Tag: olfactory perception

Mary Ellen Childs: On Merging Sound and Scent

Mary Ellen Childs sitting on a bench in front of a branches.

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.

Advocacy and Communication

I had something of an epiphany about how the various parts of my life relate to each other last week when I gave a presentation both about my own music and my writings and talks concerning the music of others for the composition seminar at Yale University. The more I’ve thought about that epiphany, the more I’ve wondered if it has larger implications for how artistic experiences are created and communicated to others.

As a writer and speaker about music, I have pretty firmly established my working methods as being advocatorial rather than critical. I’ve long believed that my own opinion about a piece of music (or anyone else’s opinion for that matter) is far less important than the piece of music itself and the person/people who created it. I tend to distrust the received wisdom culled from arbiters of taste (self-appointed or otherwise) only slightly less than my own personal taste which can all too often get in the way of experiencing the ideas of another creator on his or her own terms. So I’ve endeavored whenever I write or talk about something, or whenever I talk to someone about his or her work, to try to describe the work rather than to evaluate it and, in conversations, give the creator the opportunity to speak on the work’s behalf.

This kind of openness might perhaps seem antithetical to the process of composing music which is, after all, a sharing of one’s own personal musical aesthetics with the world. Undeniably there are specific musical ingredients that I feel pretty passionate about and which I therefore explore quite a bit in my own music—microtonal intervals, repetition (whether actual or perceived), vocal melodies that are based specifically on the pronunciation and meanings of the words sung, permutational patterning (whether based on themes, scales, or tone rows), oddball rhythms (particularly quintuple and septimal time), metric modulation, and even occasional indeterminacy. At the same time, though there’s a lot of theory behind much of what I compose, I try my best to always make whatever technique or process I explore clearly audible.
At Yale last week, a student asked why it was so important to me that my music communicate so directly even though it sometimes incorporates somewhat esoteric techniques and processes. And then it dawned on me: when I write about other people’s music, my goal is to advocate for their music; when I write my own music, my goal is to advocate for whatever techniques I’m exploring. When I set texts, my goal is to advocate for those words. For me, it’s actually all the same thing. The more music I hear by others, the more ideas I’m inspired to pursue on my own and the more I pursue certain of those ideas the more I want to ask others about them. Isn’t this what we all do, either as creators of or respondents to artistic experiences? Everything emanates from listening.

Then on the train ride back from New Haven, I started reading New Zealand musicologist Christopher Small’s seminal 1998 book Musicking, which is a scathing attack on how orchestral music is performed and listened to. Though Musicking had been on my reading list long before Small’s death in September 2011, I was not quite prepared for the book’s intensity, especially after a wonderful day at Yale that helped me clarify my approach to music. Here’s a sample of Small’s argument:

“What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration. Whatever the event may be celebrating, it does not seem to be unity, unanimity or intimacy but rather the separation of those who produce from those who consume…”

Earlier in the book he decries concert hall construction that ensures a separation between performers and audience and a seating arrangement that makes it difficult for attendees to do anything else besides merely listen to the music. Though I was somewhat baffled by the first concerts I attended back in my early teens, I very soon grew to love how the format allowed for a really deep absorption of sonic information that was not constantly interrupted—either by someone asking you to buy a drink or other attendees loudly having a conversation which makes it extraordinarily difficult and at times impossible to fully process the music being performed.

I have not yet finished Musicking and will probably have more to say about it. I’m now up to the chapter titled “Summoning Up the Dead Composer” which I’m sure will be a doozy. As a composer and an advocate for the music of other composers, primarily those who are still alive, I have quite a few issues with the culture of orchestral music concerts which are all too rarely concern themselves with the music of the here and now. That said, I wouldn’t want orchestras and large concert halls to go away—quite the opposite. I want them to let more of us in!

