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Hungry For Harmony: 5 Questions With Musician And Sound Designer Sara Lenzi Of JW Marriott’s ‘Taste The Moment’ Festival

The sound-smith melds audio and flavours for a multi-sensory culinary experience

Photos: JW Marriott

The seductive sizzle of a wok indicates someone’s frying something. Elsewhere, the incessant pounding of the mortar and pestle means belacan is being made. Without so much of a whiff of what’s cooking, everyone’s tastebuds start watering to these all-too-familiar sounds that imply tonight’s dinner: Mum’s signature Shiok Sambal Pomfret.

“There are several ways sound can affect our perception of tastes, and by now they have been largely investigated and proven by scientific literature,” claims Sara Lenzi, a musician and a sound designer who is in the business of heightening dining experiences with sounds. “Melodies are more likely to influence the perception of basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami, salty), whereas the sound of a sizzling pan or a crackling wood can influence the perception of the food texture.”

Lenzi may have struck a chord with us. You see, the sizzling wok had everyone picturing the crackling skin of a fried fish, while phantom spicy accents start to tickle the back of the throat with every collision of the mortar and pestle.

Before the scepticism kicks in, the study that external sounds alter food is further proven by a Prof. Charles Spence of the Cross-Modal Laboratory at Oxford University.

“His team has been able to demonstrate that our four basic tastes (sweet, sour, umami, salty and bitter) and spicy are connected to sound in that our brain respond the same way if exposed to these tastes and to a specific combination of sound characteristics such as pitch (high, low), rhythm (fast, slow), morphology (legato, staccato) and timbre, which leads us to connections between taste and specific musical instruments,” Lenzi continues, paying tribute to the man behind these fascinating theory.

To fan away the fog of confusion, sounds, in short, have been playing a notable aspect in the act of eating without us realising it. And just making a tweak to these sounds may alter our perception of flavours we have in our mouth.

If you rather a more in-depth understanding of the sound-food sensorial pairing, Lenzi will be holding a Sound Bites workshop as part of  JW Marriott’s ‘Taste The Moment’ Festival, happening on 24 & 25 March 2018, where all your senses (we mean all) are put to work for an otherworldly experience.

“At the moment, my favourite is barbecue fish with bitter sounds,” Lenzi shares candidly about her personal favourite sound-tasting pairing. “It gives that smokey taste that makes me think of summer outdoor barbecues, but without having to actually burn my fish!”

1. How did you discover this fascinating combination of sound and taste?

I knew about the extensive research carried out by a Prof. Charles Spence at the University of Oxford, there were a few experiments his lab was doing with the chef Heston Blumenthal. But it was nothing more than my standard “being updated on all about sound” research. Then one day, during a summer outdoor lunch in the Tuscany countryside, a chef who was part of the gro modal experience of my then sound agency, “FoodFrequency”. That was about a decade ago.

2. Does the pairing trigger the biology of the body/neurology of the brain, or the emotional aspect of the mind?

I’d say both. The research I mentioned is conducted by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. It has proven beyond doubt through tests such as RFMI examinations how the brain cortex reacts in the very same way (that is, “switching on” the same areas of brain activity) with certain sounds and with certain tastes. In this sense, it is a neurological behaviour of the brain. But I am a designer, not a scientist, and I like to think that no human experience happens in a lab vacuum, or in the brain as a separate entity from the body and from the environment. Cross-sensory interactions happen in the real world, with all its complexity, mutability, volatility. They are influenced by factors such as our mood that day, if we slept well, if we experience it alone or with our loved ones, if we are sitting comfortably, if the sounds are well designed and the food tastes just nice…all this concurs in creating an emotional setting that we cannot avoid, and that makes the real experience beyond what happens inside our brain.

3. When we talk about sounds, are we referring to a wide spectrum such the clash of broken plates, the rustles of trees or just melodious music?

We are definitely talking about the whole soundscape we hear around. “Soundscape” is the equivalent of “landscape” in the visual world, i.e. the full spectrum of sounds we are exposed in our daily life. But they have different relationships with food: melodies are more likely to influence the perception of basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami, salty), whereas the sound of a sizzling pan or a crackling wood can influence the perception of the food texture, and again natural soundscapes create a narrative, for example triggering memories or eliciting images of a specific place (imagine the sound of a rough sea or a tranquil beach when paired with seafood plates). So again, here
we are working at the edge between a neurological reaction of the brain, a cultural and an emotional dimension. It’s in this grey area that interesting things happen!

4. Share a local food-sound pairing and the science behind it.

Something I would really love to try is a sound-geared laksa experience. There would be so many taste layers to play with, but what I am thinking of is, as a start, some high pitched brass brand sounds, counterpointed by some slightly distorted plucked string instrument (a sitar or a pipa) with a fast-paced rhythm, and a background of rain. What scientific literature says, in fact, is that brass sounds are generally associated with bitter or sour tastes. But if they also have a high-pitched, staccato shape, then it’s definitely sour (bitter, on the other hand, would be legato, low pitched sounds). This would highlight the tamarind. I would then add the plucked, distorted pipa for spicy – which is proven to be linked to different degrees of distortion and fast rhythm. And rain, that’s just a personal touch, to trigger memories of Singapore, of course!

5. Could you briefly describe what can attendees expect at the Sounds Bites workshop?

At Sound Bites, I will be presenting a new concept. Together with the Spanish visual artist and chef Alberto Lomas we designed a series of modular dishes that work around a “neutral” base-dish and four “seasonings”. Each seasoning play with nuances of different basic tastes (sweet, bitter, sour) and with spicy (of course, we are in Singapore!). It will be the sound to decide whether the same combination of a base dish and seasoning tastes sweet, or bitter, or spicy and so on. We had fun in imagining permutations of these culinary modular elements to create a richer experience and also to pay an homage to South East Asia culinary tradition, which is the richest imaginable if you think that we are in – after all – a small area of the world