Musical and olfactory creation on the theme of citrus fruits

Partnership between the Conservatory of Music of Grasse, the Carnot College and the International Perfumery Museum in Grasse

June 2019


Last February (2019), during a workshop on Eau de Cologne at the International Perfume Museum (MIP), I had the chance to meet the musicians of Quintette Essences Musicales ensemble. Being a violinist myself, I could only rejoice to meet them. I was far from imagining what an adventure this meeting would bring me.


Indeed, four months later, I received a call from the MIP asking me to participate in a concert on the theme of citrus fruits as part of the reopening of the new rooms and the temporary exhibition: The fabulous history of Eau de Cologne. I was asked to create an Eau de Cologne simultaneously during a musical performance.


The students of the music classes organized by Collège Carnot of Grasse worked for several months in partnership with the MIP on the correspondence between music and perfume. Under the tutelage of professors of the Music Conservatory in Grasse and especially Tania Castro, the students created textures and musical motifs that characterize various citrus used in perfumery. They then used these textures and musical patterns to compose a piece.


The day before the performance at the museum, I was invited to hear for the first time this work in three short parts. During the rehearsal, the students proposed to give names to the different parts in relation to the scented atmospheres they wanted to create. Someone suggested to name the second part "far west". Many agreed, before someone said, "but, far west? that’s not a smell."


And if it were? If one can qualify a music with the expression "far west", and that the expression responds to a smell, this music therefore may well correspond to this smell.


The olfactory element, almost taboo until the 19th century, nevertheless often had its role to play during musical performances. Take the example of incense in churches, inseparable to religious songs.


Several writers have relied on smells to express themselves. Maupassant wrote of a famous sonata of Beethoven: "on hearing this sonata, I could not say if I breathed the music or heard a perfume. Baudelaire spoke of "fresh perfumes like children's flesh, soft as oboes, green as meadows. "


Like writers, music composers have also been inspired by smells. Debussy, who named one of his works "The perfumes of the night," is an example.


Of course, the opposite exists, perfumers too, let themselves be influenced by music. In the middle of the 19thcentury, Septimus Piesse - an important English chemist and perfumer, with the idea that the olfactory world followed rules similar to the laws of musical harmony, linked each of the perfumery ingredients of which he had knowledge to a note of the diatonic scale.


With regard to the student pupils of Collège Carnot, an olfactory note was associated with an instrument. The affiliation did not relate to a range (pitch of sound) or a timbre (sound characteristic) in common between the smell and the instrument but considered the sharing of the same type of atmosphere.


The associations were as follows.


The percussion was the "base", a blend of Benzoin and Opoponax (aromatic resins). The base is the foundation of a perfume. And indeed, the percussion played a supporting role, was the pulsation of the whole, as the passing time, as the life that goes.


The bass was the lemon. It surprised me initially, but I understood when I saw how it was leading. The double bass gave impetus to the other instruments, much like the lemon does as chief of the citrus band.


The alto saxophone and the flute were the mandarin. Which was well chosen since the mandarin plays a fruity and jazzy role in perfumery.


The harp was bergamot. Poetic and delicate.


The violin and the viola were bitter orange. The latter gives body to the whole in a perfume, as do the strings in an orchestra.


The tenor saxophone and the din were the small grain (essential oil extracted from the leaves and green twigs of the bitter orange tree); the note that wakes up, greener than the others, a little snappy.


The rehearsal was beautiful to see. Very metaphorical, it started with Tanya soliciting "the buds of the harp". A mix of perfume, music and image, it was a whole spring that was born before me.


There was not mention of good or bad notes, but of texture: "each one has its texture? ready? lets' go". The students were calling each other "ok, now we take the pressed citrus texture" or "hey the double-bass, take your bitter texture".


At the very end, a professor from the conservatory asked, amused, who had composed this work. The proud and happy children exclaimed that it was them. The professor replied with a smile that he had heard that it was children who had composed the music.


The students and their teachers had succeeded. Children were needed to recreate the joy and sparkling vivacity, the freshness of the Eau de Cologne.


I admit to having initially seen my role as a perfumer more as a visual support for musical performance than as a real creative process. Yet, playing the game, I started by drawing a score, a plan of what was happening musically. While keeping the basic rules of the Eau de Cologne in mind, I tucked into my small beaker the olfactory notes, drop-by-drop, following sometimes the rhythm of the associated instrument, sometimes its loudness.


At the first listening, I thus obtained a sweet mixture reminiscent of fruit candies, at the second; a limoncello full of sunshine, and at the third; an aromatic and fresh mixture. For logistical reasons I mixed everything up before letting the public judge of the result.


Whether or not we believe in their direct correspondence, we cannot deny that music and perfume go well together. Better still, after such a collaboration, musicians and perfumers return to their respective art wonderfully enriched and more inspired again.