The Smell of Music

Stewart Matthew and Christophe LaudamielPhoto: Nigel Parry/CPI; prop styling by Caroline Colston for Halley Resources

In the arts, smell is the unloved sense. Whether your point of reference is Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or John Waters’s scratch-and-sniff Odorama, your nose will be ignored or disappointed: Even those artists who say they want to embrace all the senses come up short with scent. So Green Aria, a ScentOpera, which makes its debut on May 31 and June 1 at the Guggenheim, has an especially audacious air to it. This is an experimental performance piece in which fragrance takes center stage.

It unfolds in the dark. Precisely timed to a score of about fifteen minutes, two dozen fragrances will be pumped out of a “scent organ” and into “scent microphones” attached to 148 seats in the museum’s theater. The idea is to tell a story using a sequence of smells in conjunction with wordless music, composed by Nico Muhly and Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson. (A prologue of about the same length as the opera will provide a rudimentary synopsis, orienting the audience—like blindmen around an elephant—to elucidate a narrative by means of these unaccustomed cues.)

The guiding force behind Green Aria is Stewart Matthew, an American who lives in London. Back in the nineties, he was working on Wall Street in investment banking when a tangential role in film financing led him to wonder why the narrative performance arts—movies, theater, music, dance—were still so conventionally fixated on the eyes and ears. “There’s a whole world out there,” says Matthew. “People are interested in touch and smell, but the arts deal mainly with the audiovisual.”

In 2004, he moved out of finance and set up a research-and-development company, SenseLab, to investigate the artistic possibilities within neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Through that work, he met a perfume designer, Christophe Laudamiel, and with him established a “scent media” company, Aeosphere, to explore commercial and artistic uses of fragrance as a means of communication. Matthew’s first artistic proposal was an opera that involves all the senses, including taste and smell. “But there was too much to handle,” he admits. “I decided it would be best to break out an element, which is part of the opera I was doing, to be just the ScentOpera.

The theme of Green Aria is the struggle between man and nature. Some of the scents will evoke the outdoors: “green” smells, for example, or (less obviously) the odor of water, which to the casual nose is odorless. Some will be what their designers call abstract: among them, “Industrial” and “Absolute Zero.” “It is very rare that a scent has only one facet—only wood, only green,” says Laudamiel, a modishly dressed master perfumer with a close-cropped mohawk, a soul patch, and an academic background in chemistry. “It is not like primary colors. Something smells always of several things. To make water, it’s a feeling of freshness that you want. You have a scent like anise that is cold, fresh, you could even say watery. You have to emphasize the watery effect. If you want to emphasize white, you put a little black dot in it. So if you put a little woody note in something already watery, it will make it even more watery.” Then you have to hide the unwanted notes—“you mask the very well-known scent of anise”—and control the dosage—“to have the dewy effect stop before it becomes green like grass in the prairie.”

The creative challenge is a little different for the more abstract fragrances. One, intended to evoke chaos, is a deliberately mismeasured odorous soup. “There is an ingredient in it called Veloutone, a green fruity note that is a little reminiscent of a peach skin,” Laudamiel says. “Usually you use a tiny bit. Here it is almost 10 percent of the formula.” Laudamiel emphasizes that if you just threw a heap of fragrance notes together at random, the result would not smell chaotic. As fractal geometricians know, chaos has its own organization. “You have to create something which is almost the opposite of what you do in perfumery, where everything has to be round, in harmony,” he says. “Here you want to take people to a huge chaotic vortex.” He laughs. “When you want to do something that smells good, it never smells good, and if you want to create something that smells chaotic, it is never chaotic.”

One groundbreaking aspect of this ScentOpera is the technology that has been devised to disseminate the scents. Compared with sound or light, fragrances travel slowly over space. This sluggish rate of transmission makes it hard to ensure each audience member inhales the same odor at the same time. Furthermore, before a new smell is introduced, the previous one must be removed, or else the lingering odors may run together like smudged watercolors. To surmount these obstacles, Matthew enlisted Cecil Balmond, a star engineer at the Arup firm in London who collaborates frequently with architect Rem Koolhaas, and Fläkt Woods, a company that ventilates airports and skyscrapers. Unable to find a machine to do what was needed, Fläkt Woods invented one. “The scent microphone will be directed directly to your nose, so your nose is smelling only the scented air,” Laudamiel says. Plus, the engineers temporarily upgraded the auditorium’s old-fashioned ventilation system.

ScentOpera’s creators also had to confront the fundamental limitations of the human organism. Governed by breathing, the nose absorbs information differently from the eye, ear, tongue, or fingertip. “To breathe already takes five or six seconds,” Laudamiel observes. “There is a timing you cannot go below. If you play one scent for only one second, you have the risk that the people who are exhaling won’t get it. And you don’t want people to hyperventilate, because it’s horrible and boring.” Remembering the sequence of preceding scents is also problematic for those who are not fragrance professionals. Adding to the complexity, prior smells influence your perception of the next scent, even if the ventilating system has removed all traces of the old aroma. Perhaps Jan Van Eyck confronted similar quandaries when he was perfecting the technique of oil painting. And maybe, allowing for changes in language, he would have expressed himself with similar insouciance. “It’s gymnastic,” Laudamiel says. “And a creative nightmare. But it’s cool.”

Before they met, Matthew and Laudamiel both were fascinated by the movie version of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Perfume, the story of a master perfumer seeking new scents, most notoriously the smell of a murdered virgin. Laudamiel even created fragrances—a collection of Thierry Mugler scents—to accompany the movie. He also attempted to release the odors during a screening in Paris, but, alas, the technology wasn’t up to snuff. However, Laudamiel says that even with the rudimentary transmission system, when the virgin appeared on the screen and her scent was sent out into the cinema, “the feeling was incredible.”

The Smell of Music