Mary Ellen Childs: On Merging Sound and Scent

“What we listen to affects how we smell,” says Mary Ellen Childs. “Both those senses can make us have an emotional reaction. They might even make us experience time or space differently.”

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Even though Mary Ellen Childs had a lot to say about sound when she visited with us last month, we also spent a lot of time talking about the other senses since many of the works she has created have been immersive multi-sensory experiences.

Still I was totally unprepared for Childs’s ruminations about the aesthetic possibilities of scent, despite my harboring a personal fascination with the relationship between music and perfumery ever since I attended a performance of something called a “scent opera” seven years ago. As a result of our mutual obsession, when I asked her about her attempts to incorporate olfactory perception into her own work our conversation took a significant detour. While this digression ultimately seemed a distraction from our larger musical conversation, it is yet another manifestation of Childs’s unique approach to the creative process.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

FJO: Literally 15 minutes before you walked in the door I just read an article about you wanting to develop a piece that involves olfactory sensation.

MEC: I’m really fascinated with this. I’ve been researching it now for years. I’ve done some kind of cursory, more experimental sort of public events, but I haven’t yet created the piece that I really want to create, which would be instrumental music written to pair with senses. Specifically I’m interested in writing the music first and having a scent designer create pieces inspired by those pieces of music. And then giving the audience a way of experiencing the two things together.

FJO: There’s an ephemerality to both sound and scent. They’re both produced by physical objects, but they are also both non-corporeal. We live in such a visually dominated world, and these are two phenomena that you can’t actually see. At least sound we can now preserve on recordings. Scent is more elusive. You can bottle a scent, but when you use up that bottle, it’s gone. The other fascinating parallel for me is that the people who make perfumes are called compositeurs. They’re composers. It’s the same word, and it’s the only other usage of this word I know.

MEC: Well, and they work with notes. I have done a ton of research on this. I’ve read a lot, I’ve smelled a lot, and I’ve talked to neuroscientists who work in this field. I’ve gone to France and I visited the Museum of Perfume in Grasse, and I’ve met with a master perfumer near Paris and talked with the director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles. I’ve thought a lot about how this is going to work. I think it just takes the right moment with the right amount of money. It’s one of those pieces that has not really gone forward because it needs some financial support to make it all happen. But I’m very keen to do it.

Not too long ago, I came across reference to a study that was done showing that what we listen to affects how we smell. I was so pleased. I knew it. That was my hunch, because both those senses can make us have an emotional reaction. They might even make us experience time or space differently. Think of a smell that you want to recoil from. You physically want to contract. So you feel space differently. Sound can do the same thing. You may actually feel more spacious because of what you’re listening to. And you can slow down your perception of time through music. I think you can also do those things with scent. And so you put the two together, and the impact that they would have on you could be quite interesting.

I did an installation-style event as part of Northern Spark a little less than a year ago. Northern Spark is a festival in the Twin Cities that happens overnight, usually around the time of the solstice. It starts at sundown and it ends at sun up. I did a piece called Ear Plus Nose, because I just wanted to sort of get it out there. I just wanted to see how an audience would respond. I used recorded music, my own music. It was a room bigger than this, but not a lot bigger than this, and there was one fragrance that was diffused into the space. Then there was one long table where there were four fragrances. You could take a smell strip and dip it into the fragrance and then could combine that experience with what was diffused into the room along with what you were hearing.

I asked people to write their responses afterwards. I had two stations with two different sets of cards—two questions. The first question was basically just to write about your experience in this room. You know, what was it like? What did you respond to? And the other one was to write a scent memory. And once you’ve written that scent memory, tell me if there was any sound associated with it. I thought maybe some people will do that. But I still haven’t gotten through all the responses! I have a huge bag full. In the course of those hours, I also learned which of my pieces worked in that setting and which didn’t. I was going to try to cycle through various kind of moods and sound worlds, and keep track of when that music was playing and what responses I was getting. That became too much of a headache to keep track of, so that went out the window pretty fast. I ended up gravitating towards one piece that was pretty steady state. It created a mood, but it didn’t have a lot of ups and downs and changes, and I just let that play over and over again. And that was the thing to do in that particular setting.

FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that music has this narrative arc over time and changes. Even most very hardcore minimalist pieces are about the very subtle changes that occur in them over time, because when changes happen so slowly it makes the moment of change feel extremely significant. In a way, such pieces are similar to the way we experience a scent. It initially seems like a steady state but, due to the physical properties of chemicals, it changes over time and certain notes that were less prominent become more foregrounded. Perfume writers often compare a fragrance’s top notes, the olfactory combination you originally encounter when you smell it, with the base notes that appear after its dry down. Of course, this is a function of physical reality.

MEC: Right, so in a concert setting the way that I’m curious about exploring the use of scent is with diffusion techniques and to see if the landscape of scent will change over time. I actually wanted to have additive scents. Let’s say you start out with a citrus note, then you add something more floral, then after that something a little more savory, stronger in some way. Over time you change the scent in a way that actually works. But there are some challenges with that. It’s not a straight forward thing to do because what happens with the way our noses work is that once you smell something you tend to stop smelling it after a while. So, in order to change the scent landscape over time, I would probably have to diffuse the citrus note and then bring in more citrus plus the second scent. And then also consider that the experience of somebody who might walk in midway through would be different because they’re getting the first impact of everything.

It would take some work, and it would take some very knowledgeable people to explore this with me. I don’t know that that particular thing has been done very much, and I’m really interested in exploring it. But on a different note, the other thing that I’ve been doing just to try to start working with this material is I’ve been hosting a series of scent dinners at my home where we have a food course, then a scent course, then a food course, and a scent course. I love to have people over for dinner. I love to cook. I love to make an experience of the evening, and so adding in scent was kind of an interesting thing for me to do. And so I did the first few scent dinners without music, then I thought I should just be taking advantage of these people who are here to pair the scents with music, and so I started doing that and then asking people for their responses. And that’s been pretty interesting, too.

When I talk about working with scent and music, mostly people are very curious and very interested and they want to know more. And they say, “I want to come whenever you do this piece.” But I also get people whom you can tell they’re put off by it, or they’re a little bit worried about it, or they’re not sure they would want to come to a performance like that. And I think it’s because you can close your eyes, we can even plug our ears, but scent actually comes right into our bodies. It comes right inside your lungs. People have strong reactions to it and it is different for everybody. You have different scent preferences. And you have different things that you associate with scent. I was surprised when I heard there were some people who love the scent of skunk. I always thought that that was a miserable scent that you wouldn’t want to be around if you didn’t absolutely have to. But there are people who actually enjoy that scent. And I think that just tells us how individual people’s responses to scent can be. It has to do with your own personal history. I also think it has to do with your cultural background. So I feel like this is such a rich thing to be exploring with music, and I’m actually very eager to do more.