Small was hardly the first writer to make this analogy, yet I find it particularly troubling that someone so attuned to the importance of music in human society (as he proved himself to be in his first chapter) would come to the conclusion that unimpeded listening is a form of submission that is ultimately bad for people. A similar argument could be made for us not looking at paintings or reading books (including his). Ultimately, taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would have us never pay full attention to anyone else. I fear all too many people are encouraged not to pay sufficient attention to others these days which has resulted in a world where political discourse is often reduced to binary echo chambers.

On Saturday afternoon, however, I found a pleasant refutation of experiential immersion as subjugation during an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD), a place I had never before visited. What got me to finally attend was an exhibit devoted to perfume. (Readers might recall how my attending a performance of the Scent-Opera—a collaboration between composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, “librettist” Stewart Matthew, and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel—triggered a summer-long exploration of perfume that led me to think about music somewhat differently.) MAD’s presentation, which unfortunately closed on Sunday, might offer the next step toward refining that line of thinking.

MAD Perfume Exhibition

Is sticking your head inside one of these indentations to experience a perfume an act of discovery or submission?

The exhibition consisted primarily of an empty wall with twelve indentations for visitors to stick their heads in to smell twelve specific perfumes created between the years 1889 and 2010. A brief text about each of the perfumes was projected onto the empty wall but only for short periods of time. I found it impossible to read each of the blurbs in only one go and had to wait for them to re-appear. Similarly, an introductory text appeared and then disappeared on the floor. (A side room offered a monitor displaying video interviews with the perfumers, as well as vats of each of the twelve perfumes on display in the main exhibition; visitors were allowed to dunk paper into the vats in order to smell the perfumes for a more extended duration, though even when smeared on paper the perfume will fade.) By turning the process of reading the texts about the perfumes into an experience as fleeting as smelling them, MAD created a remarkably apt way of describing the ephemerality and elusiveness of olfactory perception. Of course, music is as ephemeral and elusive, perhaps even more so in a live performance which you can’t even stick your head into again to rehear.

MAD Perfume Exhibition 2

Even if you save the paper on which you were allowed to blot drops of perfume, they will eventually lose their scent.

During the hour I was at the exhibition, I witnessed people of all ages willingly sticking their heads into those indentations with curiosity and delight, though it was an even more submissive act than sitting in a concert hall. Then again, it was very instructive to watch and listen to the videos and hear perfumer Ralf Schweiger enthuse about the aroma of sloths, reveling in how they smell like hair and dirt, only then to confess that much as he likes their fragrance, including it in a perfume is problematic. As he opined, “You can’t push the envelope too much because people won’t like it.”

Again I was reminded of all the sounds we love as composers and how we attempt to include them in our music either fully conscious of or completely oblivious to how they will be perceived by others, depending on our aesthetic inclinations.

Smells Like a Symphony

I briefly ran the science club during my senior year of high school. Ironically I wasn’t all that into science at the time, but I had just started becoming obsessed with musique concrète, the harmonic series, and Stockhausen-brand serialism, all of which had an aura of laboratory experimentation and sci-fi. But it was ultimately a bad fit—while I tried to get the science nerds who joined up interested in building new instruments that could play intervals derived from pi, they kept asking when we’d start dissecting frogs.

One rainy afternoon, though, a couple of us had a deep think about why sophisticated art forms developed for some senses (seeing and hearing) but not for the others. Was it based on the limitations of human perception or did we just not have the proper tools? (To me, decades later, these questions feel like they’re straight out of Samuel R. Delany’s extraordinary novel Babel-17, which unfortunately none of us had yet read at the time.) Could there be a way to capture aromas the same way that Edison captured sounds with the phonograph, so that an olfactory experience could be readily accessed the same way as, say, Charles Ives’ 4th Symphony or the original cast album of Sweeney Todd? Or barring reproducibility, could there at least be a way to coordinate the one-time release of specific aromas into the audience, the way the instruments in an orchestra release specific sounds? My involvement with the science club ended soon thereafter—I couldn’t deal with vivisection—but I never stopped thinking about the possibility of “nose music.”

