Food Opera Manifesto

On May 22, 2012, I realized a longstanding dream when I collaborated with local chef Jason Bond (of the widely acclaimed Bondir Restaurant in Cambridge) on a new multimedia composition entitled Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions. Chef Bond crafted a four course, asparagus-based tasting menu, and I provided real-time algorithmic accompaniment, responding to cues from diners and servers to score a meal as I would a video game.

We premiered our work at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s 40K Studio to invited members of the Harvard community, as part of a program curated Jutta Friedrichs, Elisabeth MacWillie, and Sara Hendren, students (at the time) in the new program in Art, Design and the Public Domain. The event was widely acclaimed in such news outlets as NPR, Grub Street, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s First Bite, in addition to this nice write up on Harvard’s site.

Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

(Thanks to Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian for the photos!)

We’ve just announced a second food opera event entitled Sensing Terroir: A Harvest Food Opera on Tuesday, November 13, this time open to the public, and the complete information for that event (including reservation hotline; seating is pretty limited) is over on the Bondir website. This time around we’re partnering with Artists in Context to tell the story of local farming and sustainable food sourcing, incorporating field recordings and interviews with regional suppliers into the emergent soundscape to investigate dining as a communicative medium. The event is once again being produced by the deft and intrepid Jutta Friedrichs, and Stephan Moore (Merce Cunningham’s former soundman, Issue Project Room curator, and accomplished composer in his own right) will also be supporting with sound design and custom speakers.

But before we get into that, I first want to take a moment to pull together some key concepts surrounding this unique project.

Friends can testify that I’ve been talking about this idea for years; the first specific conversation I can pinpoint was sometime in 2006. I’ve long appreciated fine food, and somewhere along the line I realized that enjoying a well-crafted meal was an inherently time-based experience, akin to ballet, music, or film, but tailored to the sense of taste. This is true not only in the succession of courses, but in the way a course evolves, as flavors meld, textures break down, and hot and cold converge to room temperature. Even psychologically, our perception of a new dish changes as we become accustomed to it. Once I acknowledged this, the desire to compose music to accompany a meal, just like a dance or film score, followed naturally.

For a long time I called this concept a “dinner symphony” or “restaurant symphony.” The etymology of the word “symphony” conveys the idea of several elements coming together in a harmonious way. But I came to feel that the primary association of the word is with sound as a unified medium, whereas “opera” (which literally means merely “work”) has more of a multimedia/multisensory association, which more accurately evoked what I was after with this project. Hence, “food opera.” (I’ve noticed, however, that this term causes problems when I’m discussing the idea in Chinese, where the word for opera, 歌剧, explicitly connotes singing; I’m open to suggestions for a less misleading translation.)

Super-caramelized white asparagus; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian
Super-caramelized white asparagus; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

This is perhaps the first time in history that it’s been possible to create a customized, responsive sonic food pairing for each individual diner. This is a new genre that has only recently been possible with any degree of refinement, due to the development of responsive digital systems and advancements in speaker technology. At the heart of this endeavor is the goal of respecting the integrity of the ancient social institution of communal dining. This is fundamentally different from the notion of dinner theater, in which some action is taking place away from the table; instead, in a food opera, the plate is the stage. It’s also very different from having a string quartet sitting next to your table, or a violinist or mariachi band wandering through the restaurant. In order to not impinge on the dining experience, the sound must be electronically mediated; the very presence of a live musician distorts the calculus of the meal to an unacceptable degree.

Instead, diners are free to talk, uninhibited, just as they would at any other meal. Food opera supports spontaneous interaction. In this way, music is on equal footing with the food. Chef Bond talks about how, in his observation, the awareness and appreciation of food happens intermittently, during pauses in the conversation. In our collaboration, music is not foregrounded, and it should absolutely not distract from the rest of the experience. Instead, it has an ambient quality; to quote Brian Eno, it should be as interesting as it is ignorable.

There’s an additional challenge in scoring a meal, one that is different from writing music for film or ballet, but actually quite similar to my work composing video game music over the past sixteen years: the element of indeterminacy. You can’t know in advance how long a diner will take to finish a course, or when the next dish will come. There’s an element of interactivity not only in food consumption rate, but also in the trajectory a diner chooses through the choices on a menu. So the concept from the beginning was to use video game scoring techniques to provide a customized soundtrack for each diner. Here again, the logistical challenges in asking a live performer to provide such nuanced, personalized accompaniment become clear; this experience could not exist without computers and speakers.

