Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This Gentleman is a Hep Cat - Annette Neuffer's "Hepster"

Cab Calloway | Source:

"Your sound is beautiful - dark and warm," Wynton Marsalis said of Annette Neuffer's trumpet playing. Neuffer is not only an accomplished jazz musician and singer, but also a perfumer. As is typical of the indie scene that has emerged through the possibilities of web-based marketing, she is self-taught, having developed her art from a deep interest in commercial fragrances that lead her onto the path of experimentation and ultimately natural perfumery - less from any dogmatic stance, than from increasingly losing interest in working with synthetics. She has cultivated an impressive portfolio of fragrances at this point and "dark and warm" seem characteristic of her travels in scent as much as in sound - there is a certain emphasis on orientals featuring the deep balsamic, resinous materials of that genre blended with luciously warm florals, spices, as well as gourmandy notes: Arabica, Maroquin, Mellis, the duo of scents under the heading per fumum and the quartet dedicated to Avicenna, the great Persian scholar, as well as several others speak of her fascination with the Middle Eastern roots of perfumery. But her 2016 release Hepster walks a different, greener path.When I asked her about the background of this composition Annette explained that when she started making perfumes, she was doing so mainly for herself and was also lacking male guinea pigs as her significant other doesn't dig fragrance (WHAT???). Now that her line is in the world she realized she didn't have an explicit masculine (with the exception of "For Him" specifically created for a friend) and when she came across a high quality supergreen mastix absolute the idea for Hepster was born.
If you liked the black metal of Josh Lobb's Norne, you must try this sophisticated jazz bottled by Annette Neuffer | Source:

Hepster was a term coined by Cab Calloway in naming his ca. 1938 Hepster's Dictionary of the slang used among the black jazz musicians of Harlem, who were hep cats and hip to the jive (this vocabulary was adopted in various parts by the post-war Beats, Hippies - dig? - Funksters and ultimately Hip Hoppers - "yo, break it up"). So, the name suggests this is a fragrance for cool cats who "creep out like the shadow," i.e. come on in a suave, sophisticated manner and as you can see in the above photo, a hep cat like Mr. Calloway wasn't always running around in a flamboyant zoot suit but also came across as quite the dapper gentleman, when he pleased. I am not someone deeply immersed in the world of jazz (that would have been my Dad), but its imagined smell, to me, is one of the thick air of night clubs, suffused by cigarettes, perfume and alcohol. Hepster, on the other hand, very much stands in the dignified tradition of English and Italian gentlemen's scents of the aromatic chypresque kind featuring citrus notes, herbs, a touch of florals, green notes and a "dark and warm" woody-spicy-resinous base. When I was grasping for analogies while trying to figure out this beautiful creation I thought of Blenheim Bouquet or Crown Perfumery's Town & Country with their straightforward citrus-herb-pine axis. But Neuffer's composition is far more complex and dense and the use of mint, pepper, juniper, nutmeg and balsamic materials inevitably reminded me of Lorenzo Villoresi's mid-90s italo-orientals such as Piper Nigrum and Spezie. "Blenheim Bouquet reformulated by Villoresi" became my shorthand attempt at contextualizing Hepster - but not to be misunderstood, this is a fully, indeed highly original work (because, for one, Lorenzo never did try his hand at a Blenheim). And there is quite some jazz in it, after all.

Hepster comes on with a burst of sax, trumpet and drums. The citrus accord is green and complex - it is not, thankfully, the clear and smooth smell of organic bathroom cleaner or washing up liquid - the dreaded lemon pledge effect! Rather, it has a textured surface resulting from the complexity of bergamot and lime and the impact of herbaceous notes - the gravelly juniper and nutmeg, the judiciously employed mint, that adds edge, but never becomes blatant here, and the ethereal treble of black pepper. And then there's a lifted, transparent vibrancy and gently animalic quality running through this which reminded me of the brilliant effect of genuine civet in classic fragrances - is it the magic of the hyraceum? Alas, this is the kind of masterful citrus complexity that characterized miracles such as the beautiful Signoricci II (vintage), delivering the olfactory equivalent of Arabic calligraphy behind the purported simplicity of a citric-fresh cologne. Such intricacy is what makes a fragrance gentlemanly: a refined, unobtrusive elegance that never vulgarly displays and yet ineluctably suggests a deep structure of erudition, integrity, sincerity. It is the complexity of technical mastery hidden behind the deeply moving rendition of a plaintive melody performed with seeming ease.  And it doesn't end there. Very soon you are met by the heart notes and the balsamic base that provides, literally, a well-contoured body to the opening accords, adding further depth, and which corresponds beautifully to the warmth of one's own body (this is a great scent to apply while one is still steaming from the shower, the naturals just really come alive). 
Mastic Trees on Chios, Greece | Source:

The green character of Hepster announced by citrus and herbs is confirmed by mastic and pine, which provide a decidely Mediterranean flair and add a refreshing boldness to the refinement ofthe topnotes. I only know mastic tears from Greek cuisine and have never smelled the absolute, but imagine it to be a very deep, balsamic green on its own that here blends wonderfully with the woody-green pine note (which features a new material from Robertet, Bois de Landes). The floral notes - iris, néroli and rose geranium - are masterfully tucked into the heart to envelop the powerful greens in soft creaminess, a wonderful example of harmonic contrast that the old English gent's scents used to pull off so well. At this point I wish Hepster would just continue forever, but then, it is what it is because it is a natural perfume. Only synthetic modulators and fixatives could extend this pleasure and I wouldn't want to pay the price of altering what is an aesthetically complete experience. My skin doesn't hold fragrance too well, but I do get a good ninety minutes of this phase, before it begins calming into a gentle ballad performed at the late-night bar by a laid-back jazz quartet. What you have for the next five to six hours is a calm, green woody-balsamic skin scent that makes you want to sniff yourself constantly. It's ultra-classic: incense, cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, labdanum, oakmoss and hyraceum (with the green notes lingering on), but I cannot emphasize strongly enough the difference between a blend of these actual ingredients and a scent pyramid that lists them to describe ambroxan, santalol, iso-e-super and other synthetics. While these have their place in perfumery within limits, an all natural base accord is something very beautiful and special, all the more when it's so well crafted, and everyone should get to smell it as some point in their olfactory voyage. Nothing sticks out here in a coarse manner, it is a smooth pleasure cruise into the Aegean sunset. Speaking of which: if I wanted to match this perfume with a person, it would have to be Patrick Leigh Fermor, the brilliant Anglo-Irish gentleman-adventurer who travelled this part of the world so extensively and wrote so beautifully about it. He embodied and old world education and refinement that yet was cosmopolitan and eager to search out and engage with new places and people and this spirit of tradition and open-minded curiosity, the encounter of northern and south-eastern Europe no less characterizes the beautiful Hepster.

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.