dimanche 22 juillet 2012

"A lump of who knows what"... Notes on naming perfume notes

 “In the first contact with a foreign land painters have all the advantages; lines, colour, what a whole and one that presents itself immediately! This block of who knows what, that’s nature, but objects, no, none whatsoever. It is only after a long, detailed scrutiny and a determined point of view that we reach the name. The name is an object to detach. (…)
Listen to visitors at an art show. Suddenly, after a long struggle, someone points at the painting: ‘It’s an apple tree’, he says, and you feel he’s relieved. He’s detached an apple tree from it! Now there’s a happy man.”

The French poet and artist Henri Michaux (1899-1984) wrote these lines in 1927 in Ecuador: A Travel journal. I read them after a brief exchange with a fellow perfume lover about Séville à l’aube: he scrunched his face over the blotter and started rattling off names of what he thought were the raw materials. Not necessarily the reaction one hopes for when presenting one’s brainchild, and one that made me understand a bit better the slight annoyance perfumers or brand owners may feel when a review is all about parsing the notes.

We’ve all indulged in the apple-picking routine: connecting smells with words surely satisfies some encrypted urge to make sense of the “block of who knows what”. In another post, I’ve linked this with the satisfaction of reading a whodunit: in the same way as a detective arriving on a crime scene, in the finished perfume we are confronted with a fait accompli and our mission is to find out how things got that way. Michaux draws a parallel between making sense a strange new place and contemplating a modern painting. You could apply the same reflection to perfume.

Niche was a tremendous factor in fostering fragrance writing, not only because the products on offer were often more distinctive, but because most brands followed the “solinote”, figurative trend ushered in by L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque, then Annick Goutal and Serge Lutens. Analysing something called “Vetiver”, “Ambre” or “Tubéreuse” is a damn sight easier than parsing the notes of a mainstream abstract: you can hang on to the branches of the "apple tree "and shake out more words. That said, though picking out notes is no easy exercise and requires a certain amount of training, ultimately, it’s just that: training. Recognizing the apple tree is as satisfying as pulling off a magic trick. Still, the point isn’t to recognize the apple tree, but to ask why that particular rendition of an apple tree is beautiful (or not). In which way it belongs to the “block of who knows what”; what light it sheds on the landscape.

I was recently invited to the presentation of a mainstream fragrance made by the head of a pastry school in Barcelona, who had created a dessert out of the olfactive pyramid of the scent. His first step was to blindfold us and give us two connected ingredients. He didn’t want us to recognize them: in fact he pointedly asked us not to name them if we did. What he was wanted us to do was to qualify the smells, and then to deduce, based on those qualities, why one ingredient was chosen over the other by the perfumer to achieve the desired effect. I suppose this is what he does with his students: it is, in fact, an exercise I came up with as well in my perfume appreciation course, asking students to blind-smell real things, qualify them, then relate them to facets of raw materials.

Qualifying smells, looking for the adjectives rather than the noun, is what perfumers do when they are pondering a raw material. The connections that will allow them to build a form are in the “adjectives”. This process may bypass verbal words, since a skilled, experienced perfumer may think directly in “smell-words”. You could say it’s a way of weaving the apple tree back into the landscape; of seeing what other forms can be pulled out of it, so that it is no longer just an apple tree, but a web of branches, roots, leaves and fruit into which we can read a story…

Can we do away with parsing notes when writing about a fragrance? Probably not. First because of the very real pleasure the “eureka!” moment provides the writer and reader. Then because there’s got to be a common ground of references for a write-up to be intelligible. But also because the name of each note opens onto a small world that’s not just about smell but cultural/personal references, and enriches the scent with a new layer of meaning.

It would be an interesting writing experiment to build the foundation of a review with all the notes, than take away the scaffolding to keep only the metaphors. How many different stories would that experiment yield if carried out by a number of writers? 

