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The Sounds Of Asparagus, As Explored Through Opera

The subject of an opera in Boston last week
Viktor Lugovskoy
The subject of an opera in Boston last week

Describing how music sounds and how food tastes, particularly for us non-professional types, is fraught with danger. We tend to fall on the same tired metaphors that turn it all to mush.

Enter Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions by Composer Ben Houge, which played at Harvard's Graduate School of Design last week. Houge, best known for his video game music, teamed up with Chef Jason Bond of the Cambridge restaurant Bondir to explore and perhaps sharpen the relationship between food and music by letting the music describe the food.

Take for example, this number. It's wooden and mysterious with specks of brightness and it was composed to play when the "Super-Caramelized White Asparagus, Bran Ash, Sesame Jelly, Lemon Mousseline, Ginger Cake" was served.

Houge says Bond's menu included many unconventional elements -- smoked asparagus froth and Togarashi (Japanese for chili pepper) marshmallow — "so it allowed the music to be more abstract."

Diners before the start of the Asparagus Food Opera.
Jeffrey Schnapp / via Twitter
via Twitter
Diners before the start of the Asparagus Food Opera.

Houge tells The Salt he wanted to illustrate how both food and music complement life. Music is often in the background — the soundtrack of pivotal life moments, like a first kiss — and food is often the thing that accompanies long dinners with friends where the conversation is what's in the spotlight.

During the Harvard performance, there wasn't necessarily a one-to-one connection between an ingredient and an instrument. "It was more about the feeling," Houge says. In fact the music was composed the way Houge composes for video games. Instead of writing a song that begins and ends in a certain time period, he writes an algorithm that allows the piece to evolve at the speed of the dinner, ending when the diners are ready.

The idea of fusing food with the arts to enhance one or the other isn't exactly new, but it takes a certain amount of creativity and a whole lot of sweat.

Last year, we brought you the story of chef and entrepreneur Bryon Brown, who was frustrated that his memories of food are less about the food than the atmosphere. So he created a theatrical project called Sensorium that employed actors to harness diners' sight, smell, texture and sound to enhance their memories.

When I think about the food that means everything to me, I think about the stuffed hen that my grandmother used to make for Christmas. It tastes like one of the few times a year that she was around and she was willing to cook. Music also has the ability to quickly conjure emotion. And it does so in a way that words can't match.

So, imagine if instead of describing sesame jelly as unsettling, we could just point to a slightly dissonant violin.

Houge says he has plans to do this again, and perhaps ditch ingredients altogether to explore sensations: spiciness, creaminess, nuttiness, foaminess.

But the last time he saw Bond, he said, "How about squash?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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