What is the relationship between taste and sound? How has Instagram changed the way we interact with meals? And what experiences do modern musical artists need to provide in a world dominated by on-demand streaming?
To answer some of these questions, Hook Research reached out to Unusual Ingredients: a live musical event and album experience exploring the dynamic relationship between sound and flavour. The project bills itself as “Willy Wonka mixed with electronic music and cutting edge cross-disciplinary science” – providing a multi-sensory experience for its audiences.
Speaking with its creators – musicians Jacob Thompson-Bell Adam Martin, and food artist Caroline Hobkinson – we explored the origins of this fantastic project, and what it says about the very modern relationship between media, food, and artistic experience…
A space where music meets experience – Unusual Ingredients
HR: What is ‘Unusual Ingredients’ and what are you trying to achieve with this project?
Jake: Unusual Ingredients is a live event and album inspired by the sensory connections between food and sound.
We’ve put together a special selection of ingredients – including popping candy, seaweed and honey – and paired each with a custom-designed piece of music to accentuate its flavours, textures, mouthfeel and provenance. If you come to our event, you’ll be invited to taste our (rather eccentric) selection of ingredients whilst listening to the music we’ve created. Caroline will guide you through the “menu” to uncover some of the deeper connections between the musical and culinary mediums. Our album packages up a selection of our ingredients with a limited edition vinyl press and digital download of the music, so you can try the multi-sensory combinations at home.
Our work is based on scientific research in the field of gastrophysics, but we’ve taken some artistic licenses to try and tell evocative stories about where certain foods are from, even recording sounds from beehives and under the sea. This project began as a slightly crazy idea about combining food and music, but it’s ended up really challenging us to find new musical approaches and techniques to capture what’s interesting and engaging about the food we’ve chosen.
HR: How have you researched and prepared for this project?
Adam: Research for this project involved us delving into the fascinating world of gastrophysics to gain a better understanding of the complexity and power of the relationship between taste and sound. The work of Professor Charles Spence was particularly really valuable in highlighting the creative possibilities available to the cross-modal artist. We looked into the work that specific chefs had done in the area and generally tried to overturn every rock that involved work between food and music. This eventually allowed us to understand the different connections which we could then utilise and exaggerate within the music making.
“We’ve taken some artistic licenses to try and tell evocative stories about where certain foods are from, even recording sounds from beehives and under the sea”
We then set about identifying the ingredients that would be most effective for the live event and record release and started to utilise the research to inform our compositions. We’ve tested these relationships along the way with specialist food tasters and more general sample audiences in order to tweak the music to best enhance the experience.
HR: I’m curious about your ‘Menu’ – How did you choose the food/music pairings you’re exploring in the work? And the order?
Caroline: We selected food that is very evocative. We found that the interrelationship between the two senses is incredibly powerful when it can amplify a certain flavour/ texture, a unique mouthfeel and the provenance or terroir of the food item.
I love that food is so powerful it lets you time travel to your own childhood. It transports us back to our inner 6 year old – that’s why we feature popping candy and gobstoppers.
The honey we use in this project is the product of a conversation on provenance and how sound can really carve that attribute out. So we recorded in an apiary the comings and goings of the honey bee and paired that with a honey lozenge that slowly melts in your mouth as the composition builds up. We’ve tried to be as exacting as possible and even came up with new parameters like ECT, “Estimated Consumption Time”. So we matched the timing of a specific ingredient to the timing of the original composition.
HR: Over the past few years, it feels like people’s relationships with food have changed – there’s been an increased interest in provenance and sustainability, for instance.
Caroline: Yes there is an incredible new awareness of provenance and sustainability and I love how sound can really honour this. You can connect straight from the cowbells in the hills to the artisan making the Comte cheese or, in our case, you are right next to the bee collecting the honey and taking it back to the hive as you hit on the liquid honey centre of our honey lozenge.
