Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Osmodrama Report II: Smellscapes, Soundscapes

Three smell-packed days at the Osmodrama Festival in Berlin have left me full of thoughts, inspirations, questions and deep impressions. It was fascinating to see the Smeller 2.0 scent organ perform solo and as a complement to film, literature and sound art. To start with the most affective experience: The live co-performance of a sound collage by Carl Stone and a smellscape by Wolfgang Georgsdorf that really managed to transport me to another world. Smell and sound, truly on par here, interlocked to create an imaginary space that came alive through the multisensory input, that was truly multi-dimensional, sensorily palpable and emotionally present in a way that sound or smell alone would not be - it helped to have your eyes closed. The soundscape began and frequently returned to a (tropical) forest with the sounds of exotic birds, rain but also drones, to an airport in Asia with chatter, clatter and planes, but all a step removed from reality by complementary sounds, distortions and mixes, culminating in an eerie warped string ensemble - and all the while the smeller was furnishing olfactory impressions of green, plantlife, fruit, decay, of food, people, life,  carving out mental images of an alternate world. The fine detail is lost on me now, but the memory of the journey and its places is incredibly vivid. It was a truly awe-some experience that invited me to stop thinking and just immerse myself in the sensory moment. Of all the performances I saw [so much for ocularocentrism creeping into the language of a smell blog] witnessed this one worked best as an immediate sensory piece of art.

The 2016 pure scent composition Autocomplete was quite a different experience. This was part of the daytime program, there were fewer visitors than at the evening events and I sat in the first row experiencing an uninhibited airflow (which is physically noticeable when the room is not packed) and strong olfactory impressions. The sequences of smells come without any frame, explanation or sensory complement and it's interesting to watch yourself trying to make sense of them, to find a narrative or memory that gives structure to these de-contextualized smells, devoid of objects, places, persons. An "unreal" experience that made me think and reflect, rather than permit an immersion. There were three phases within the nearly hour-long piece that each formed a scene/narrative for me: a forest with underbrush, rotting humus, mushrooms, pine trees and then a human presence in the shape of a smoky camp fire; a rural farm scenery with hay, leather, horse, florals and then a shift to the farmhouse kitchen composed of clove, spices, fruit, peaches; and a short domestic "parental grooming" sequence featuring classic aftershave, cosmetics, calone (i.e. fabric softener) and pipe tobacco. Finally, a simple triad of vanillin, coffee and mothballs triggered a memory of my beloved grandparents: grandma serving her signature marble cake (my favorite, for this reason), made with vanilla flavoring, as one did in those days, and grandpa having his afternoon coffee. Their place did NOT smell of naphtaline mothballs, but that is a fictional olfactory "grandparent" trope that somehow fit in.    

This experience reveals some of the possibilities and limits of olfactory story-telling: The olfactory narrator, like the musical composer, can use chords harmonizing or contrasting, sequences that are causal or rupturing, employ repetition and variation to aim for certain effects, though as in any art the message will never be unequivocal and intention may bear no resemblance to reception. Indeed, smell reception will always be associative - your memories and emotions connected to smells will make their perception meaningful or make a sequence come together to form a scene. There will be a quiz-quality of wanting to understand, i.e. label the scent. Through my training of analyzing perfumes and a general interest in smell I found this easy, but the question is whether this cerebral act distracts from the sensory experience. Interestingly someone was programming an app during the festival that would send the actual Smeller sequences to your smartphone, providing the score, in other words. Will that improve or further distract from the sensory experience? The other inevitable reaction is judgment: this smells good, this smells bad. The smell researcher and artists Sissel Tolaas has always insisted that we learn to appreciate smells free of our assocations with them, but while an open mind/nose is certainly a good thing, our evaluation patterns of smells do have biological roots (spoiled food, approaching fire) and are an essential part of our socio-culturally formed selves - not that those are not malleable and capable of expanding and transforming, of course. But if the smell of a certain rose-scented soap "is" your mother, that is, of course, a valid and relevant reality for you that will determine your relationship to that smell - and thus that smell may be an avenue for exploring important memories and emotions for you. Awareness of smell is more important than neutrality. Why you like or dislike certain smells may reveal things to you about yourself that may remain hidden in other sensory or intellectual realms.

I, for one, am convinced that the olfactory art of Smeller 2.0 has the potential of all great art forms: of creating and questioning beauty, of expressing the creative mind, of showing us new, enriching perspectives that help us know the world - and ourselves. And it's bringing us one step closer to sensory equality!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Osmodrama Report: Scent-Tracking Literature

Madzirov, Mattes, Kissina, Georgsdorf in front of Smeller 2.0
This evening I witnessed the world premiere of a reading of poetry and prose accompanied by a scent track produced by Smeller 2.0 It was an absolutely fascinating and intriguing experience which raised many questions and pointed to many new horizons.

