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Sonica's Unusual Ingredients show at Tramway combines food with music

This is an experience for all the senses

Published: March 16, 2022
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It seems that you don’t just eat with your eyes and mouth, but also your ears.

That’s the proposition of show, Unusual Ingredients, which is coming to Glasgow on March 18, as part of Sonica Festival 2022 (March 10-20) – Cryptic art house’s annual celebration of “visual sonic art” that takes place at various venues in the city.

They’ll be appearing for one night only at Tramway, and the 55-minute event, starting at 7pm, will explore the relationship between food and music.

Along with musicians Jacob Thompson-Bell and Adam Martin, who have created a live score, the experience has also been conceived by food anthropologist and artist, Caroline Hobkinson. 

“Years ago, I mentioned to Cathie Boyd from Cryptic that food and sound would be great for the festival and here we are,” she says.

The group, all of whom are based in England, became collaborators after Thompson-Bell approached Hobkinson. At the time, this artist was working with Professor Charles Spence, who is the author of Gastrophysicist: The New Science of Eating, at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.

Since then, the new collective have applied their combined creativity to a couple of other events.

“We worked with Magnum ice-cream on a launch with bespoke soundtracks and created a sonic dining experience called Joyride for London’s Selfridges and it’s been pretty busy since,” says Hobkinson. “Unusual Ingredients grew from there. We applied for some funding and had a few performances but then Covid struck”.

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Thus, after a series of lockdown cancellations, this is one of the first live shows.

The Tramway audience will be presented with nine ingredients to sample, and will be told what to do with each, while taking part in some of Hobkinson’s experiments.

These might involve trying not to chew, and just letting something dissolve on your tongue. 

As Hobkinson says, “I will guide people through their experience on Friday and give them exact instructions”.

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Each foodstuff has been given an ECT (Estimated Consumption Time), which the music has been designed around, so gulping something down in a one-r isn’t going to enhance the experience.

Some of the links between their music and food are literal, but that’s about linking the terroir to what is being eaten, so the sound and the taste have the same provenance. There are field recordings that were taken in a bustling restaurant, underwater along the Yorkshire coastline, and in an apiary, and there are also layered compositions from piano, electric guitar and more traditional instruments. 

The look of the space will accentuate this too.

“We have a bespoke set for Sonica. It takes people on a journey. Out to sea, up a mountain and into a forest”, says Hobkinson.

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We’re not sure where you’ll be, conceptually, when you imbibe the contents of a sachet of Fizz Wiz Super Loud Popping Candy. Eating this will be accompanied by sparkling electronic noises, chimes and staccato piano. The music reaches a crescendo as your mouth fills with saliva and the sweets snap, crackle and pop, then the sounds gently fade out again as the sugar dissolves into nothing.

“It’s in the manner of the most wacky tasting menu you can imagine with a real range of ingredients, some of which are more rarefied than others, and some have a sense of humour, in that they're children's things,” says Thompson-Bell. “Music helps with that, so you can sort of tap into primal memories and emotional experiences, creating a bond with the food that also makes people more attentive when they're eating”.

Also, these are the kind of ingredients that would normally be eaten alone.

They hope that other people’s noises will add to the soundscape, if not providing some additional ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response).

Everyone will be loudly fizzing and chomping at the same time.

“That sense of community is really important to the show as well, as it adds this extra layer”, says Thompson-Bell. “It's very much about taking food out of context, but also emphasising that togetherness and eating. Rather than doing the show with headphones, where it's sort of isolating one another, we wanted it to be a shared experience”.

As well as Szechuan pepper, dehydrated beetroot and ginger, one of the other ingredients is a Jawbreaker gobstopper, which is teamed with retro synth music that matches the sweet’s transition from hard to yielding, soft and chewy.

“We ask people to blow bubbles when they can, and you get that kind of popping and cracking as they burst from around the room,” says Thompson-Bell.

The show also features a single honey and lemon Lockets sweet, which most people don’t eat unless they have a sore throat. One of these - suspended on the tongue, until the honey is eventually released - is teamed with the strains of a cello, piano, buzzing bees and the beating of a thousand tiny wings.

“There are also these big syrupy sorts of sounds, encapsulating the way that honey tastes and where it's from,” says Thompson-Bell. “There are sensorial and contextual attributes that go into the way we work. It changes the way that people experience things”.

Thanks to Spence’s research input, they’ve also used music to modulate the way that food tastes. So one track will focus on a coffee lozenge that’s sugary but also slightly tart. Apparently, the higher frequencies bring out food’s sweet flavours, and lower ones accentuate the bitterness. As the music alters, so does the flavour. It’s subtle, but noticeable. As Thompson-Bell says, “It's a bit like a special effect, but one that you can do with food”.

For more information and to buy the Unusual Ingredients album, see www.unusualingredients.co

Tickets are £16, £8 concessions, see www.sonic-a-co.uk

Caroline Hobkinson

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Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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