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon when I showed up at the Guggenheim fresh off a plane from Hong Kong to experience Green Aria – A ScentOpera, created by “librettist” Stewart Matthew in collaboration with perfumer Christophe Laudamiel and co-composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson. I had no idea what to expect and was frankly worried I’d pass out as soon as the lights were dimmed. But I remained completely attuned to what was going on the whole time, though now I find myself uncharacteristically at a loss for words to describe it using written language, so bear with me.

Scent Microphone

This “scent microphone” housed in the perfumery museum in Grasse, France, is very similar in both appearance and function to the devices that were attached to the seats of the Guggenheim for their presentation of a “Scent Opera.”

Each seat in the Guggenheim’s basement concert hall was equipped with what looked like a gooseneck microphone. But rather than amplifying sounds, these Rube Goldbergian devices transmitted different aromas pumped into them from a “scent organ” designed by the ventilation manufacturing company Fläkt Woods. In under an hour, the audience was bombarded with a sequence of various scents—some extremely satisfying, others quite intense and difficult to take for long—to the accompaniment of parallel musical motives to help in their identification. While I wasn’t completely able to follow the pre-explained narrative exclusively through my nose and ears, it was still one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had. And like the greatest works of art in any medium, it asked way more questions than it answered.

I began to wonder if it could it ever be possible to comprehend narrative meaning through the sense of smell. They called it a “ScentOpera,” but to me it was less dramma per musica than nasal symphony. But if it is somehow parallel to music, could there be aromatic analogues to things like harmony? Combining aromas frequently leads to a new aroma, more like mixing colors, rather than a perceptible simultaneity like a major triad. During a pre-“concert” talk, Stewart Matthew acknowledged that in order for aromas to be perceived they have to be emitted slowly, since one’s ability to smell something is predicated on one’s breathing cycle. So there could never be fast-paced odorama. But does that mean there can never be an olfactorily perceptible rhythm?

I already mentioned that some aromas were less than aesthetically pleasing to me—one called “Funky Green Imposter” was actually unpleasant at times, but it’s the one I still remember the most vividly one day later. But none was an out-and-out stinker. One of the most unforgettable memories of my entire life was the inescapably wrenching putrefaction of the tanneries of Fes, Morocco, but could such an aroma ever be incorporated into a bona fide “work of art”? Contemporary visual art is rather “anything goes”. And in music, Schoenberg began the emancipation of dissonances that Cage subsequently took to its logical sonic end. I love looking at many abstract expressionist paintings and to my 21st-century ears things like tone clusters, wildly out of tune collections of intervals, and even white noise are sonic joys. But I will never learn to love the stench of sewers.

After the performance, I wandered through Central Park in a daze which I think was more a result of the aroma overload than the jetlag—I was constantly distracted by the smell of people’s perfume, cigarettes, various leaves, etc. Things I normally took for granted and tuned out had heightened meanings but there was no overarching context for them beyond what they were, so it was all somewhat confusing to me. I was looking for (actually smelling for) meanings that weren’t there. Pauline Oliveros’ deep listening teaches us to appreciate sound as all-encompassing, but is deep smelling possible or even something we’d want to engage in?

When I finally returned home, I still couldn’t get certain Green Aria aromas out of my head: like Chaos, which to me smelled heavenly; Evangelical Green, which was cloyingly plant-like; and the aforementioned Funky Green Imposter which smelled somewhat burned. I drank a beer hoping to make these aromas go away, but it tasted funny to me. I later went out for dinner but the flavors of my meal were also totally altered. If aroma intake is that powerful an experience, it would be difficult to experience more than one work created to be experienced that way since the first one would inevitably influence all subsequent perception.

I’m not sure where to take it from here, but I kinda wish I was back at the science club and that we all had access to that Fläkt Woods contraption.