In the first segment Mazedonian poet Nikola Madzirov read seven poems, each preceded by a scent prologue, followed by a reading of the poem in German by Eva Mattes and then a scent epilogue. These programmed scentscapes by Wolfgang Georgsdorf  worked as a form of olfactory translation/commentary/interpretation. Madzirov loved the idea, pointing out that his poetry (each word like an uncried tear, which I found both moving and terrifying) works towards silence, which is wonderfully fulfilled by an olfactory translation that maintains the presence of meaning without language.

Ukranian/Russian author Julia Kissina read a bit from her novel Elephantina's Moscow Years, a quasi-autobiographical, surreal account of the underground art scene in the last years of the crumbling Soviet Union, followed by Eva Mattes reading a full chapter in German. In this case Georgsdorf played a scent-track live along with the reading via a Midi-Keyboard that triggered the smell releases - a daunting task, as he had to play 24 seconds ahead for the molecules to reach the audience in synchronization with the words (and since scent molecules are slower than soundwaves, there is a latency issue for the audience in the front and back - the sweet spot was gauged for the middle of the tent-auditorium). I sat in the third row and the timing worked pretty well. Kisseva, who was able to smell the scent-track (Madzirov was reading in a dead olfactory angle) and understands German seemed thrilled and joked that the scents were now "in the book" forever for her.

My impression was, that, on the one hand, we are still olfactory illiterates struggling with this new art form because we tend to underestimate scent in Western culture and lack an established vocabulary to describe it (if we are not perfumers, wine critics or coffee testers), as well as an emotional grammar to grasp precisely what it does to us. But we also lack the reference points we have when it comes, e.g., to the language of film (even if it isn't explicit, we learn the conventions of what a close-up or a panoramic shot mean). The scent experience is there, but how to link it up to the spoken word, onto which, in these cases, it is grafted as an added layer? I, for one, despite being deeply involved with smells, lacked the ability to integrate the scents with the language in the way that a film score is automatically connected to visual input by years of exposure to genre conventions. On the other hand, this experience of an added olfactory dimension has the potential to break through the conventions of literary language and the setting of "the literary performance." Thereby, apart from its sensory contribution, it may actually help liberate language from these constraints which even the finest and most experimental writers cannot evade. There is certainly way more to this than releasing a rose scent when love is spoken of:  multiple new layers of metaphorization, representation, relationality and meaning come into play.

One problem I encountered - like in my perfumista life - was the use of synthetics. A monomolecular scent doesn't trigger emotions or memories in me except within the boundaries of its self-referentiality. Melonal is Melonal (yuck), undecagammalactone doesn't work as peach/tropical/fruit/imagined south sea paradise for me but only as an obnoxious air freshener. The scent effects worked on me when they appeared "real" - animalic, moldy humus, church incense, plastic and that would bring a smile to my face or cause reverberation connecting scents and imagery from a poem in interesting ways (reenforcing and contrasting).

Wolfgang Georgsdorf is highly aware of all of theses isues and pointed out that this artform is in its infancy, as moving images once were. A whole number of firsts have occured at the Osmodrama-Festival and the feedback will be used to think about and further develop the technology of the Smeller apparatus and the conceptual backbone of "olfactory painting" and multimedia-interactivity.

Tonight, for sure, was a great, enlightening, no: ensmelling evening and it felt like watching the Wright Brothers lift off and fly into a new era.    

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Until September 18: The Osmodrama Festival in Berlin

If you happen to be in or close to Berlin within the next week, you must absolutely visit the Osmodrama Festival. Multimedia artist Wolfgang Georgsdorf has invented and built the first fully functional scent organ, which through a complicated system of airflows can place and remove scents and scent accords into a confined space (in this case a 120-seat tent-auditorium). This enables the performance of sequenced scent compositions, as well as scent-tracking films, concerts, theater productions or readings of literature. And all of this has been happening at the Osmodrama Festival since July. People who have experienced it find it a literally sensational experience, and a trove of well-known artists and performers has assembled for the events, as you can see from the progranm. The perfumer "feeding" the scent organ called "Smeller 2.0" is none other than Geza Schön and IFF is providing the raw materials. I will be in Berlin for the last three days of the festival to witness a reading, film screening and the closing party. Besides evening events, a constant rotation of scent compositions is being performed through the day weekdays.   