I feel that one thing taste and sound have in common is that they’re both inherently abstract, unlike a painting or a sculpture. (Perhaps this is why, as I’ve joked with composer friends in the past, the only thing worse than a bad music review is a bad restaurant review; these experiences are hard to distill into words.) Before the advent of recording technology, representational sound was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking rolling thunder at the end of “Scène aux champs” in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique). Most music is about the abstract relationships between pitches and rhythms that add up to melody and harmony, and it’s similarly almost impossible to think of a taste that is about anything other than itself.

Chef Jason Bond and me
Chef Jason Bond and me; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

So in this project, our focus is on perception and experience, not on preconception or association. The last thing I’d want to do is to bring out a sea shanty to evoke seafood, for example, or, I don’t know, a polka to evoke Polish sausage. (This kind of ethnic shorthand is in fact the most widespread kind of food/music pairing, and to me the least interesting.) This is why I sought out a collaborator who eschews traditional dishes in favor of exploring new forms and combinations; it would be much less interesting to compose music for something like a Caesar salad, with which most people already have some kinds of context or expectation. Instead, in the course of our first collaboration, Chef Bond and I realized that many of the same abstract structural notions and terminology apply to cooking as well as to music, and we built on such overlapping concepts as texture, color, density, contrast, pungency, development, and form.

For the Harvard show, due to the relatively small scale, servings were fairly synchronized, and all of the activity was mixed down to six channels of sound, spaced along a long, narrow table with about 10 seats on either side. As each new dish was rolled out, there was a gradual crossfade from one dish to the next, as the servers made their way along the table. However for next month, we’re doing something closer to my original conception, which is for each diner to have a unique channel of audio, and for seatings to be unsynchronized, so that different tables are starting and stopping at different times; at any given moment, each table will be at a different point in the overall meal arc. There will be a central computer system that coordinates the music of all tables to a common pulse and key (again, video game techniques to the rescue). It’s a feature of the piece that sound will blend across adjacent tables; the entire restaurant will be transformed into a lush and active soundscape. The plan is to be able to provide diners with a unique recording of their meal after the fact.

Lynette Roth, curator Harvard museum, Jeffrey Schnapp; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian
Lynette Roth and Jeffrey Schnapp at the first food opera, Harvard GSD, May 2012; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

I did a study back in Shanghai in 2010 with my friend the excellent chef Caroline Steger. We planned a three course meal and invited friends to talk about their impressions. There was scallop with wasabi sabayon, pumpkin soup garnished with lime/cumin-toasted seeds, and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Based on these conversations, I composed several studies, and one page of music for woodwind trio wound up in last May’s event. I basically analyzed the page I had written, then wrote an algorithm to generate endless variations of it. Other sections used different generative, procedural, or algorithmic techniques, continuing indefinitely while avoiding repetition (a key concern in video game composition).

There’s been a lot of recent interest in the overlap of food and the more traditional arts (or perhaps I should say, those arts that are more traditionally considered arts). Just a few examples off the top of my head include the Science and Cooking series at Harvard (through which I first met Chef Bond), Ferran Adrià’s opening El Bulli to guests at Documenta 12, Marina Abramović’s Volcano Flambé (in which her soothing voiceover accompaniment, delivered via iPod, described the textures of the dessert [“crunchy, creamy, cold…”], and which I got to taste at Park Avenue Winter last year, and which may have made me ill), Heston Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea (also featuring iPod accompaniment), and Paul Pairet’s multimedia tour de force Ultraviolet, which I got to check out when I was back in Shanghai last summer (it was amazing, and I have lots to say about it, but perhaps we should save that for another time). I feel like what we’re doing is part of a larger movement that is reevaluating the aesthetic potential of taste.

Here’s Jutta’s video, documenting the first food opera!

Food Opera – Four Asparagus Compositions from Jutta Friedrichs on Vimeo.

So to bring us back to the present, the next food opera happens on Tuesday, November 13, at Bondir in Cambridge. It’s a five course $125 prix fixe menu with drink pairings. That figure is not out of line for either a five course meal at a fine restaurant or an opera ticket, so you can think of it as two for the price of one!

In case you’re still not sold on this liberal conception of opera, it seems fitting to close with a link to an article entitled “The New Opera,” written by Gavin Borchert almost 10 years ago in the Seattle Weekly, in which he likens video game development to the early days of opera, with composers “exploring untested ways of combining music, story, and visual spectacle.” Sounds about right!

