Enlivening Sonic Composition
Let's begin with an experiment. Readers will need two pieces of light or dark chocolate to participate (alternatively, coffee works just as well.)
Put the chocolate in your mouth and let it melt in there for a moment. Now press play and close your eyes, paying close attention to the way the chocolate tastes in your mouth as you’re hearing this sound:
Transcript: A series of five sprightly high-pitched synthesized chords play over the continuous sound of wind chimes.
Put another piece of chocolate in your mouth and do the same thing, but this time with a different sound clip:
Transcript: A low-pitched chord plays, with its reverberations droning on for 20 seconds.
Which piece of chocolate tasted sweeter, the first or the second?
This experiment is based on Charles Spence’s research at the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University. Spence is at the forefront of multisensory experimentation in relation to eating. Before Spence came along, smell and taste were the primary subjects of research with regard to gustatory experience. Scientists have suggested, for example, that our sense of smell is more important than taste buds when it comes to detecting flavor. This phenomenon is referred to as “retronasal olfaction.” Bee Wilson explains,
We smell coffee by breathing in—is any scent better than a warm bag of freshly ground beans? But we taste a cup of coffee by smelling it backward, or retronasally. The hundreds of chemical compounds that go together to make up the flavor of a particular blend and roast of coffee travel to the backs of our mouths and sneak through the nasopharyngeal passage into the nasal cavity. As we sip and swallow, we are not conscious that the splendid flavors—the nuttiness of the roast, the notes of cherry and peach—are created in the nose, not the mouth. (40)
Spence, on the other hand, believes that this emphasis on smell does not do justice to the sensory complexity of gustatory experiences. As Nicola Twilley writes, rather than accepting conventional scientific knowledge about olfaction and flavor, “Spence goes further, arguing that in most cases at least half of our experience of food and drink is determined by the forgotten flavor senses of vision, sound, and touch.” Spence is interested in how all our senses figure into gustatory experiences.
In one of many sonic experiments, for instance, Spence and his team discovered that low-pitched sounds tend to bring out bitter flavors while high-pitched sounds heighten the sweetness of food (Fleming). According to Spence, your first piece of chocolate should have tasted sweeter than the second.
Spence’s interest in how sound affects the ways we experience food has been taken up by other researchers as well. Another recent study found that the experience of sweetness and saltiness decreased in relation to high levels of background noise: louder environments make food taste bland (which is perhaps one of the reasons that airplane cuisine tastes so awful). The study also identified a correlation between the increased volume of background noise and the eater’s perception of crunchiness and freshness (Woods et al.).
Many chefs and entrepreneurs have been putting food science experiments like these into practice. For a limited time, London restaurant House of Wolf served what they called a “sonic cake pop” (Fleming). The treat came with a phone number that presented callers with the choice of pushing 1 for sweet (to hear a high-pitched sound) and 2 for bitter (to hear a low-pitched sound). The sounds you just paired with your chocolate actually came from this experiment, which was a major success.
While the sonic cake pop was a savvy marketing strategy used to attract customers, other restaurants are treating audio-gustatory events as full-blown artistic performances. World-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal, who has collaborated with Spence, uses sound to draw attention to the holistic sensory experience of dining. For example, his dish “Sound of the Sea” consists of seafood, edible seaweed, tapioca that looks like sand, decorative shells, a foam made from shellfish juices that bears a strong resemblance to ocean surf, and an iPod so that diners can listen to the sounds of the ocean (“Seafood Served with an iPod”).
In an article for World Travel Guide, Blumenthal describes how the use of ingredients from familiar family holiday destinations—like the various kinds of seaweed “foraged from estuaries around Cornwall”—had a profound effect on local diners: “People started to cry because it just took them back. It was really quite profound to have that effect, and you realise that it just so happened that the combination of what they were hearing, tasting and seeing triggered a memory” (Bibby). I elaborate more on the relationship between food, sensation, and memory in the ambient text titled “Food, Comfort, Sensation”.
Blumenthal has performed other slightly more eccentric sound experiments as well, including one that involved bacon-and-egg ice cream. When the sound of bacon frying in a pan was played, people rated the bacon flavor of the ice cream to be more intense than the egg flavor, and vice versa when the sound was clucking chickens (Stuckey). As these examples illustrate, Blumenthal is known for turning ordinary dining experiences into evocative, multisensory performances.
In a similar vein, Boston chef Jason Bond and composer Ben Houge have joined forces to create what they call food operas. They use real-time musical scoring techniques based on Houge’s work in video games to design eating experiences that explicitly link sound and taste. Houge explains,
For each of these events, I composed a real-time generative soundtrack to accompany a multicourse meal, designed by chef Jason Bond of Bondir restaurant in Cambridge, MA. This music responds to events cued by diners, drawing on event-driven scoring techniques adapted from my work in the video game industry since 1996. Each table in the restaurant is outfitted with speakers, one for each diner, totaling thirty channels of coordinated, real-time, algorithmic, spatially deployed sound in all.
The concept is predicated on the acknowledgement of dining as a time-based art form, akin to film, dance, and music. I use the term “opera” for its multimedia associations, describing a hybrid, interdisciplinary work that engages and explores the junctures between multiple senses. (“Food Opera”)
Like Blumenthal, Houge and Bond are interested in defamiliarizing mundane dining experiences by heightening people’s awareness of eating as a multisensory event. They have adopted food science research for the purpose of transforming meal experiences into memorable, highly sensual performances.
I am less interested in the science behind these kinds of audio-gustatory artistic experiments than in the potential they have to enliven the ways we think about sonic composition. In multimodal composing courses, we do not typically ask students to consider how sound intersects with other senses—particularly taste, smell, and touch—to influence their experiences. Instead, students often produce compositions that are made of sound alone, or that incorporate sound into visual media like videos. This partial treatment of sound in relation to other modes and senses has consequences. As musicologist and sound studies scholar Nina Sun Eidsheim maintains,
I believe that how we think about sound matters, and that reducing a dynamic and multisensory phenomenon to a static, monodimensional one has ramifications beyond our use of the concept and metaphor of the figure of sound. My concern is that this limiting conceptualization extends to and affects all who engage with it. That is, if we reduce and limit the world we inhabit, we reduce and limit ourselves. (3)
How might we expand rather than limit our students’ experience of themselves as sentient beings moving through a world that is active and alive with ambient rhetorics? If we want students to understand how sound works as a rhetorical force in their lives, we need to give them more opportunities to experiment with sound’s distinct experiential possibilities. Alongside teaching students to make meaningful screen-based sonic texts, then, it is necessary to design occasions for them to experience firsthand how sound shapes and is shaped by all of the senses they have access to. The multisensory dining event I describe in Sound Never Tasted So Good is one such occasion, but there is ample room for more experimentation. How might projects in multimodal composition or rhetoric classrooms be enlivened in ways that account for the multisensory, material, and ecological aspects of sonic experience?