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Entangled History of Varon Dandy - Part 1

Advertising the "Varon Dandi" product line in the 1950s. Source: Spanish National Library,
European Perfume history tends to be somewhat gallocentric, with brief nods to "KölnischWasser" and the English tradition (the founder of the Guerlain dynasty did learn soapmaking there, after all). But the epicenter of scent (and much other) culture, was, naturellement, France. Well, yes, but - despite this special status, perfume history is really quite a multi- and transnational affair. Just as our understanding of cold war politics has benefitted massively from expanding a scholarly gaze long fixed on the US and the USSR to the complex interaction of local, regional, national and international politics (says the historian) it is worth looking - and smelling - into perfume cultures beyond the fragrance superpower to explore idiosyncracies, patterns and connections in space and time. So here, then, is the national masculine fragrance of Spain: Varón Dandy (occasionally also spelled Dandi), released by the house of Parera in 1920 or 1924. It was one of two masculines from the 1920s listed in the 1989 version of the H&R Genealogy of Perfume- the other is Knize Ten - but later editions dropped it and it is not listed in Michael Edwards' perfume database despite its uninterrupted production to this day. Parera was acquired by the German corporate empire Benckiser / Coty in 1990, famous for its low budget products, many of which were once luxury items (and that chapter of perfume history as part of the postwar development of capitalism is another, scarier, story for another time).


According to a newspaper feature from 1995, Joan Parera Casanovas had a vision of providing Spaniards with the possibility of smelling as distinguished as any French citizen, but at a price more affordable than that of imported French perfume. He began his career in perfume in 1912 in Badalona, Catalonia, one of the more metropolitan regions of Spain, but things only really took off in the Roaring Twenties. For some decades now, fragrance in Europe had shifted from being a genuine luxury item reserved to nobility and the upper middle class to becoming part of a middle class consumer and leisure culture, a product of the techno-industrial revolution with its superior extraction techniques and chemical synthesis embodying the social revolutions of modernization. Ever since, perfume has been a somewhat schizophrenic affair in projecting its desirable former upper-crust exclusivity while representing a prime example of mass production/consumption. Varón Dandy's iconic top hat and gloves emblem, which feature on the packaging to this day, were to signify high style to aspirational male consumers, while the broad product range placed Varon Dandy in the context of a male grooming culture. This positioning also aimed to forestall suspicions of male perfume usage signifying effeminacy or homosexuality which lurked in the minds of a society still largely shaped by a sternly conservative and patriarchal understanding of gender roles. Varón Dandy, by its very name bridged the gap between Spanish masculinity (varón means anything from boy, to man to great man) and the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Anglo-French "Dandy." The time was evidently ripe even in the less urbanized and industrialized south of Europe for this early expression of consumerist metrosexuality and Parera's product struck a chord in Spanish society: Varón Dandy quickly became the emblematic scent of Spanish machismo, Old Spice avant la lettre, to be woven inextricably into the tapestry of Spanish everday life and the collective olfactory consciousness of the Hispanic world. Spanish culture is full of references to and traces of it. Thus, as the Parera brand sponsored radio shows similar to its US counterparts, the well-known singer Carmelita Aubert sang the praises of Varon Dandy in 1934 as well as of communism. It wouldn't be long until the civil war broke out and after the Fascist victory Parera arranged itself with the new order and for coming generations of Spaniards, Varón Dandy inevitably became part of the smellscape of the Franco era. After democratization and with the opening-up of Spanish society in the 1980s - encapsulated for non-Spaniards like myself in the culture of La Movida and the films of Pedro Almodóvar - the scent lost much of its appeal due to its association with a discomforting past, while Parera was now simultaneously exposed to the heavy competition of the European beauty market. This may explain the Parera takeover by Benkiser in 1990. The brand actually recuperated in the following years - I imagine for similar reasons that old East German brands experienced a renaissance after "Ossis" had binged on West-products: it was, after all, the scent of "home" (with all the good, bad and ugly), of Spanish identity, memory, of a world quickly disappearing or at least massively changing in the wake of globalization (and how ironic that globalizers such as Coty should capitalize on that as they acquired that memory and increased their shareholder value by it).

Varón Dandy was by no means a purely national phenomenon, however. Like many Spanish products it diffused into the hispanic markets of the former empire with their close cultural and economic ties and acquired its own meanings there. And from South America or Puerto Rico it migrated to the US. I found this interesting passage in Marta Moreno Vega's memoir of youth culture in 1950s Spanish Harlem, When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing up Nuyorican in El Barrio. She writes of her brother:              
"On weekdays, he splashed on Old Spice aftershave, purchased at the local drugstore, but on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, he used Varon Dandy." That was the fragrance to go dancing with, not the gringo perfume, but the emblem of Spanish masculinity (together with Yardley pomade, as Vega points out - a fascinating salad bowl of grooming culture, globalization from below).

