Magical organ gives 'musical taste' a new meaning

Story highlights

  • Magical instrument changes the taste experience with different notes
  • Design previously conceived in classic science-fiction
  • Crossmodality allows for translation between senses
  • May transform food industry and encourage us to make better choices

(CNN)The organist's fingers step lightly through a world of summer fruits, picking out high notes that conjure zest and vitality, before segueing into a lazy melody of golden malt fields.

The whisky in my glass plays along, the taste changing with the musical cues. A scale of notes is drawn from the blend, as if a conductor is guiding me through each of its cardinal flavors.
    My experience is shared by an immaculately-tuxedoed crowd at London's Merchant Taylor Hall, the venue for 'Symphony in Blue,' an immersive multi-sensory performance from Johnnie Walker, featuring flame-throwers, 10,000 year-old ice, and Jude Law -- not all at the same time.
    But the star attraction is a bespoke organ that reportedly employed around a quarter of the world's specialist craftsmen for the instrument during a building process that took three years and 10,000 man hours. This is the 'Flavour Conductor,' a landmark for synesthetic experiment that combines cutting edge science with a devotion to enhanced pleasure.
    The concept is a well-established staple of scientists, fantasists and those in between. Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' featured a scent organ that played "arpeggios of thyme and lavender," while the University of Geneva's Géraldine Schenkel produced a 'Pianocktail' that prepared drinks based on the notes played.
    "The idea is that when you're drinking, someone is waving a wand over your glass allowing you to find all the elements," says Sam Bompas, half of Bompas and Parr -- the avant-garde food architects previously responsible for breathable cocktails and multi-sensory fireworks.
    The Flavour Conductor grew out of collaboration with Oxford University's Crossmodal Research Lab (CRL), which conducts pioneering research into how taste is affected by input from our other four senses. The Lab's Professor Charles Spence helped to establish notes to match specific flavors, and organ pipes were fabricated for each note.
    "What pitch is lemon? It's a high note. Coffee? Low. It's about working out the correspondences of colour, shape, texture, and when you have enough you can have a brief for a composer that reflects the notes," says Bompas. "With whisky we do it for all the cardinal notes, finding the ideal pitch range, tempo, and colours. We know that lemon is a high note, so if I play one as you drink lemon the taste is accentuated."
    The organ can't create flavors that are not present, but for a drink like whisky that contains dozens of competing tastes the multi-sensory accompaniment can add depth and insight to the experience. A growing body of research attests to the power of our other senses to influence the taste experience, such as studies from the CRL documenting the impact of sight on taste and sensation, from presentation of meals in restaurants to the "Butcher's Tongue illusion."
    "Life is multi-sensory and we are always capturing information that make up our perceptions", says Charles Michel, a multi-disciplinary chef and psychologist at the Oxford lab. "The more we tailor this the more we can enjoy things and be driven to more intense experiences with the right sensory cues."
    Michel sees function too in the possibilities for dining. "The food industry will be using sensory experiences to sell more but I think it has to be oriented to healthier choices, so people are guided to more sustainable choices. This can change perception and preferences."
    Commercial giants such as Ben and Jerry's are reportedly set to embrace synesthetic experiments, and restaurants are increasingly appreciating the possibilities.
    As for the Flavour Conductor, it is set to embark on a world tour taking in New York, Nigeria and Australia, ready to share the ingenuity of historic visions fulfilled, and no less importantly, to elevate standards of pleasure.
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