Houge played ambient farm sounds intermingled with interviews with farmers as the diners ate. These were no generic rustling of leaves and chirping birds; Houge traveled to the farms where Chef Bond sources his ingredients to make the recordings, and interviewed the farmers that work on the land.  He hopes this approach teaches people to be aware of, and to connect with, the origins of their food.

Outside of the classroom, scoring a meal might not be a practical line of work, but Houge insists there are some important lessons his students will take away from the experience.

“They’ve become more attuned to their eating skills,” he explains. “And they learn how chefs and composers face similar challenges. 15 years ago the goal would have been to sign with a major label [after college], but those traditional revenue streams are drying up. So I try to teach them that there are some unexpected ways that they can get their music out there.”

For their final project next week, Houge’s students will collaborate with America’s Test Kitchen. They’ll be scoring a four course meal of corn bucatini, Morroccan spiced chicken with cous cous—easily scored because it’s both crispy and spicy—butter basted rib eye steak, and olive oil ice cream and chocolate financiers. As for Houge, his next big project is at the 2017 Web Audio Conference in London, where he’ll be “synchronizing music with an eating experience”—meaning that he’ll be passing around food in three waves, playing his compositions as they eat.

Houge’s passion project, at the very least, may be a way to force people to appreciate their food in ways that didn’t seem possible before he came along.

“A lot of times in restaurant settings, we have assumptions that we fall back on. This is a way to get people to slice away those preconceived conceptions they have about food.”