Sound can instantly paint a three dimensional environment for the food. It maps out its terroir. We feature seaweed in our project as well; here, our musical composition complements the really dry mouthfeel of the seaweed, as well as it’s natural maritime terroir. Our track starts above the sea, dives right in beneath the waves and comes back out again in a sea salt spray. “Food and the experience of it is often so anchored with the smells and sounds of its region – Spaghetti Vongole never has a chance on a rainy evening with the sound of a London siren”
“Food and the experience of it is often so anchored with the smells and sounds of its region – Spaghetti Vongole never has a chance on a rainy evening with the sound of a London siren”
HR: Instagram has also changed the way we talk about/share food (and, some argue, the way we eat). Do you think this project takes part in this wider conversation? If so, what do you think it’s adding to the conversation?
Caroline: Instagram lets us all have agency about how we feel about food, how we interact with it, and lets us create our own rituals around it on a never-ending daily basis. It connects us with like-minded people and offers a hyper intimate window into the breakfast bowls of the person we admire.
It makes people more approachable.
Instagram is responsible for making breakfast a thing that is curated, arranged and broadcast all over our social media channels. But it gives far too much impetus on the visual stimuli of our food. It reduces it to a filtered açai bowl decorated with edible but never eaten flowers.
HR: In your opinions, what makes a ‘great meal’?
Caroline: One that acts as punctuation to our busy life.
The meals we remember years later act as exclamation marks in our life: “Remember that Christmas Mum burned the Turkey?” or “that meal in Venice where we made plans for our future over Spaghetti Vongole?” One where sound, the feel of the table cloths the wine, the smell of the kitchen wafting into the room, all come effortlessly together and create a true multi-sensory feast.
That’s why we are so often disappointed when we try to recreate those meals we had abroad back in our mundane kitchen. Food and the experience of it is often so anchored with the smells and sounds of its region – Spaghetti Vongole never has a chance on a rainy evening with the sound of a London siren.
HR: There’s an increasingly strong belief that live music needs to be ‘added to’ somehow to attract streaming audiences who are used to being able to access whatever music they want, when they want it – interactivity, narrative, immersion are all tools that artists are using to power up their gigs in this way. In your opinion, how important is it that artists now provide a ‘Music+’ experience like this? Is this something you were thinking about when creating your project?
Jake: One of the reasons I love live music is the sense of communality – knowing that, even if your experience is unique, it’s felt alongside a whole bunch of other people in the same room, at the same time. That’s a really powerful thing.
But often, in a concert, you’re expected to sit and listen without disturbing other people’s experience. Going to a restaurant is usually the complete opposite – you’re expecting to talk and maybe even discuss the food you are eating. We’ve decided to bring the food into a music environment, rather than put the music in a restaurant because we’d like to put flavour and sound under the microscope (if that’s not a metaphor too far!).
“We invite you to sit still and be mindful – eyes closed, listening intently to the crackle of popping candy in your mouth, or feeling the peppery buzz of Szechuan pepper intensify on your tongue as the music changes”
We invite you to sit still and be mindful – eyes closed, listening intently to the crackle of popping candy in your mouth, or feeling the peppery buzz of Szechuan pepper intensify on your tongue as the music changes. I hope it will feel like an immersive event that draws you in through those two senses of taste and hearing.
In a sense though, it’s not so much ‘Music+’ as it is reduced listening/tasting – stripping away what’s not essential to focus on the intricate properties of the sound and food. In some cases, like with popping candy, you’ll literally hear your fellow audience; in others, with silent ingredients like honey or seaweed, you’ll simply know that everyone around you is simultaneously discovering their own listening/tasting experience.
HR: What should the audience expect to take away from attending one of your shows?
Adam: The audience will take away a whole new respect for the relationships we all experience between sound and taste.
The event will involve the audience really thinking about what they are tasting, what they are hearing and allowing themselves the time and space to consider and reflect on this personal, yet communal experience.
Our backgrounds and enculturated experiences all affect how we taste foods and hear different sounds and so, for us, it’s particularly exciting that everyone’s experience will be completely individual. We hope that an audience will take pleasure in the mindful act of really considering their sensory responses to taste and sound throughout the event and on into their lives.
Thanks again to Jake, Caroline, and Adam for taking the time to share their thoughts! Unusual Ingredients are currently performing around the UK – for more information about the project, visit their website
If you enjoyed reading this interview, you may also enjoy the other pieces in Hook’s Creator Conversations series – it’s full of great interviews like this with podcasters, app creators, musicians, and more! Make sure you don’t miss out when we drop new insights – sign up for our monthly Media Newsletter now!