Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something in the Air

A couple days ago, I found something that made several unrelated items floating around my brain gel. Let me start at the beginning. Here are three of the items:

For some time now, I've noticed how different London smells from Phoenix. Whether Phoenix's dry environment and post-1960s man-made environment makes it odorless or whether I've simply become accustomed and immune to its scents, I don't know, but I do know that London smells different. The train, the train stations, the buildings, the people, even just certain spots on a street or in a park — all of these are far more fragrant (and I do not mean exclusively pleasantly so) than the environment to which I'm accustomed. A particularly vivid example for me is the library at the College, which, housed in a turn-of-the-century building and housing a substantial quantity of turn-of-the-century books, is almost a funhouse of scents. Compare the smell of a new, acid-free book to an aging 1930s edition. Multiply the latter by the thousands and that's what the College library smells like. Nostalgic, the air of learning, but with a hint of carcinogen.

One day, while talking with some composer friends about my disgust with Stockhausen, et. al, and the culture of fantastically bizarre and ugly music, I likened the experience of some of his works with this analogy: if an artist who could control scents subjected someone to, rather than pleasant or interesting smells, twenty minutes of fecal matter followed by an hour of rotting corpses, etc. The premise is absurd, but no more so than the music I was describing.

A friend mentioned to me the relatively recent advance in technology that allows scent to be broken down into three component parts — just as there are three primary colors from which any conceivable color can be created — and thus analyzed and converted into a universal unit (i.e. digitized).

Simultaneously, John Adams' memoir (which I've just finished reading) and the electronic music teacher at College were discussing what it means to be experimental: how, in the good old days when computers were still mysteries — uncharted dark space on the map — it was truly an adventure to see what kind of art would result. 

Right. These thoughts suddenly coagulated when I read an article about scent technology in an Imperial College science magazine (Imperial College is right behind the Royal College). The long and short of it is that it's already underway. 

You can already buy a device that can recreate any scent possible, companies in Japan are already incorporating this technology in their advertising, and Motorola and Samsung are both developing cell phones with scent technology for those 'extra sweet' texts. In 2006, a few theatres in Japan incorporated scent into their screenings of Terrence Malick's The New World and the first scent-enhanced album is already out. The actual article itself is far more exhaustive in terms of ways scent technology is already in use and possible uses for it in the future (say, for the visually impaired).

How fascinating is this!? The possibility to incorporate something truly experimental in music has been missing for decades! There's no longer anything experimental about electronic music: computers have made guesswork about oscillators and filters completely obsolete, and John Cage exhausted the elements of chance in music. What are we left with? What is experimental in the age of computers? It is a possible answer to this question that has me excited.

I don't know yet how scent could be incorporated with music (that's what makes it experimental!) or even if it's practical (would the smell change over time... or linger above the audience?), but isn't the sheer possibility of it fascinating?

I'll leave you with a passage from Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Brave New World:

"The scent organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio — rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon; a series of daring modulations through the spice keys into ambergris; and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar and new-mown hay (with occasional subtle touches of discord — a whiff of kidney pudding, the faintest suspicion of pig's dung) back to the simple aromatics with which the piece began. The final blast of thyme died away; there was a round of applause; the lights went up."

1 comment:

Liz said...

The technology for digital scents has actually existed for quite a few years, but it hasn't hit the mainstream yet--which is odd, because the sense of smell is so closely linked to emotion that it seems a natural partner for music and cinema. In 2006, the film "The New World" debuted in Japan with digitally cued scents released into the audience in sync with selected scenes (floral scents during a love scene, peppermint/rosemary during a sad scene, etc). The scents were synchronized perfectly and dissipated quickly, so that no inappropriate odor lingered when the mood shifted and a new scent was introduced, which was a major obstacle in previous attempts to merge scent with entertainment.

For anyone interested in exploring the scent phenomenon further, this is a very timely post. The authors of the book "Whiff!" are running a promotion offering lots of great free gifts, today and tomorrow only, at whiffoffer.com.