The Flavour Conductor
Mander Organs has recently completed a most unusual commission, an organ to promote a premium-brand whisky. Research into the perception of taste and how it can be influenced by other senses has built on the idea of a flavor organ as referred to occasionally in literature. J. K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World both contained references to a flavor organ, which gave taste to music. More recently, Oxford University professor Charles Spence had researched taste and pitch, as well as sound quality to match particular tastes in whisky to certain musical sounds.
Whisky producer Johnnie Walker appointed Bompas & Parr, a group that engages in flavor-based experience design, culinary research, architectural installations, and contemporary food design, to bring these senses together in the promotion of Blue Label whisky in a novel way. The centerpiece was to be a real pipe organ, for which they approached and engaged Mander Organs to complete. Very little about the organ relates to Mander’s usual work. The instrument had to be suitable for the especially composed music, it had to be played half by an organist and half by computer, work as a model for a light show produced by computer mapping, and above all had to be transportable anywhere in the world and fully assembled and tuned within 12 hours of arrival at site. This dictated an instrument with electric action and built on the unit extension principle. The organ has five ranks of pipes:
Bourdon/Flute rank 16′ to 1′
Diapason/Principal rank 8′ to 2′
Nazard/Twelfth rank 22⁄3′ to 11⁄3′
Tierce rank 13⁄5′ to 4⁄5′
Trumpet Rank 16′ to 8′
The specification had to afford the composer as much flexibility as possible and was settled at:
Manuals I and II (identical)
16′ Double Diapason
8′ Open Diapason
8′ Stopped Diapason
4′ Open Flute
4⁄5′ Octave Tierce
8′ Bass Flute
4′ Octave Flute
The Master Blender had identified six distinct flavors of the whisky—Fresh, Fruity, Malty, Peaty, Spicy, and Woody— and while a master of ceremonies would introduce these flavors, the music with electronic sound effects and the light show would seek to enhance, describe, and reflect the tasting experience. In addition, the organ was to contain a secret bar, which opened on drawing a stop engraved with the Johnnie Walker seal, revealing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, a carafe of iced water, and six whisky glasses.
It was a different and interesting project, but also a challenging one, working between a rock musician who had never composed for a pipe organ and the visionaries at Bompas & Parr, who had no idea of the inner workings of an organ. As the piggy-in-the-middle, Mander Organs had to inform the composer of what an organ was capable of, and almost as importantly, what it was not capable of. The designers at Bompas & Parr had to be informed of the workings and practicalities of a pipe organ, which required turning their inspired design ideas into something that would work as a pipe organ. Pulling these sometimes impractical ambitions and the compositional flights of fancy together in one instrument required a degree of resourcefulness and not a little diplomacy.
There were, however, compensations. Members of Mander Organs were, on a number of occasions, required to take part in whisky-tasting sessions, in order that they could understand what was being asked of the firm in creating a whisky organ.
The organ has already been featured in London, New York, and Malaysia, and further tours are anticipated over the next months and years. The musical presentation of the six flavors can be seen and heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IndMKbJCkU&feature=youtu.be. The full blend can be seen and heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8blMT7JEPKk&feature=youtu.be.
—John Pike Mander