Monday, February 5th, 2018
In 1960, Smell-o-Vision came to the big screen. Accompanying a movie called The Scent of Mystery, moviegoers were treated to 30 different scents throughout the course of the film, triggered by the soundtrack. It came on the heels of 1959’s debut of AromaRama with a movie called Behind the Great Wall. Both attempts to marry scent with film were received with either skepticism or outright derision. But what was behind the desire to enliven film with scent?
“There’s something about scent,” says composer and ACF board chair Mary Ellen Childs. “We actually breathe scent into our lungs. We’re taking it in. It’s very intimate.” No wonder folks in the film industry wanted to capitalize on that intimacy with an over-the-top olfactory gimmick. Seven years ago, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York wanted to approach scent in a different way, highlighting designed scent as its own art form. They announced the creation of a department focused solely on olfactory arts. When Childs read about this, she was intrigued. “I grew up really loving all kinds of scents, powders, and perfumes and colognes, lotions—and I was just fascinated by all of that.” Attending the museum’s exhibit on scent rekindled her love of and fascination with scent, sending her on journey to explore the intersections of scent and music.
Childs’ work often combines multiple art forms to appeal to a variety of senses. There might be dance, visual art, or lighting design. “It’s completely in character for me to be doing a body of work that combines music and scent,” she says. “What I’m interested in is how what we listen to affects what we smell and vice versa. How do those two perceptive senses interact with each other?”
When Childs embarked on this project–now titled Ear + Nose–she dived into the research, meeting with a “master nose” in France who had founded a perfume archive in Versailles. There, designed fragrances are collected and preserved, and Childs learned about the perfume industry and all of the ingredients that go into making various scents. “I got to hold ambergris in my hand,” she mentions. (Ambergris is a substance created in the digestive system of sperm whales, once prized and used as a fixative in perfumes.) She also learned more about how individuals respond to all kinds of smells, good and bad. “It’s just like music,” she says. “There’s a lot of common ground there.” She also traveled to the Institute for Art and Olfaction to further explore scent as an art form and elsewhere around the United States to talk to scent scientists. Along the way, she bought up all kinds of things to smell.
The result? Childs had an installation at Northern Spark: a room with piped-in music and scent with an additional paper strip of a different scent. “I had planned to rotate through a wide range of my work—string quartets to solo piano to chamber music,” Childs says. “However it quickly became apparent that pieces intended for concert performance weren’t necessarily right for a scent installation. An installation, I realized, works best with music that sets a strong mood but doesn’t have lots of ebb and flow, ups and downs. So, for the last several hours of the installation I played one piece on repeat: Faint Object Camera, performed by Zeitgeist.” Over the course of the event, Childs saw a strong response to the installation. “People went crazy for it. The line was out the door!” she says. Because of that, she had to curb the number of people entering the installation to keep things from getting overwhelmed. That level of interest told her she was onto something.
However, not able to find significant funding for other big scent-related projects, she began holding scent dinners in her home. “I thought, ‘I just kind of need to get going on this project,’” she says. She also wanted to gauge her guests’ reactions to the overall event and to determine how to construct the meal. Each scent dinner alternates courses in food and scents distributed on paper strips. The scent courses are accompanied by live or recorded music to pair with the scent. “I’m not trying to make music that sounds like that’s what that smells like,” Childs says. “It’s not about imitation, it’s about complementing. More like pairing food and wine.” The music in the dinners itself is work that’s already been created and recorded.
Due to the limited funding for this project, the featured compositions have generally come from Childs’ catalog of previously composed works. However, she has composed one piece expressly to pair with scent, which was for an event at Zeitgeist’s Studio Z.
In addition to selecting music, another challenge at the start of the dinners was figuring out the scents themselves. “Sometimes I’ll do single-note,” Childs says, “which means just one item like an ingredient. Vetiver or lavender. Sometimes I’ll do something that’s a designed fragrance. And other times I’ll use some organic material.”
While the scent dinners have been fun and successful, Childs is thinking of her next moves. “I’d love to partner with a creative chef,” she says. “We would collaborate, and I’d handle the scent and music courses, and they’d do the food.” These dinners would be on a larger scale and feature live music. Childs also envisions museum installations: a series of connected but distinct spaces, each with its own smell and sound as well as accompanying visual components from collaborating visual artists. Each of these things—sound, smell, sight—would complement each other and create a complete sensory experience.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. “I want to write a series of songs, using as text the language of perfume,” Childs says. Perfume makers in labs receive little abstracts about the perfumes they are to create. “They’re not at all about ingredients, they’re much more poetic,” Childs continues. “They might reference colors or fabrics or textures. The language of these is just gorgeous. Each song would be paired with the scent that the abstract is describing.”
But what’s the ultimate goal? What does Childs want scent dinner attendees to leave thinking about or feeling? “When I started doing this I thought, ‘I wonder what they’re going to think, I wonder what they’re going to experience,’” Childs says. She was exploring the concept of scent and sound as much as her dinner guests or installation attendees. “In the beginning, it felt like an opportunity to get…kind of subjects in the lab and in my home and see how I could use these materials and see how people responded when I did that,” she explains. “This is a playground for me. And an opportunity for me to see what people might come away with.” She’s been excited and surprised at each scent dinner to observe how her guests differ in opinion over whether or not the paired scents and music really complement each other.
“When I was first doing this and mentioned it to people, a lot of them were really curious,” Childs says. “But then a smaller number of people responded in the opposite: ‘I can’t stand strong smells!’” She was struck by how powerful the response was even to the idea of smells, to the possibility of experiencing an unpleasant smell. “I think some people are very, very sensitive to smell. There’s a range in how we respond to things. People can have really strong associations with certain smells. It goes right to our primitive brain centers. You have these responses well before thought. They’re visceral. They might be based on experience. That’s powerful stuff. We’re talking about activating those primitive responses.”
Childs’ scent dinners play with activating those primitive responses. They’re about opening the senses and encouraging curiosity and playfulness. “People tell me afterward this was a memorable experience,” Childs says. “That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, for people to have a unique and memorable experience with their senses.”