Tag: perfume

Engaging All the Senses

Last year I spent most of my birthday wandering through various New York City galleries to see tons of recent visual art. This year, visual art also played a role in the day’s activities (I finally made it to the 2012 Whitney Biennial) but I devoted a significant amount of energy to sating my other senses as well, all of which presented different curation models.

My kind of traffic jam

My kind of traffic jam: the dim sum carts at Golden Unicorn.

The day began with tasting a nice range of the dim sum at Golden Unicorn on East Broadway in Chinatown, my favorite place to eat dim sum in New York City. (I didn’t eat enough Cantonese food in Hong Kong!) As in most classic dim sum places, although there is a menu, the way the food is normally ordered is directly from waitresses who roam around the restaurants with carts hawking the most recently cooked up varietals. So, instead of making a decision about what you are going to eat from a verbal description on a menu, customers have an opportunity to see and smell the aromas beforehand, which is extremely effective incentive to ordering a lot of things you might otherwise not have ordered, as well as a lot more food than you probably need!

A short subway ride uptown took me up to the Whitney Museum of American Art which every two years offers a retrospective exhibition of what is new and exciting in the world of visual art. Originally these retrospectives were devoted exclusively to art produced in the United States, but recent biennials have included international work as well. While it would be great to get a sense of the latest developments in visual art from all over the world, such an undertaking is probably too ambitious for any one institution, let alone one whose presentation is contained within one Manhattan building. And this year the Biennial attempted to embrace more than just visual art by including a series of musical performances as well (including avant-garde rock pioneers The Red Crayola and, on the day I was there, jazz pianist Jason Moran and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran). The range of work presented at the Whitney this year is so broad that its being brought together under one roof seems somewhat random. In fact, that seeming randomness was further compounded by significant portions of the exhibition devoted to work that was created much further in the past than two years ago. For the 2012 Biennial, the seminal German film director Werner Herzog created a film montage of works by 17th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers (c. 1590–1638). Plus there was an entire room of work devoted to the forgotten eccentric Texas painter Forrest Bess (1911-1977), whose work was more compelling to me than most of the work on exhibit that was actually created between 2010 and 2012. (That said, I quite liked the paintings of Andrew Masullo and the sculptures of Vincent Fecteau, both San Francisco-based artists, and it was very difficult for me to draw myself away from Lutz Bacher’s Pipe Organ, an installation whose centerpiece is an old, seemingly decayed Yamaha organ whose keys are triggered by a computer program yielding a random array of harmonies and rhythms—totally my kind of thing.) I should point out, however, that presumably the “art work” Biennial spectators were supposed to be considering was not any of the paintings of Forrest Bess, but rather their collection in the room by sculptor Robert Gober. Another work presented at the Biennial (by Nick Mauss) recreated a 1939 antechamber of the French perfumer Guerlain which anachronistically incorporated art works by Andy Warhol and others. Curation itself was in fact the theme of this year’s accumulation of art—the 2012 Biennal was supposedly about how our perceptions of art and everything else are shaped by the way things are packaged and presented.

Ultimately, I was disappointed. But luckily my encounter with a fake Guerlain display room was followed by visits to several real perfume emporia which inhabit Madison Avenue. Two deserve special mention here. I had never experienced any of the singular scents created for the firm of Frédéric Malle (the nephew of the famous French film director Louis Malle) before discovering the sole Frédéric Malle boutique in the United States on the corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. I was immediately impressed that, unlike any other perfume brand I know of, Malle’s perfumes prominently feature the name of each of the perfumes’ “composers” on their bottles. (I love that the name for someone who creates a perfume is composer.) However, perhaps even more impressive than Malle’s giving credit where credit is due, are three large vessels, reminiscent of the tanks in Altered States, in which a few spritzes of a scent are sprayed and effectively contained for their olfactory perception by visitors to the boutique. It was a great way to experience Jean-Claude Ellena’s 2003 almond-themed Eau d’Hiver, but Edouard Flechier’s all-encompassing Une Rose, also created in 2003, didn’t need the assistance. Remarkably, the blotter a dollop was sprayed on Saturday still holds the scent two days later.

Frederic Malle Scent Containers

The scent containers at the Frédéric Malle Boutique on Madison Avenue. Photo by Frédéric Malle courtesy Marina Lodato of HL Group.

