Monday, March 2, 2015

Oud and the Eternal Cycle of Life

"Humus ist the true black gold. Humus has a good smell. Humusscent is more sacred and closer to God than the smell of incense. Whoever walks in the forest after rain knows this smell."

So wrote the Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in his 1979 eco-philosophical manifesto "Shit Culture - Sacred Shit" (it was the Seventies, you know).To him, this is the smell of life understood as a cycle. No life without death, no sustenance without decomposition, food to feces, feces to food. We are made of earth and earth we become.

I recently won a bottle of La Via del Profumo's Oud Caravan No. 2 - I had briefly written on Dominique Dubrana's trilogy of Eaglewood scents before this blog went into hibernation. These are not Western fashion ouds that contain nothing of the sort, but scents in the indo-arab tradition made from and centered on (cultivated, rather than the insanely expensive wild) oud. Oud, which like humus has been called black gold, is an olfactory cornerstone of Islamic culture and I assume that a European/American like myself would not ever be able to emotionally comprehend its many-faceted significance in this respect, but at best acknowledge it intellectually. In fact, most Westerners at this sanitized point in our civilization are likely to be disturbed by the deeply organic smell of "gaharu" and would consider it an anti-perfume rather than a precious jewel (the days of massive civet, cumin and musk bombs being, after all, long gone). Animalic / barnyard is probably the most common association, though the scent spectrum of aloeswood is actually rather broad depending upon its provenance, quality and age.

What, then, is my frame of reference for Oud Caravan No. 2? It is decidely memory-bound and Northern European. My perception of the Laotian and Bengali oud in Abdesalaam Attar's composition is organic, indeed, but vegetal, rather than animal - it recalls the fruity-estery smell of decomposing foliage on its way to becoming humus. As a child I spent many hours playing on the outskirts of a park upon three huge mounds of composting leaves, many layers of which had already turned to soil. It is precisely this memoryscape and smell that Caravan No. 2 brings me back to. There is also a subtle aspect of smoke, which rings autumnal to my mind and this leads me to my other association. It is from adult life and it is anything but Islamic, though distillation has its roots in Persia and the word alcohol is, after all, derived from the Arabic al-kuhul (also visible in kajal, as the word refers to cosmetics originally): Whisk(e)y, specifically the phenomenally complex nose of the 15-year-old Irish pure potstill whiskey called Redbreast, a dram defined by its fruity-estery nature that transforms a forest walk somewhere between fall and spring into a pleasurable flavor (it accentuates sweetness rather than rot, of course). Add to that some of the smokey phenolic notes of a peated Islay Malt (back to black gold again) and I get the whisk(e)y manifestation of the vegetal organic quality of Oud No. 2.  I won't strain the analogy by pointing out that "whisky" is derived from the Gaelic term for "water of life" (acqua vitae), but the idea of a scent of life, of a complex process of growth and withering, transformation and development is what ties all of this together and makes Oud Caravan No. 2 a very meaningful scent to me, far from any of its Middle and Far Eastern roots (or maybe not?)

Friedensreich Hundertwasser once more: "The smell of humus is the smell of God, the smell of resurrection, the smell of immortality."

Monday, January 26, 2015

The sickly stink of perfume

Which circle of the hell of consumer capitalism is it, in which homo consumens must wade through the fetid stench of mass perfumery, the synthetic vomit spewed forth by zombie accountants brown-nosing the idol of shareholder value and quartely reports, who believe that Daltroff is a cigar brand? How depleted must one's soul be to believe, to faintly hope even, that some sickly chemical broth hyped with the face of the moment will bring romance or adventure into your life, or even just get you laid (and if it did, would that not truly be the consummation of human abjection)?  Madness, madness all and the certain implosion of our world now that three billion Chinese and Indians and Brasilians aspire to pursue the same inane lifestyle practiced with blind abandon by 700 million Americans, Europeans and the other self-entitled masters of the universe.
I buy therefore I am - this bankruptcy of ethos; this bane of postindustrial humanity that drives the system and which the system forever generates. An icy hell of desperation, this misunderstood pursuit of happiness. No bliss. Bliss is elsewhere. Bliss is care of the self, as the Greeks taught it, as Foucault rediscovered it. Nurturing your soul lovingly, growing, mindful of yourself and therewith able to become mindful of the world, not its mindless devourer of ever unstilled appetites. Bliss is rose, smell of rose, and yes, the art of a rose transformed by the gift of a craftsmen into scented sculpture. Perfume as pursuit of beauty, pursuit, for years perhaps, within the soul no less than amidst the scent organ. No management briefs, no algorithms, four weeks and a three-cent budget. There is no hope on the floor of the department store; there your nose will find fourteenhundreed new reasons every year to give up. Hope is to seek out the few keepers of the flame, those of calling, of vocation and devotion. Dominique Dubrana, Josh Lobb, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Ayala Sender, Antonio Gardoni and all of like spirit: resistance of the aesthetic, aesthetic of resistance! Inhale deeply, inhale in slow time!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas everyone