I leave you with the menu from Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions last May:

Soft-cooked pullet egg
Smoked asparagus froth, spiced syrup

Hot white asparagus soup
Miso-hazelnuts, nori, togarishi marshmallow

Warm green asparagus gel
Shaved asparagus, bonito, calamondin lime, madura long pepper, black garlic candy, spruce shoots, Okinawa sugar, sea salt, angelica, largo, matcha ice…

Super-caramelized white asparagus
Bran ash, sesame jelly, lemon mousseline, ginger cake

Mignardises asperges

Jay Chou and the Bastion OST

I’ve been playing a lot of Bastion lately, the indie game by Supergiant that has popped up on a whole bunch of Best of 2011 year-end lists. One of the music tracks has a lick in it that sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it at first. Then suddenly one day it hit me: Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou 周杰伦.

Regular visitors to my website probably know of my marginally unseemly fixation on Jay Chou; I even wrote an article for Time Out Shanghai in 2010 entitled “Why I Love Jay Chou.” He’s a trans-media pop star (as all the biggest ones seem to be these days), recording albums, starring in movies, hawking toothpaste and motorcycles (at $6 million, a record endorsement for an Asian artist). Western audiences who missed him in foreign fare such as Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 might know him best for his Hollywood debut as Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet last year. Studying the lyrics to his songs was my primary method for learning Mandarin, and I still harbor dreams of releasing a tribute CD one of these days. He was even the subject of my first ever post on this blog.

Check out this video for the second track on his November’s Chopin 十一月的萧邦 album from 2005, “蓝色风暴” (Blue Storm). (Note that Chopin is more commonly rendered 肖邦 in mainland China, but 萧邦 seems to work too, as discussed here.) Pay particular attention to the closing moments, from about 4:36.

Now check out this track from the Bastion soundtrack, by Darren Korb, starting around 0:26.

I don’t think the odds are so slim that I might be the first person to notice this, given the slender overlap between Jay Chou and Bastion’s respective fan bases. Clearly, both artists are using the same loop from some sample library. I have no idea which library, but after conferring with some of my Berklee colleagues, the consensus is that the instrument in question is most likely a bouzouki, a fretted Greek lute.

I’m straining to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever used a canned loop in one of my compositions. (I may have used some stock phrases on King’s Quest back in 1998, but slowed way, way down beyond recognition to create an ominous background texture.) I’m totally down with the idea of creating a meta composition out of several streams of patterns or recorded material, the way that Charles Ives or Luciano Berio or David Shea might weave a larger fabric out of existing sounds; in fact, I think this is pretty much the job description for a video game audio lead. But using a stock loop out of a sample library just takes all the fun out of it. At the very least, if you want to keep it fresh, roll your own loops. Moreover, when creating a composition out of layered loops, it’s too easy to ignore the contrapuntal interactions between the different layers; you can miss the chance to think through all the alternate configurations of notes that might make your musical point more purposefully.

Most critically, there’s a regularity and periodicity that really feels anathema to the subtle irregularities of human performance, and it’s too common to come up with something artificial and rigid, chopped up evenly along the bar lines: every eight beats (or whatever) another layer comes in or out. And when a layer stops, it stops abruptly, with none of the resonance or decay of a natural sound, since it must be truncated precisely on the bar line, in order to seamlessly connect back to the beginning of the phrase. When I was fielding composer demos back at Ubisoft, this characteristic was grounds for immediate rejection.

The same objection applies on a macro scale, too, in game music implementations that simply loop a piece of music indefinitely (Bastion‘s primary mode of musical organization). At best, this kind of repetition can lead gamers to tune out the music, reducing its impact, and at worst, it leads to active irritation. In any event, the power of music to support the emerging drama of a narrative is lost. In fact, the desire to eliminate loops and fades (two of the most common signifiers that you’re listening to a game soundtrack) was a guiding impetus behind the design of the EndWar music system.

At least for Jay, the bouzouki sample is only a minor flourish, in a fairly ridiculous duet with DTMF touch tones, almost a punch line at the end of an eclectic song that started with Gregorian chant.

But anyway, let’s get back to my Jay fetish. Here’s a clip of me sitting in with the house band at Harry’s Bar in Suzhou on a few very loose renditions of Jay tunes towards the end of 2010. (Be patient; you’ve got to breach the Great Firewall for this clip.)

For more, don’t miss my Best of Jay Chou playlist on Spotify!

Act Like You Got Some Sense

As many of you, my faithful readers and spambots, already know, I moved out of my Shanghai apartment last December, and since then I’ve been leading a nomadic existence as an international art hobo, first in the US, then in Kenya, back in Shanghai and Suzhou for a bit, and most recently in Germany. I originally expected that at the end of my sojourns I would ultimately find a new flat in Shanghai, and so I carefully packed away every duvet, cocktail shaker, and gaming console. Circumstances have since conspired, however, such that my next “permanent address” (this phrase always makes me giggle) will be in scenic Somerville, MA, USA, a place I’ve never visited, but about which I hear wonderful things. (No, I am not being deported, though I won’t let that stop me from relentlessly plugging my artwork that was confiscated by the Chinese government earlier this year.)

