An Audible Feast
Ben Houge is a busy person. He’s also hungry. Each time we tried to find an hour to discuss his plans for the 2019-2020 Faculty-Led Innovations in Education (FLY) grant he received, Houge, an associate professor in the Electronic Production and Design Department, was quick to offer lunch meetups. Sushi? Sandwich at Tatte? A quick burrito? Given that the $8,000 grant will help him to expand the scope of his work in pairing audio with dining experiences, it makes total sense that he was already busy programming the right kind of meal for our talk.
Houge offered the first iteration of the Music + Food course at Berklee in 2017; it had Berklee students collaborating with local chefs and research scientists from MIT in order to figure out how to build sensors into food implements—for example, a cup that makes sounds when liquid hits the tongue. The interdisciplinary class emerged from a decade of Houge’s artistic experimentation, which involved creating multisensory food operas with restaurants around the world, from Boston to London.
Trained in classical composition, Houge has also worked extensively in the video game industry, where, as he puts it, “Responding to unpredictable events is the name of the game. So, you need to design systems that can respond to any kind of input.” His lightbulb moment—that music could “score” a meal—happened in 2006, while he lived in Shanghai and worked as a game audio designer for French video-game company Ubisoft. The sudden revelation occurred over a meal after a long workday: Restaurants and video games, he thought, both deal in unpredictable, moment-to-moment scenarios; but in a restaurant, the patron is the player. “A diner’s actions push the meal forward,” he says. “It’s up to them to take the next bite.”
And while it may seem weird to have a restaurant wired with speakers and tablets, we live in a world where taking a picture of your food is almost as much a part of the meal as the first bite. Even the language overlaps: wine connoisseurs speak of flavor “notes,” and chefs think about textures such as crunchy and soft—or, in audio terms, loud and quiet.
With the current version of his course, he is implementing what was designed in the first go-round. “For this class, it’s more about the user experience,” he says. “Last time, we built the technology. Now, what can we do with it?” Students can look forward to, among other experiences, learning alongside science students in Pia Sörensen’s Flavor Molecules of Food Fermentation course at Harvard, and working directly with chefs from Spain’s Mugaritz, currently ranked the seventh best restaurant in the world.
Houge is not looking to create an army of food opera composers, but to develop students’ interdisciplinary communication skills as they imagine their careers. “Whether they work with restaurants or not,” he says, “I just want them thinking about other ways to get their music out there.”
This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, Berklee Today.