Monday, 17 June 2024 14:25

Jo Burzynska: multisensory explorer

Written by  Claire Finlayson
Jo Burzynska. Photo Credit: Babiche Martens/Viva Jo Burzynska. Photo Credit: Babiche Martens/Viva

Dr Jo Burzynska’s senses must cheer loudly when she falls asleep each night, for that’s the only time they get a break from their heavy workload.

She’s made a rewarding and varied career out of being a highly sensealert person, particularly drawn to the many fascinations and crossovers of the sensory realm (especially in relation to wine). She is, in her own words, a “multisensory explorer”.

Most will know Jo as Wine Editor of NZ Herald’s Viva magazine. But there are many more strings to the Burzynska bow: she’s a wine judge; a published author (Wine Class: All You Need To Know About Wine in New Zealand); a sound artist; a researcher; a curator; and a perfumier, with her just released ‘The Frequency Range’ a suite of fragrances that match different parts of the sound spectrum.

Jo first fell for the mystique of wine in her late teens during trips to France with her parents. Based in the United Kingdom, they made regular trips to a spot near the Loire Valley to renovate a house. “One of our friends was a wine merchant there, and I’d get to try little samples of wine,” she says. The imprint of this early wine tasting experience stayed with her. After completing a master’s degree in English, Jo took wine qualifications and worked in the wine trade in London. “From that point on, I was completely hooked.”

Realising two of her biggest loves – wine and words – could hold hands inside the same career, she took herself off to evening journalism classes and paved a path towards wine writing. It’s a career that’s kept her thoroughly engaged ever since – not least because the dictionary’s paltry range of wine-suitable adjectives adds extra linguistic hurdling to the mix. “The English language is not particularly strong in descriptors for smell and taste and mouth texture. Those describing wine professionally have almost had to develop their own vocabulary. It’s a challenge.”

Having pursued a career as a sound artist alongside her wine and writing forays, Jo found a new area of enthralment in combining all three. She’d discovered a research paper that showed sound could influence a person’s perception of taste. This tallied with her own experience – she’d often change the music she was listening to when it chafed with what she was drinking. But she figured it was just a ‘Jo thing’ that owed to her high engagement with both fields.

When she began testing the idea on her friends with informal wine and music pairings, she realised its legitimacy. She went on to establish the world’s first sound and wine bar at Christchurch’s Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery in 2014, where she curated wine and play lists to match exhibitions. Two years later she decided these sonictaste interactions had legs enough for a multidisciplinary PhD. She spent four years at the University of New South Wales, Australia, blending art and science to investigate the ways our senses interact. “There hadn’t been a huge amount of research into interactions between smell and taste and hearing. A lot of the research had been done with sound and vision because we’re such a visually dominated society. But poor old taste and smell get left behind.”

She launched a Substack in 2021 called ‘Oenosthesia: Blending Wine and Music’ to share her research in this field and continued hosting wine-and-music-pairing events. Her mission: to elevate our drinking experience. “If you pay better attention to your multi-sensory environment, you realise there are loads of things going on just below the level of consciousness that are really quite exciting. That’s what I try and get people to tap into.”

When asked what tried-and-true combo she’d suggest to the most sceptical of sippers, she says one of the “classic correspondences” is high acidity and high pitches. “Listen to some of Vivaldi’s Spring with a high acidity wine like a Riesling. Then try drinking it with drum and bass – the focus goes away from the acidity and the pitch emphasises the body and richness of the wine.”

Alternatively, there’s the sonically sensitive Pinot Noir, which thrives in the company of Brian Eno’s Discrete Music: “It’s a record that tends to go well with a lot of wines. It’s a subtle, ambient track so if you’ve got something that’s a bit on the harsh side in your glass, it can soften it.” She’s yet to meet a genre that she can’t find a tipple for. She survived the litmus test for this recently, when she was invited to come up with wine and music matches for a heavy metal zine based in the United States. “I did go into it with a bit of trepidation. But I found there were wine characters like effervescence that worked with distorted guitars in metal. I think it does prove that there’s nothing you can’t match with wine.”

Jo’s heightened senses can sometimes be a rod for her own back, though. She recalls having to abandon a bar visit on a trip to Sydney due to the dire sonic-taste situation she encountered: “I entered a smart wine bar excited by the promise of its eclectic wine list. I left, disappointed not by the wines, but by its execrable ‘worst hits of the eighties’ music playlist.” She adds, “I don’t mind a bit of cheesy 80s music, but it wasn’t doing those wines any favours. You can’t have power pop when you’re trying to coax out delicate flavours from an Armenian wine.”

Jo Burzynska FBTW

Jo Burzynska

Jo says that some in the wine industry are actively exploring the synergies between taste and sound. France’s House of Krug has been leading the pack on this front by inviting composers, musicians, and immersive sound artists, to create music inspired by their prestige Champagnes. Such experimentation is slower on the local front, but she says there are murmurings of interest from the wine industry about how to elevate the tasting experience. “I did a multisensory dinner tour with Church Road Winery. They included lots of different sensory elements (like changing the colour of the wine by wearing coloured glasses which changes the perception of the wine). It was really interesting. There are many nuanced levels that can be thought about and brought into the eating and drinking experience.”

She’d love to see the hospitality industry embrace the richness of the audio-gustatory realm. “A lot of wine bars and restaurants don’t think enough about the music they play in their establishments. They pay attention to the decor and the shape of the wine glasses and then just let bar staff play something off their iPhone.”

By spanning the sensory gamut, Jo’s workload is anything but dull. “The more you pay attention, the more there is to pay attention to. I have so many interesting projects to pursue. I do feel like there are not enough hours in the day.” She and a fellow chronic attention-paying friend have formed a ‘workaholics anonymous’ group of two to keep a check on each other’s career excesses. “We meet up to confess how many projects we’ve taken on. We haven’t had time for a meeting lately.”

Making Sense

Jo Burzynska is to publish a book based on her doctoral research into the sensory, aesthetic and emotional influence of sound on the experience of wine. It will be published by Routledge in its Sensory Studies books series.

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