Illustration: Gustav Klimt, Apple Tree, 1912

17 commentaires:

  1. Interesting! Your post reminds me of a time (early on in my perfumista career) when I thought I did not like a tonka note in my fragrances. I "deduced" this because (unlike most) I did not like Hermes Vetiver Tonka but I knew I liked vetiver so the offending note had to be tonka right? What I had failed to do was qualify either Vetiver Tonka or its constituents. Along came Tonka Imperial a couple of years later and I realised my mistake vis a vis tonka and now feel happier simply concentrating on how a perfume smells to me and how it makes me feel. By the way, is "moan worthy" a good qualifying term?? Nicola

  2. Nicola, I believe "moan-worthy" is a major criterion! The Moan is a possibility; the other two, for me, are "Yessssssssss!" and "How beautiful!".
    Naming notes is tricky for SAs. In fact I was discussing this with a client of the lovely Sens Unique boutique in Paris. She told me about a time she'd walked into a perfume shop and told the owner: "I don't like florals". Wouldn't know it, the perfume she fell for was a floral, which he hadn't identified as such. Of course "floral" is even less of a defining term than "tonka". But many SAs have told me that they'll regularly see proposals rejected as soon as they say "patchouli", for instance, even though the customer liked the scent initially.

    I say wait for the Moan.

  3. I am reminded of a phrase from the alchemists: Only what has been properly separated can be joined together. I wonder if there's something to that in this realm of perfume synthesis and analysis? I think the alchemists would have made some good perfumers...

  4. Fascinating post! I'm intrigued by the idea of “smell-words." Are these specific to the individual perfumer, or shared among perfumers?

    I'm very tempted to go back to the Habanita reviews to try your idea of shaking out the notes to see what qualifiers are left, or to do it with reviews of any particular perfume - but completely lacking in time now... ~~nozknoz

  5. I'm addicted to the analytical approach to perfumery, yet, I don't think of it as reductive or in opposition to subjective appreciation of something. I do regret that my note-detection is very amateur and entirely self-taught, though.

    Perhaps this approach is largely due to my experience in music studies. I can enjoy an opera for its spectacle, power to move, and emotional color, yet at the same time appreciate its harmonic progressions, orchestration, and contrapuntal technique.

    A beautiful mountain vista isn't just a flat backdrop to charm our eyes, but also a story in geology, a living environment, and so forth. For me the charm of the moment is never robbed by knowing the details.

  6. How right you are D! Your observation about adjectives and nouns is a true revelation and a hard-earned one at it. It is with much effort and after many small epiphanies that one reaches to this stage. This is true not just in the field of perfumery but wherever there is creativity involved rather than simple computing and combinational skills. It is true also not only when talking about creators but about connoisseurs of creation. This train of thought however is quite difficult to achieve in our days where everything is about quantities. We measure our existence by amounts of money earned, time spent, possessions acquired and even carbon footprints and calories burned.

    As for the eureka moment and the lists of notes that so often become the objective of the perfume experience, many times more so than pleasure, I see them as necessary evil. They give a review that quintessential air of objectivity that is so useful when people need to relate to it and extract meaningful information. Reviews are all about creating a mutually understood basis of communication after all and we are all reviewers whether we blog about our opinions or share them with friends in private. Critique is a subtle and yet widespread technique. It is very different than confiding one's personal feelings. For me, the essential quality for a successful review is that one shouldn't have to relate with the reviewer on a personal level to make sense. The meaning is contained in the text (this is a "death of the author" case right here ;) )

  7. I think this is very interesting. I have been writing about perfume for a long time, but find I am better at the metaphors and atmospheres surrounding the perfume than the whole 'jasmine enfolded into clove-crusted tuberose' approach, though that is intoxicating too.

    Writing about perfume is delectable as it seems that not that many people can do it: it is a great challenge, as you sum up perfectly.

    Also I think I write more for the 'layman' than the perfumista, and find that if you can capture the ATMOSPHERE of a scent, it will conjure up far more in the minds of others than note analysis.

    Can't wait to smell your neroli dawn by the way. When will it come to Japan?

  8. Jared, I believe alchemists *were* the original perfumers!

  9. Nozknoz, when I say "smell-words", I mean non-verbal ones that spring from the characteristics of their materials or effects. There are also verbal words of course and in the industry, those words are more or less fixed through convention, so that people know what they're takling about when they're discussing a material or composition.

