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Clive Bell

Bell Labs: Noise For Your Nose

July 2014

“That musician really gets up my nose”. Like a bloodhound, Mr Bell picks up on the scent of a new musical accompaniment and asks whether it's gesamtkunstwerk or gimmick.

Something is starting to smell in the world of music, and I don’t mean that the corpse is getting whiffy. It’s more about extending the usual sense-worlds of sight and sound to include scent. If a musician’s going to lead you up the garden path, let it be one bordered by honeysuckle, jasmine and lavender. Away from venues reeking of stale ale, newly minted music should smell fresh, each new piece like a baby kicking up a cloud of talcum. Even that milk-sick on your shoulder smells sweet.

Talking of sick, Stephen Warwick aka Heatsick now includes perfume in his shows. For his autumn 2013 tour Warwick’s playful take on Casio disco rhythms was enhanced with a lighting rig and some olfactory gear. “I usually have scent diffusers or perfumes which I select, and also smells which I’ll have in the room. I’m interested in how the mind processes these and what effect they have upon us,” said Warwick in an interview with the blog Cyclic Defrost. “It’s based around cybernetics as well, so it’s looking at how we’re processing this information… it’s a way we can use these techniques towards something more positive or liberational.”

Brian Eno famously experimented with perfumes, assembling a personal collection of bottles. Not only perfume constituents like spikenard oil, ginseng and civet, but also a library of evocative smells: gasoline, ammonia and “motorcycle dope”. Eno was intrigued by how this world had no system, no maps – it was a journey through unnameable sensations – and toyed with the idea of creating a guidebook himself. Eventually he settled for the idea that the hopeless fuzziness of scent is a good metaphor for the uncharted, canon-less state of the rest of contemporary culture. According to Eno, we need to embrace this uncertain new world: “I love watching us all become dilettante perfume blenders, poking inquisitive fingers through a great library of ingredients and seeing which combinations make sense for us… And the point for me is not to expect perfumery to take its place in some nice, reliable, rational world order, but to expect everything else to become like perfume.”

I’m not sure that Geza Schoen would agree that perfume is a fuzzy business. At age 13, he claims, he was distinguishing 100 different scents. Schoen is an upscale rock star of perfume, his style “revolutionary minimalist, rebellious and very sexy”. Forget those old airport perfume brand names. Like hypercool Berlin albums, Schoen’s works are labelled gs01 and gs02. Here’s a thumbnail, sternly lower case summary of gs01: “captivating clarity. depth. exhaling. the power of silence.” Schoen thinks outside the perfume box too, creating conceptual scents like Paper Passion (the smell of freshly printed books) and his series The Beautiful Mind (your guess is as good as mine). Now Schoen has teamed up with the Unsound Festival to create Ephemera, “an installation that will present olfactory compositions based on musical resonances and reverberations.” Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, and Kode 9 have contributed sonic raw material, and Schoen reinterprets the music as scents: Noise, Drone and Bass. Ephemera may visit a city near you, but if not don’t worry, there’ll be a bottled perfume series launched by Unsound later in 2014: “This will include the various sounds and scents.”

As so often, Sun Ra was way ahead: for $13 you can still buy his “Prophetika Perfume Fragrance” from Norton Records. “The ancient formula invokes a mirage of memories and mysteries and incites a call to action.” Dab it on while dipping into This Planet Is Doomed, a selection of Ra’s sci-fi poetry published in a paperback format to fit snugly into your hip pocket.

What’s happening here? Are we dealing with an array of decadent gimmicks, lending a new sense to the expression, “That musician really gets up my nose”? Or is it all part of a search for the immersive gesamtkunstwerk? Richard Wagner would have loved to get his hands on Heatsick’s scent diffusers, to let the theatre audience experience all the arts through all their senses at once. And surely the maestro would have loved XNX’s new album: “The idea behind the project was to provide a multi-sensory experience targeting hearing, sight, smell and touch, transferring the serene, rejuvenating experience of the spa into the context of musical experimentation.” XNX, aka Portuguese musician Ilidio Chaves, has created a rich lather of an album titled Music For Spas, and released it on a pen drive inside a bar of handmade lavender soap. Is it just flannel? Something to ponder during a good soak.

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