It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a Wes Anderson film or in a Roald Dahl story but believe it or not, the Flavour Conductor exists in our very own world. Magicked into being by the Willy Wonkas’ of the design world, Bompas and Parr, in collaboration with Johnnie Walker Blue Label, it is a musical instrument like no other. This is no ordinary church organ; it’s part of a multi-sensory theatrical experience combining music and imagery to transform the audience’s appreciation of whisky and even make its taste change in their mouth.
Inspired by Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours where “the protagonist has a cocktail organ which he uses to compose sensual and luxurious mixed drinks,” Sam and Harry worked with Professor Charles Spence who leads the Cross Modal Research Laboratory at Oxford. “He pulled together research which showed us how to use visuals and sounds to highlight the cardinal flavours found in a glass of whisky. This was then used as a brief for our composer Simon Little, our organ builders Mander Organs and our light artists Luke Halls.”
Minds duly boggled, we caught up with the guys to find out more about this extraordinary project…
How do you translate one sensory experience into another?
You may have heard of synesthesia. It’s a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second. There are different forms of synesthisia so for example you could smell the sound of the tube door closing.
Though not everyone has synesthesia, everyone has powerful links between their senses and there are commonalities of experience. So if you ask someone to describe lemon as a note universally people will say it’s a high note while they will say that coffee is lower in pitch.
We took the principles set-out by Charles Spence as our guidelines. As the organ plays, the combination of sound and light shapes your sense of taste so you can unpick the key flavours found within a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label – malt, spice, fresh, fruit, wood and the signature peat flavour. Finally they all blend together for the seventh movement reflecting this is a blended whisky.
At the Blue Symphony event, everyone in the audience will have a glass of whisky and experience “six essential flavour characteristics” as the music changes. How do changing sound and images influence the taste in your mouth?
Your senses of sight and hearing are far more powerful than your sense of taste. The design of the organ, changing music and projection is used to direct your attention to the different flavours to be found in a complex whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Did you also work on the sound and images for the Blue Symphony event?
Absolutely! For the Symphony in Blue we collaborated with the mighty Done and Dusted who know how to put on a cracking show and are experts at spectacle. The worked on the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies and each year cover the Victoria’s Secret show. So the Symphony in Blue is pretty terrific. As well as The Flavour Conductor it features 10,000 year old ice a whisky weather system and
"We could never totally leave the fascinating realm of food. As we started with jelly it is at the quivering heart of Bompas & Parr."Bompas & Parr
You’ve increasingly worked on immersive experiences and events; do you plan to continue? Or is music and food an avenue you want to explore more?
All of it! At the moment we have a host of other live projects in London and around the world that people can attend.
There’s the tasting experience at Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, FUNLAND at MoSEX in NYC (an exhibition based on the pleasures and perils of the erotic fairground), the Plant Connoisseurs Club where you can try drugs and stimulants a Kew Garndens and Sensed Presence in London Bridge. This is all about science and ghosts experimenting with the controversial Koren Helmet for MERGE arts festival.
The aim is to work with food and design on even more epic scales creating spectacles that inspire and amaze.
If you had to either stop working with food or in design, which would you pick?
We could never totally leave the fascinating realm of food. As we started with jelly, it is at the quivering heart of Bompas & Parr.