The big day of gift-giving in Germany is the 24th. I gave perfume (Rousse for the wife , Divine L'Homme Coeur for dad-in-law, a pack of care products from The Refinery for "junior") and received... whisky (gotta work on my reputation). Yesterday I wore Sharif by La Via del Profumo, low key radiance and a tribute to the Magi, today I stayed clean, as I was busy in the kitchen all day with chestnut soup, Turkey and hazelnut praliné semifreddo; extensive cooking orgies and perfume just don't mix. For the relaxing part of the evening it's going to be Aveda Chakra 7 Balancing Body Mist, not just meant to represent wisdom and joy of life, but also a very Christmassy scent built around olibanum, angelica root and elemi gum. It is strongly resinous-green, quite enlivening and archaic, lacks any kind of modern perfumist structure and fades within a few hours, as a body mist would be expected to do, but it works for me, particularly on this day. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ceci n'est pas santal - Santal Majuscule by Serge Lutens

I was griping about the disappearance of Mysore sandalwood six months ago - how fitting, that Serge Lutens would now release a perfume ironically title Santal Majuscule - ironically, because there's no CAPITAL LETTER sandalwood here. In fact, it's hard to make out any at all. Smelled blindly I would have taken this to be Amouage Jubilation XXV, or maybe Paestum Rose by Eau d'Italie, two perfumes (by Bertrand Duchaufour) I briefly owned. I sold them, because I found the gourmandy rose just a bit too much, both in terms of the actual smell and its ubiquity - that sugary floral accord has been all over the place in the last couple of years, it seems (I also perceive it in Cannabis Rose). So this is a spicy woody floral, but the wood is just another conventional accord dominated by the soft textures of cashmeran, iso-e-super and the likes. There is nothing here close to an actual Mysore sandsalwood note.  "Santal" "Majuscule" smells nice enough, though its confectionary intensity is not my cup of tea at all subjectively, but it's aesthetically redundant and misleadingly named - making Uncle Serge's schoolboy reminiscences a bit beside the point. Wasn't it nice, when a perfume named Rousse matched a redhead (like my wife) perfectly and Arabie actually smelled of 1001 nights. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ring out, solstice bells

What better time to revive state of the [car]nation than around the winter solstice, when the days begin to wax again. I shall be waxing poetic again myself, now that I'm on Christmas break, on this and that, but for now, let me please advertise Anya McCoy's lovely winter solstice project which includes lovely prizes every day and reflections on solstice rituals across the world:

A New Tradition: Anya's Annual Winter Solstice Giveaway Event
Anya is starting a new annual tradition on her blog. She has long been fascinated with this time of year, when, as a child, she noticed the cold, dark days of wintertime Philadelphia were made tolerable by the festive lights of Hanukkah and Christmas. In her neighborhood, Christmas lights were kept lit in windows until New Years Eve, brightening the dark streets and making the cold more tolerable.
This year, Anya is inaugurating a Winter Solstice Event on her new blog, hosted on her own website. The former blog site didn't allow her to see the email addresses of people who left comments, and some giveaway prizes went unclaimed when the winners couldn't be notified. Now, everyone will be notified immediately after their name is randomly chosen.
The celebration of lights will begin on the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21st, and continue through the lengthening days with a giveaway every day. Anya will also write about personal, perfumery, mystical and practical events that have shaped her in her art and life. It will be a lovely journey that she hopes to share with you, and with the giveaway gifts, pay it forward to the community of customers and natural perfume lovers who have helped build her businesses.
You can register at the blog to receive updates on posts, or subscribe to the RSS feeds for posts and/or comments by visiting the blog page.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adieu, Mysore mon amour

Sometimes an obvious truth, one that has been discussed and acknowledged time and again, often enough to have simply become cognitive inventory, sometimes such a truth, which has become commonplace as a purely intellectual concept,  grabs you out of nowhere and acquires a new terrible weight when it's connected to a sensory impulse, something palpable that incurs an emotional response, a jolt, which then again sets in motion a reflexive process about reality, change, loss.