But in the immortal words of Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.” Experience has taught me that when you make a big move, you have your choice of three options for losing money: lose money by shipping your junk, lose money by storing your junk indefinitely (e.g., to date, the upwards of five grand for storing I don’t even remember what, some old Duran Duran records and a djembe, I think, in Seattle), or lose money by giving your junk away at a small fraction of what you paid for it. Dear friends and spambots, I have chosen the third option. To wit…

Ben Houge’s 35th Annual “New Year, New Address” Fire Sale

I am selling the following items at the following rock bottom prices. I’m attempting to sell things as bundles, to try to get rid of as much stuff as quickly as possible. Prices are negotiable, everything must go!

Oven: 500 RMB
Was over 1000 RMB new. I’d been holding this for some dufus who, two weeks after he told me he’d pick it up, called to say he didn’t want it after all. So if you’re one of the several other folks who inquired, feel free to inquire again; it’s still available! Relatively sizeable for a standalone, tabletop unit, big enough for roasting chickens and ducks (sequentially) or Beef Wellington, but doesn’t take up too much space, also handy for bruschetta, etc.

This oven could be yours!
This oven could be yours!

Box o’ DVD’s: 300 RMB
It’s a medium sized box, mostly full of DVD’s in absolutely no order. Over six years of Shanghai DVD hoarding has resulted in a substantial collection. The catch: it’s all or nothing; if you want ‘em, you gotta buy the whole box. I don’t know what all’s in there, but it skews a bit towards European and Chinese “art films.” That means you take the Antonioni and Bergman along with the Die Hard and Rambo. The Police Story pentalogy and Infernal Affairs trilogy are included, plus I think both Hulk films, House of Flying Daggers (x2, I think), Curse of the Golden Flower, you get the idea… All cinema, no TV series. Act now, and I’ll throw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

These DVD's could be yours!
These DVD

1000 Watt Step Down Voltage Converter (220V to 110V): 250 RMB
Bought this, works fine, except 1000 watts was insufficient for my vast array of US synthesizers and music gear!

This amp and transformer could be yours!
This amp and transformer could be yours!

TV Stand: 200 RMB
Sleek, small, but sturdy, glass and metal, supported a 50” TV (not included) for the past four years, ably and with aplomb. Two open shelves underneath used to house a big amp/receiver, an Xbox 360, an Xbox, a PS2, and a Game Cube (not included).

This TV stand could be yours (glass top not pictured)!
This TV stand could be yours!

One Big Black Bookshelf: 200 RMB
Classic square design, 3 shelves, pretty darned convenient.

This bookshelf could be yours!
This bookshelf could be yours!

Two Big Black Tables: 100 RMB each
Before I met Jutta, I also tried my hand at furniture design: I had these custom made for my studio equipment (who knows when I’ll ever set that all up again, sigh) about five years ago, still in pretty good shape. Very simple design, very versatile, somewhat idiosyncratic design (long and narrow) and a little bit low, designed to be ergonomic for typing and/or playing a keyboard (i.e., elbows at 90 degrees, no awkward wrist bending).

These custom tables could be yours!
These custom tables could be yours!

Black, Wooden, Two-Drawer File Cabinet: 100 RMB
Also my original design. The drawers have runners along the inside, fits standard Ikea hanging folders. The ornate brass-ish handle on the lower drawer has come off, but that’s easily repaired!

This file cabinet could be yours!
This file cabinet could be yours!

White Hanging Drawer Thing: 120 RMB
This was Jutta’s, so you know it’s classy. It’s like got these suspended cloth drawer things, six of them, arranged vertically, about a meter and a half tall, lots of storage taking up relatively little floor space. On wheels! Kinda like this, but with six drawers instead of four, and already assembled!

This suspended drawer thing could be yours!
This suspended drawer thing could be yours!

PS2 + Xbox: 1200 RMB SOLD!
If you want only the Xbox, we can talk, but if you only want the PS2, sorry, chump, you gotta buy both! That’s the deal! Comes with 2 controllers for each and a handful of games (more for Xbox than PS2, including Crimson Skies, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Jade Empire), and 2 Sing Star mics (for the PS2)! The PS2 has a rare and exquisite metallic light blue finish, and the Xbox is some kind of limited edition crystal something or other (i.e., clear case).