Varón Dandy is a wonderful example of how a fragrance can be a window into one - or more - cultures, in that its use and estimation mirrors the complex movement of those cultures through time and space and speaks to how people identify and make sense of themselves in the world. If anybody reading this has Varón Dandy memories, pleasse feel welcome to share them in the commentary section!

In the next part of this article I'll discuss the actual smell of Varón Dandy - a lovely, clearly old-fashioned scent to my nose - and why I believe it is a cousin of the more illustrious and celebrated Knize Ten.    

Friday, August 26, 2016

Thyme of Mani

Thyme of the Mani at Tiganis
The Mani peninsula, second finger from the left of the Peloponnese hand, is an arid place; its inhabitants scraped by for centuries on subsistence agriculture and piracy. The government encouraged olive cultivation in the 19th century and one sees little else there in terms of husbandry. There was in fact a great exodus - to Athens, America and elsewhere and today many villages are deserted. Urbanized Maniots may return from the city for the weekend or holidays and I suppose it is the kind of place that you may leave, but that never leaves you. Kith and Kin reach deep here.

 The Greeks of the Mani, particularly the inner region, were fierce clannish warriors steeped in bloody feuds for centuries until they united to challenge (the somewhat nominal) Ottoman sovereignty, beginning the Greek independence movement. Blood feuds, family towers and the pre-Christian tradition of the myroloja - deeply moving, spontaneous, yet intricate grieving chants performed by the women otherwise relegated to the sidelines of this patriarchal society upon somebody's death - are what the Mani was known for. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful Anglo-Irish travel writer was so impressed with the region he not only wrote a book about it but settled and concluded his life there, not the least, I believe, because the emotional release of the myroloja spoke to his own deeply buried demons which he had unsuccessfully tried to run from by his profuse travelling and drinking. He writes, most insightfully:
Patrick Leigh Fermor, "Lamentation" in: Mani. Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: John Murray, 1958)
Such a harsh society produced such deep wisdom, as the harsh environment of the Mani brings forth incredible beauty and life intensity. Rarely have I been more strongly in the moment, fully aware, mentally, emotionally, sensorily of myself and my surroundings and their interaction than in these landscapes so barren, yet so full of sight, sound and, of course, smell. All places of the Mediterranean have their specific herbal smellscapes and the Mani is no exception. You can taste it in the stern, almost bitter honey the Maniot bees make and its emblem to me became the thyme that flowered with abandon across the stony terrain besides dusty roads and pathways: bright violet blossoms challenging the dusty ochre and washed out green surrounding them and a smell and flavor so wonderfully strong and pungent it outdoes the wild sage and garlic even. Those plants live hard, they have little to go on and their strength is wonderfully evident, inspring and enlivening in the bite of their oil. The thyme of the Mani is like a myroloja of nature, singing of the hardship and loss that is part of existence, yet therein affirming life to the fullest, exuberantly and with a firm, clear voice: here am I, beautiful, unique, safely nested at the bosom of mother earth and brimming with the force of father sun. Mourn the dead to feel you are living. 
Tigani, the "frying pan" which harbors the remains of the old great castle of the Mani, salt pans all across the handle, and bushes of windswept thyme

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Old flacons in a pharmacy window in Porto Rafti, Greece

Anyone who read my occasional blog in the past, or my perfume reviews elsewhere, knows I'm not too happy about where the perfume industry has been going these last decades (the same could be said about democracy or capitalism, but those are lesser matters --- just kidding). There's an inflation of brands, lines, releases, flankers, all of which have in common that they are made soley for profit, with too little time, quality and aesthetic consideration invested in them and the flacon and PR campaign getting more attention than the juice to boot. Big business and much start-up niche perfumery is aesthetically largely bankrupt (laudable exceptions prove the rule). And yet the digital age has spawned indie perfumers addressing an audience of aficionados who are reinventing and saving the art of perfumery. Great perfume is being made today and it is worth smelling, and, perhaps, writing about. Luca Turin has chosen the wise path of only reviewing perfumes he likes ( I regret that a bit, because he was a master of the scorcher). I won't be doing the same, as I like a good rant and want to fully express how I feel about smelly things in this little space. But I will also keep trying to connect perfume with smell culture in general, which seems to be receiving inreasing attention in academia, the arts and elsewhere, and with broader social concerns and thus try to add a dimension to scent that will hopefully make reading this blog more than a verbal redundancy of actually smelling something (which should always be your first choice). So, here we go again...

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."