Perhaps even more extraordinary, though, was a fragrance I smelled composed by Annick Ménardo and manufactured by the New York-Grasse firm Le Labo called Patchouli 24. It, too, has remained perceptible on the blotter after 48 hours and is truly strange—as its name suggests, it is based on patchouli but it smells somehow barbecued. Le Labo’s fragrances are part of a massive display of fragrances at Barney’s, whose offerings trump Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, and every other place I’ve visited since becoming obsessed with perfume after experiencing The Scent Opera three years ago. Like the waitresses who deal in dim sum at Golden Unicorn, the sales reps at Barney’s various consignment stands lure you with their offerings by dazzling you with their olfactory possibilities. But after about ten different scents, it is difficult to perceive anything.

Le Labo

A scent kit issued by Le Labo (no longer available) that enabled people to build their own scents; talk about information overload.

This is not true for experiencing tons of pieces of music, which I have done time and time again for years and did so again to cap off all these other sensory encounters. Saturday night was the final concert of Carnegie Hall’s 2012 installment of Spring for Music, a festival offering a week of adventurous programs by North American orchestras. Last year I went to three of the seven concerts. I planned to outdo myself this year and go to all six concerts. Jetlag got the better of me the first night, so I missed the Houston Symphony’s Shostakovich extravaganza, but I attended everything else. There were many aural delights throughout the week. On Thursday, the Alabama Symphony (under the direction of Justin Brown) opened their concert with a fascinating new piece by Avner Dorman called Astrolatry (I’m eager to see the score) and closed it with an incredibly insightful reading of a piece I thought I had heard enough times not to be surprised by, the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven (Beethoven?!?). The next night, Edo de Waart led the Milwaukee Symphony in a very lush performance of Qigang Chen’s Chinese-music-meets-Messiaen cantata Iris dévoilée. (To drive home the connection, there was also Messiaen on the program.). But until Saturday, the highlight for me had been Wednesday’s stunning performance by soprano Hila Plitman and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jacques Lacombe of Edgard Varèse’s final composition (the unfinished Anaïs Nin-inspired Noctural, which was completed by Chou Wen-Chung), even though for most people in the audience it seemed to be trumped later that evening when Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra to play Ferruccio Busoni’s 70-minute everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Piano Concerto (1904), which ends with a male chorus.

ESO Flag Wavers

The most enthusiastic audience of the week by far was that of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra which included 1100 Edmonton residents (who flew to NYC just to attend the concert), among them the town’s mayor and several members of the Canadian Parliament. Photo by Steve J. Sherman; courtesy Véronique Firkusny at Mary Lou Falcone Public Relations.

But Saturday’s concert, by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, was the program I wanted to hear most of all. It opened with the Larry Austin completion of Charles Ives’s final composition, the Universe Symphony, which he worked on, on and off, for almost 40 years until the end of his life in 1954. It remains one of American music’s most enigmatic and controversial works. While Saturday night’s performance did not definitely answer any of that work’s mysteries, it certainly shook up Carnegie Hall with its 5 conductors and 20 percussionists scattered across the orchestra.

Terry Riley & Tracy Silverman

Composer Terry Riley in rehearsal with electric violinist Tracy Silverman. Photo courtesy Mitchell Korn.

For Terry Riley’s new electric violin concerto, The Palmian Chord Ryddle, the orchestra was joined by Tracy Silverman, who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a violin can rock as hard as a guitar. If that wasn’t enough, they followed all that with Percy Grainger’s The Warriors, a 1916 composition for large orchestra featuring three pianos and almost as many percussionists as the Ives. This work also required multiple conductors. It was Grainger at his wildest. Too bad Ives and Grainger didn’t know each other. Or did they?

Usually I attend art exhibitions, restaurants, or perfume shops and contemplate how much music presenters can learn from what these other communities do. But this time around, the music people totally got it right. The music proved to be my favorite part of the day, although I’m also still thinking about Patchouli 24, can’t wait to return to Golden Unicorn, and think that next year I’ve got to find a way to have an encounter with something tactile as well.

The Realm of the Senses

“We search for visual beauty in art and in nature, and take care to arrange our homes in a way that pleases the eye. We seek out new music and musicians to add to our CD collections; perhaps we have learned to play an instrument ourselves. We spend time and money on sampling new and exotic cuisines, even learn to cook them. We pamper our sense of touch with cashmere sweaters, silk pajamas, and crisp linen shirts—we can hardly help refining it through our constant interaction with an infinitely varied tactile world. Yet most of us take our sense of smell for granted, leaving it to its own devices in a monotonous and oversaturated olfactory environment. We never think about its cultivation or enrichment, even though some of life’s most exquisite pleasures consequently elude us.”

—Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume (North Point Press, 2001; re-issued in paperback by Gibbs Smith, 2004)

“Some say Fougère Royale [first issued in 1881] is to fragrance what Kandinsky’s first abstract gouache of 1910 is to painting: a turning point. Even the tongue-in-cheek name (‘royal fern’) announces that the game has changed: ferns, of course, have no smell and there is nothing royal about them. […] Fougère Royale starts the way some Bruckner symphonies do, with a muted pianissimo of strings, giving an impression of tremendous ease and quiet power. It does smell of coumarin, to be sure, but it is also fresh, clean, austere, almost bitter. […] But wait! There’s a funny thing in there, something not altogether pleasant. It’s touch of natural civet…”

—Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent (Harper, 2006)

“Dune [by Dior] is a strong contender for Bleakest Beauty in all perfumery […] dissonant but interesting […] [I]t’s as if every perfumery accord had become a Ligeti cluster chord…”

—Luca Turin in Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Viking, 2008)

Despite all of the marvelous experiences in other cities I had over the past two months, the event that still remains most vivid to me is Green Aria—a Scent Opera, which I caught during my two day return to New York City in between flights. My encounter with that completely unique artistic creation triggered a ton of thoughts at the time which have only gotten more elaborate as time has gone by, and have been even further fueled by the writings of perfume guru Luca Turin. In one of life’s inexplicable yet fortuitous coincidences, in the guest room I stayed in several days later in Toronto there were copies of both of Turin’s books as well as Chandler Burr’s biography of the man. Sneaking fleeting glances at these books during the few hours I was actually in the room hooked me into wanting to learn about olfactory concoctions and to see if my experience of them could in any way be analogous to the way I perceive visual art, literature, film, or any of the performing arts—obviously, most of all, music.

So still immersed in Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent (which I ordered along with several other nasally-oriented volumes upon my return) and armed with notes culled Perfumes: The Guide (which Turin co-wrote with Tania Sanchez) plus a list of perfume retailers in New York City, I embarked on a completely new (at least for me) experiential adventure—a jaunt through various perfume counters in an effort to figure out how much I could distinguish about the various offerings on hand.


A few of the many scents available for sampling at one of the many NYC branches of Sephora. But it is extremely difficult to process a large amount of olfactory information.

I started my quest at one of the many local branches of Sephora which allows visitors to sample a great many of the perfumes on sale without terribly forceful sales personnel hovering over you to guilt you into buying something. Conveniently placed smelling strips placed near the “tester” bottles allow store visitors to get a sense of what different perfumes smell like in the same way that headphone kiosks allow curious listeners to check out the latest recordings. So far so good. Perfumes in Sephora are divided by male and female fragrances—there’s definitely nothing analogous to that in a record store—and within those divisions arranged by company name. To me it seemed the equivalent of alphabetizing CDs by record label or music publisher. But since perfume composers (they actually use the same word!) are even less known to the general public than the composers that usually get talked about on these pages, it must be conceded that sorting fragrances by their creators would make little sense to potential consumers.

I wound up visiting three different branches of Sephora since the stock is not consistent from store to store, but eventually found my way to the first floor of Macy’s which I suppose is analogous to a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Lincoln Center for perfume. At Macy’s, specific areas are consigned to specific manufacturers whose representatives hawk their wares quite aggressively. I’d argue that the scene there is way more intimidating for a novice potential perfume audience member than attending an exhibition or an orchestra performance would be for a neophyte museum visitor or concertgoer. At the same time, you might be more likely to find a remarkable aroma in Macy’s than at Sephora. Of course, there are even higher end places to seek out the perfect scent such as Bergdorf-Goodman or specialty shops for various manufacturers which I suppose are analogous to blue chip art galleries or historic music shrines like Carnegie Hall, the Village Vanguard, or La Scala.

But after nearly two hours of sniffing, my nose was completely overwhelmed. Admittedly I’m a complete amateur at this sort of thing, but I would contend that is more difficult to stay focused nasally for long periods of time than it is to read for hours on end, look at floors of museum walls, or listen to music for hours uninterruptedly. And there’s a real bodily limitation in addition to the perceptual one. Despite my overhearing someone in the music business claim that being exposed to minimalist music made her physically ill, it seems physically impossible (though probably not psychologically so) to have an allergic reaction to music, whereas I imagine the same is not true for perfumes.

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.