  10. Sugandaraja, I'm not opposing analytical and subjective. I can't imagine you'd think that what I was advocating after what I've been writing over the years. Like you, my aesthetic enjoyment isn't ruined by an analytical approach but can be enhanced by it.

    What I *am* saying is that precisely because of the self-taught, empirical nature of "note-learning" for people with no formal training, this tends to take over to the detriment of perception of forms, but is only one element of an analytical approach.

  11. Kostas, as I wrote to Sugandaraja above, I'm not opposing "naming the notes" and "personal feelings". Of course to a certain extent you do need to name notes, but why is anything beyond that just "personal"? I'd also say that it's part of a writer's skill to turn the personal into something that is perceptible for other people.

  12. Black Narcissus,frankly I have no idea when Séville à l'aube is coming to Japan, I suppose early in fall like in most countries? Your eponymous movie deserves to be fragranced by the way, and not by the Caron necessarily.

  13. Writing about perfume without mentioning notes would certainly make for a very interesting experiment and I would love to read it when it happens. The idea is in a way akin to Chandler Burr's "Untitled" project in that it aims to take away preconceptions leaving the subject fully exposed to the perfume experience. The idea is good in paper. It remains to be seen in practice.

    My fear is that without notes there will be no "landmark" in the text that could be used as a reference to compare different opinions. It might make an interesting writing that no one could contest.

  14. Kostas, it's not so much notes I'm suggesting trying to do away with (at least in some reviews, as an experiment), as the identification of specific materials.

    For instance, if osmanthus isn't part of the narrative of the perfume, wouldn't "apricot", "suede" or "tea" be more telling? For most people those things are easier to access from memory that "osmanthus" which they might only know by "hearsay" from the names of certain perfumes or reviews rather than direct experience of the flower. Even something as identifiable as vetiver can take on very different meanings according to how it is featured/used in a fragrance: unless said fragrance centers on it, isn't it more accurate, in fact, to say "flint", "smoke", "roots", etc? Not everyone has direct access to raw materials, things from the real world are what tug at memories.

    As for no one contesting such a review, I was discussing yesterday in London with someone who was saying how comments in book blogs can get very argumentative and even violent compared to comments on fragrance blogs. I think that's because everyone thinks they can understand writing, since everyone knows how to write (well or not is another matter). Whereas few people actually know what's in a fragrance, so one person's reading can be very difficult to contest with certainty. You can just add your own perception and enrich the reading, but you'll do so courteously since the word/smell association can vary from one person to another, and we're all aware of that.
    Does that make more sense?

  15. I guess I am a bit biased regarding the subject. That doesn't mean that I am condemning your suggested approach but I truly favor and enjoy the analytical method. For me it has been very educational reading about raw ingredients, then purchasing them online and thus gaining access bit by bit to the intricate mechanisms that make perfumes tick. Through this method I trained my nose and came to appreciate technical qualities -little wonders really- in perfumes that till then I was taking for granted. I started realizing accords that I would have no other way of knowing about and the simple pleasure of smelling nice fumes became an intellectual one. Learning about the raw materials, vetiver (that no one who's not serious about perfume notes must have ever heard of), sandalwood, precious resins was a flight of imagination and so perfume even took on a mythical quality. To be able to recognize in your favorite EdT notes that the Egyptians used to perfume their temples or Indians use in meditation, what a treat!

    Of course perfume is not just about the intellectual pleasure of taking it apart to its components -no doubt about that. On the other hand, completely excluding materials from the game would make the experience of reading less informative, less fanciful, less important and poorer in general. I would gladly read such a purist review and would no doubt enjoy it if it was well written but I would rather not see it become the canon because I would miss my notes in the long run.

  16. come to think of it, I am talking about intertextuality!

  17. Kostas, I think we're talking at cross-purposes here. I'm not suggesting foregoing analysis, learning about raw materials, etc. since that is in effect what I do. I'm talking about writing in a way that doesn't use the name of a raw material as a shortcut, since a raw mat can be used in so many different ways, and focuses on the facets and effects which structure a fragrance. I'm certainly not suggesting it as a canon since frankly, no one is in a position to suggest any such thing. It's an option and probably one that can be just as analytical, but less reliant on name-dropping, which can end up being fairly inaccurate and misleading.