We all know how a smell can make time travel happen. We’ll suddenly get a whiff of the way our old school smelled and we simultaneously think we’ve forgotten to do our homework. It’s all down to the way smell is so closely related to memory. Music can do it too, but smell is instantaneous. Current neuroscience research is catching up fast on exactly how this works, after centuries of neglect.
That’s another thing. So why has scent been ignored as an art form, and banished to the vanity department?
The men of the Enlightenment were to blame – inspired by Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers – as they declared smell a “lower” sense. Only sight and hearing were needed for education and discovery. Touch, taste and smell were mere animal things.
Now, there is so much going on in the world of scent: arts, sciences, industry, and the overlaps among them all, and where they intersect it’s fascinating.
Scientists are still arguing about the way scent works – the mechanics of it – but in the 21st Century, what we can observe, as the brain reacts to the world, is growing more and more accurate. Now we’re beginning to realise how important the sense of smell is, even when we don’t think we smell anything at all.
Think about the smell of your own home. There isn’t one – to you – unless there’s something wrong. Other people’s homes always smell, at first. Then it wears off. It’s not our noses, it’s our brains that decide “nothing to worry about, move on…”. People don’t smell much these days either – unless they’ve purposely added something they find pleasant, or they’ve accidentally gone one too many days without friendly acquaintance with a bar of soap. Except we do smell. Places smell; rooms have an atmosphere. People who have lost their sense of smell (anosmics) or whose sense has gone wrong (parosmics) can find it terrifically difficult to judge a social situation.
The science of scent is exciting.
The arts? Still suffering slightly from the cultural inheritance that smell is a lowly thing, and that people who care about fragrance are probably on the frivolous side. (Perfume lovers probably have expensive watches, buy designer bags and generally have more money than sense.)
When friends find out that I’ve stopped writing and started telling stories in scent, they look worried for me. Embarrassed even. One former teacher came out with it and said how they’d all expected more from me. They’d already diverted me from my beloved music into maths and physics; Truth is that by working in perfume, with Oxford and London PhD students, I’m probably more likely to be involved in a great scientific discovery than with any other area I’ve worked in.
Arts though. What can we do with a smell?
We can create an atmosphere. We have to be careful with smells because they linger. Some do anyway. Others have left the building in 20 minutes. There’s one scent that stays on paper for only 30 seconds then it’s gone. Sandalwood lasts months. We can create one smell and leave it in place, we can use them to create a transition, or we can layer them – pile them one of top of the other. There we need a bit of skill.
For The Shipwrecked House, Claire and I decided on House + Shipwreck. House is a cosy wooden warm welcoming smell. Shipwreck is a tidal wave of salt water.
Something we do have to watch out for are the EU and International Fragrance Association regulations. You can’t just take a bottle of nice cinnamon leaf oil from the aromatherapy shop and scent the stage. That would be illegal. Things we can legally eat, drink and smoke are banned from perfumes. If you do want to scent your performance, bear in mind that’s it’s not going to be a DIY project.
I also scented the Debussy String Quartet for BitterSuite’s multi-sensory performance, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve taken part in. The abuse on the Guardian’s review blog was quite extraordinarily bitter. Snootiness unbounded, at the idea of adding taste, touch and smell to a masterwork. The audience disagreed. “Debussy would have despised this.” No, he’d have loved it.
Diaghilev scented his stage curtains with Guerlain’s Mitsouko for Les Ballets Russes. If it’s good enough for Diagliev…
Sarah McCartney is the founder of perfumery 4160 Tuesdays.
The Shipwrecked House is on tour until the 9th January.