We've all read and written about the demise of Mysore sandalwood, its effects on the perfume industry, the inadequacy of synthetic substitutes, the growth of a new sandalwood industry in New Caledonia, Australia etc. But this morning I sprayed on some vintage Floris Sandalwood, of which about 2ml remain in my posession from an ancient decant swap with a long gone basenoter. And it just hit me with such force that this part of perfume culture, but for the last traces, which may linger on here and there below the radar, is basically over, gone, fini, terminado, aus und vorbei.

The almost unadorned beauty of this simple sandalwood scent from a once proud perfume house has long since been replaced by a shadowy surrogate, wholly inadequate Ersatz, and will never shine again. That is hard to accept in the face of such perfection once achieved. So you chase the end of the rainbow, that vintage bottle of Floris, or Crabtree & Evelyn, or something else that's been rumoured to be the real thing. You keep running west to keep the sun from setting for good, but it gets harder and harder. In the end, you cannot stop time, and where better to learn that lesson than through perfumery, the most ephemeral of all arts and crafts.

So what to do? Build a shrine to memory, like the untouched room of a lost loved one, a Platonic essence of scent that will never turn rancid (or will it, by its very sterility)? Let go and accept, embrace the new reality of what the market can deliver? Dusty brocade or new day rising? 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ouder than Bombs - A Best of Aloeswood

The extensive Oud-hype in "niche" perfumery has been an object lesson in how this marketing regime works: on fashionable trends rather than creativity, as business rather than art, as a branch of the mainframe aromachemical industry rather than a countercultural and economic project by aesthetic elitists. "Oud" became completely dissociated from the actual natural product, a rebranded signifier representing exclusivity, rarity, mystical oriental traditions on the marketing side, but a stereotypical woody iso-e-super base in terms of actual scent. The usual highly profitable game of high-flying illusions above  a bland mainstream safety net.     
Of course, such corruption is not specific to western capitalism. Oud is a substance so rare and yet so highly desired in the Middle and Far East, that its sources have been plundered as wrecklessly as those of musk and sandalwood, while the market has been swamped for years with inferior products, stretched with or entirely consisting of either low grade materials or synthetics. Even extremely high prices offer no protection from forgery. Thus it will take a very experienced nose and a very trusting relationship with suppliers, or even better producers, to get at the real thing. One should always keep in mind Jean Paul Guerlain's story from his wonderful "My Journeys in the World of Perfume" about seeking a sandalwood supplier for Samsara, thus travelling through the remotest countryside of India near Nepal only to find "neatly lined-up drums bearing the labels of companies well-known in the perfume industry!" (p. 91)
Dominique Dubrana of La Via del Profumo, of whose work I have clearly outed myself as a great admirer previously, has chosen a different route. Armed with the deep respect of the natural perfumer for his or her materials, he has embarked on a journey with a number of members from basenotes to create refined Ouds which put the true high quality oil at the center, but carefully mounted as a precious jewel with a ring of accentuating materials. Fittingly named Oud Caravan No.s 1, 2, & 3, I have graciously received samples of these labors of olfactory love and shall be writing about them, as I explore these complex fragrances. The Ouds are quite distinct, and I shall begin today by noting their primary opening characteristic:
No. 1: decomposing foliage. A sharp clear impression based upon the childhood memory of playing adventurous games upon huge steaming mounds of leaves which were slowly turning to humus. Fruity-earthy-smoky-rotting this takes me right back to that moment in the past
No. 2: herbal-spicy ambery wood. The most accessible of the trio as it references well-known factes of perfumery.
No. 3: horse stables. That unique sweetness of horse's bodies and their dung mixing with the sweet hay of their feed,  a peat-fire burning nearby. This one best confirms my theory that if you love those phenolic peat-sated Islay Malts you cannot but enjoy Eaglewood as well. 

These are just impressions from the first seconds of smelling - the caravan has not yet crossed through the city gates, but a central theme of the journey has been clearly established. Too fascinating not to continue onward, and the experience happily makes you forget the dreary legions of industry banalities that besmirch the name "Oud," here returned to its true glory.

Image courtesy of