Two Squash Rackets and Balls: 200 RMB SOLD!
Nice ones, from Decathlon, barely used (like 3x), to my chagrin.

This squash paraphernalia could be yours!
This squash paraphernalia could be yours!

Johnson Amp: 50 RMB SOLD!
Small and super cheap, but perfect if you’re a beginner guitarist or maybe into chip bending.

Dish Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Big plates, little plates, some bowls, mostly of Ikea provenance.

Glassware Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Water glasses, some odd wine glasses, a bunch of martini glasses, some mugs, a cocktail shaker and strainer.

Cutlery Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Two full sets of cutlery, in fact, including chopsticks and cutting boards and a handy little tray in which to store it all.

Toaster 50 RMB SOLD!
It is green.

Rice Cooker: 50 RMB SOLD!
It cooks rice. Might have two of these, actually.

And I would be a poor salesperson (or a much more successful artist than I am) if I neglected to remind you that I still have an ample supply of my own CD’s available for sale: Radiospace (40 RMB) and 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies (20 RMB), plus my new one, Chingachgook(s) (50 RMB, come on, I made them by hand!). Tell you what: if you buy something, I’ll give you 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies for free!

I have lots of high quality digital art prints for sale as well, the fruits of my art hobo year! Check out Study for Insomnia, Transportation Is Getting a New Look, Shanghai Traces, and 29 Giraffes. You can talk to me or to the galleries that have presented these works; contact me, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Please forward this list to friends!

P.S. Don’t worry about me not having a PS2 or Xbox anymore; I’ve got another set in storage in Seattle. (Um, why?)

P.P.S. I just saw that Wikipedia defines “fire sale” as “the sale of goods at extremely discounted prices, typically when the seller faces bankruptcy or other impending distress.” Apt indeed.

My Mom’s Ghanaian Peanut Sauce Recipe

Last Wednesday, at the birthday barbecue of Archie Hamilton, head honcho of Split Works (the concert promotion agency that has brought Sonic Youth, Handsome Furs, Battles, and many other fine ensembles to Shanghai), I was boasting to Sean Leow, head honcho of NeoCha (hip Chinese social networking hub), about the fantastic Ghanaian peanut sauce I had made the night before. Shortly afterwards, I made a lunge for a chicken wing and sprained my ankle. Archie set me up with cushions on the pavement, and everyone started bringing me drinks and chocolate cake out of sympathy. It was awesome. I saw a doctor and had an X-ray taken, and thankfully nothing’s broken, but I’ve got to take it easy for a while. The doctor prescribed the RICE treatment: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Nice mnemonic!

Anyway, before I took a dive, I promised Sean the recipe. Here it is as I received it from my mom, who got it from neighbors when my folks were living in the remote village of Gbintiri, in Konkomba country, northern Ghana in the late 90’s.

African Peanut Butter Sauce

1/2 c. onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. oil

Mix separately and add:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup water
1 bouillon cube
2 Tbs. tomato paste or 2 chopped tomatoes

Gradually add until the sauce is the consistency desired:
2-3 cups water
Salt, pepper, hot pepper to taste

Cooked beef, pork, or chicken, and simmer in sauce.

Serve over rice.

Here are the bachelor addendums I’ve developed over the years:
–I found Adams natural peanut butter to be ideal, close in consistency to the ground peanuts used in the traditional recipe, none of those nasty Skippy additives and emulsifiers.
–I put fresh chili peppers in with the onions and garlic and oil in the first step. Four of those little red Chinese peppers usually work for me. Sometimes I skip the garlic, in fact.
–I usually add meat after the onions have started to brown; yeah, I know, this means it doesn’t brown as nicely, but it’s less hassle than browning the meat first, then taking it out of the pan, then doing the onions, garlic, and peppers, and adding the meat back later.
–I would never use tomato paste instead of fresh tomatoes, but sometimes in arid northern Ghana, fresh tomatoes aren’t available.
–Brown rice works just as well as white rice.
–For me the ideal beverage accompaniment is bottled Guinness (not one of those fancy nitrogen-infused cans), which is widely available in Africa.

There ya go! Easy, yummy, nutritious, cheap. This was one of the five bachelor dishes I would rotate back in Seattle, along with burritos, beans and rice, creamed tuna on toast, and pasta with marinara sauce. Lemme know if you need those recipes. Actually, I can’t do burritos as efficiently in China, but the others are still in pretty heavy rotation.

BTW, my dad likes to taunt wild hyenas.

My parents are so badass!