Music and Smell: Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility

Bitter orange foliage, blossoms and fruit by Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler's "Medizinal-Pflanzen". Public Domain.

Bitter orange (neroli) foliage, blossoms and fruit. By Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler’s “Medizinal-Pflanzen”. Public Domain.

I’m a composer of more than twenty years, a musician of thirty years, and an accomplished knitter. I sew reasonably well, I write, I love to cook and plant things and once had a tiny business making and selling my own felt and textile jewellery. You could say I like to make things. In fact, creativity is my life force, and it’s the thing that gets me going more than anything. That and sensuality: creativity as it relates to the senses. In order to create in any medium or art form,  I feel that I really need to get to the core of an activity and find out how things work in the background. If there’s a science to it, I try to learn about it, if there are methods and practices that artists use to make their work, I find out about them and practice them. That’s what I intend to do with this blog, to really get into the nitty-gritty of the sense of smell and the art of perfume.

One of the things I wanted to do when I started Perfume Polytechnic a few months back was to investigate the connections and parallels between music and perfume. This is something else I do, and perhaps it’s because I’m a synaesthete as well as a creative person – I like to see and find the connections between things. Or perhaps it’s because I hope to use fragrance or scent or smell in an artwork I create one day. As music is the field I understand best of all, perhaps I strive to understand other creative practices by finding parallels and similarities (and also differences) between other artistic practices and it. I see other art forms through the lens of music, and my understanding of it, as well as looking at each art form as a separate entity.

I’ve only just started digging into this topic of the connections and differences between music and perfume, and in doing so, I came across a wonderful article by Brian Eno called Scents and Sensibility, published in Details Magazine in 1992. It was news to me that Eno, a well-known musician and creative polymath, is a long time fan of all things smelly, including fragrance. Eno is interested in trying to understand the working innards of perfumery and the science of smell, and in his article muses about the futility of trying to find a classification system for smells that is neat and clear and finite. He also laments the difficulty of finding a direct and clear language to describe smells that doesn’t simply rely on metaphors and similes. Eno draws some wonderful comparisons between the areas of music and scent, and how the two fields are studied and described, but I won’t spoil too many surprises by summarising any further. You can read Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility here.

In 1993 Eno released an ambient instrumental album called Neroli, named after the syrupy sweet, floral and heady essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree (citrus aurantium subspecies amara or bigaradia). The perfume ingredient neroli actually got its name after the popular 17th Century Princess of Nerola (Anne Marie Orsini, aka Marie Anne de la Trémoille) started using the oil to fragrance both her gloves and bath. A lovely name and etymology for such a beautiful fragrance ingredient!

I haven’t listened to Brian Eno’s Neroli yet, but I intend to soon. Did you know that Brian Eno was interested in perfume and the sense of smell? What do you think of comparing one art form to another – can it be done, or should each art form stay clearly defined as a separate entity? Let me know what you think in the comments box below!

Until next time…

Polly Technic

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Perfume Meetup at Fleurage Perfume Atelier

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Perfumer Emma Leah in front of her work space

A small group of Melbourne perfume aficionados recently had a wonderful and immersive experience learning all about fragrance from botanical perfumer Emma Leah at her perfume atelier Fleurage. Back in September I created my own fragrance with Emma, and wrote about it in one of my early blog posts. We ended up with a magnificently rich and original fragrance called Karatta, a fragrance based on scent memories of my childhood holiday house at the beach. It was such a lovely experience and on the day, Emma and I discussed the various perfume groups I’ve been a part of, both online and in person. She very generously offered her space for a perfume meetup, and I arranged for a group of six of us to meet with Emma and her partner Robert, at Fleurage, for a supper meeting.

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Emma talking with the group

Emma offered to talk about her practice and show us her perfume-making materials. The format of the evening took the form of a free-form conversation between Emma and all of us. She encouraged us to ask questions throughout, and it was these questions that guided the conversation. We got to hear about Emma’s own perfume education and training (traditional, botanical), her process of making fragrances, the materials she uses, her opinions of the new IFRA restrictions, the price of materials and their availability, and so on. So much was discussed that I can’t possibly record it blow-by-blow here, but it was a fascinating and very educational experience.

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Emma talking with the group

Emma also passed around some of her own fragrances periodically for us to smell. These are wonderful, botanical, vintage-style creations, and I recommend anyone in Melbourne go and visit Fleurage and give them a try; they are truly beautiful and sophisticated fragrances and like nothing else on the market today. We also got to smell some of the perfume ingredients that Emma uses to make her fragrances. It was a real treat to be able to smell real iris – which had everyone in raptures. Iris is one of the most expensive and hard-to-come-by ingredients used in perfumery, so none of us had smelled it before as a discreet ingredient. Iris smells very much like violet (which surprised me), and much less “flat” and waxy than it does in the iris-heavy fragrances I’ve smelled. We also smelled several types of lotus (from memory, pink, blue and white), which were also beautiful, but the highlight ingredient of the night for many was cèpes mushroom. This unusual perfume ingredient smelled of an intensely savoury and rich combination of mushroom and vegemite. I would love to smell this ingredient in a perfume one day, I think it would be earthy and marvellous!

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Gabriella sniffing the cèpes mushroom – a magical ingredient!

All of those who attended the meetup were very grateful for the opportunity to meet with Emma and have an open conversation about perfume. Being able to have an in-depth discussion with a perfumer and to have access to her fragrances and materials was wonderful. Thank you Emma and Robert for sharing your fabulous perfume atelier and your time with us!

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Emma Leah’s fabulous perfumes

If you are interested in learning more about Fleurage Perfume Atelier and Emma Leah’s perfumes, you can visit the website here.