St. Paul Food Opera looks to heighten the dining experience

One of the Asparagus Compositions. Photo by Melissa Rivard.

In 2006, composer and audio designer Ben Houge was living in Shanghai and working on audio for a video game project for Ubisoft when he had dinner at a restaurant called Jade on 36. The dining experience, coupled with how immersed Houge was in his audio work, made him think about applying some of the same audio concepts to a meal. “It made me realize that the types of structures I’m putting together for this video game could apply to any kind of unpredictable event.” he said.

Houge collaborated with a chef in 2010 on a workshop where they created music based on the flavors, textures and experiences of a meal. The music from that workshop eventually informed a collaboration with Boston-based chef Jason Bond for their 2012 project, Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions.

Now, Ben Houge is collaborating with St. Paul’s Zeitgeist, a quartet focused on new music, to create the Saint Paul Food Opera –a project that won a grant from the Knight Foundation during the first Knight Arts Challenge St. Paul. Zeitgeist and Houge will seek out five St. Paul chefs with whom they’ll create five musical works that partner with a dish. In the Spring of 2016, they will present three evenings of musical works partnered with dishes at Studio Z in downtown St. Paul.

The relationships between food and music have obvious connections, but there are also a lot of subtle similarities, Houge said,

“We’ve been thinking about the idea of a meal as a narrative art form. It is something that unfolds over time, and there’s different scales of time from each bite to how one dish changes as flavors meld or temperatures cool, and then the overall arc of the meal, as well. A composition can work the same way,” Houge said.

Zeitgeist’s Heather Barringer said they’re really excited to be researching chefs in St. Paul both by going to restaurants and trying food but also by asking people to nominate their favorite St. Paul chefs and culinary experts. “The decision-making process won’t be easy,” said Barringer. Already on their radar are people like Heartland’s Lenny Russo and JD Fratzke of The Strip Club Meat & Fish. Barringer said, “We will be looking for a chef who approaches the dining experience in many the same ways that we would deliver a concert or deliver any type of artistic experience.” Knight Arts grantee Zeitgeist.

Composing music to work in partnership with five courses can become an immersive experience in a lot of ways. But Houge is very intentional in not wanting to make the dining experience solitary and unlike any other meal. “The attention can kind of focus at different times on different things. I didn’t want to create a situation where it’s like ‘now you can shut up and pay attention to this dining experience.’ I wanted it to be something where people felt free to talk. That’s part of the reason I didn’t want to use headphones for this.”

Making the musical pieces work with the variable timing of how quickly or slowly people eat creates a situation where Houge is both composer and computer programmer. Houge said, “I’m writing music with the idea of where the computer is going to be able to change things. So, it’s a combination of writing phrases with the idea that they’ll be shuffled in some way. Or writing a melody line thinking about how it could be extended or modified. What I’ll often do is write something that has a sort of consistency to it, so that I can imagine what the rule would be that will generate the music that I’m writing, and then go back and write the rule that would also generate other variations of it.”

Much like a plate of food, Houge is creating compositions and programming that is never exactly the same thing twice. It is Houge’s and Barringer’s hope that this dining experience will not only create a heightened experience in the moment, but also heighten people’s awareness of future dining experiences.

Zeitgeist is currently accepting donations towards this project through Give MN. It’s a chance not only to support this work, but also secure a seat at the dinner table for one of the Food Opera events.

Note: This article was updated on 7/1/2015 to change the name of the restaurant in the first sentence. – rga