March 14, 2010

The Smell of Ecstasy - at the Rubin Museum

Christophe Laudamiel, who I have written about before, continues to evolve before us into one of the most original and creative perfumers around. He gave a talk with the neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, who does research into the brain's olfactory receptors and how the sense of smell is processed in the brain, at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, as part of their Brainwave series, linking science and the arts.

The Rubin Museum is in the former Barney's in Chelsea, refitted with vast amounts of sacred and mysterious Himalayan and Buddhist Art, displayed with lots of space and air around it, individually and beautifully lit and explained with extensive notes beside each piece. We are so fortunate to have received the gift of such rare treasures in this city. I would feel guilty about having these things here, taken outside of their natural context, except that I know the political situation is such that this museum helps to preserve these pieces. Otherwise it is likely they might be destroyed or hidden away. Considering the hostile occupation of these cultural cradles by forces that feel very threatened by the content of these works they are much safer here in NYC than staying where they were originally made. They created a contemplative and calming atmosphere in which to hear about the current research into the sense of smell and how the brain and body and nervous system react together.

One of the charming details I learned on that dark and stormy night (pouring rain and howling wind for hours) was that chemists and perfumers have studied and discovered that the essence of freshness is like the smell of sunlight drying clean clothes on a line. The sun bleaches, indeed decomposes the material, and releases the molecules that reach our noses as that quintessential fresh smell. Which is not, unfortunately, able to be reproduced by natural means, though there are man-made fragrance molecules that can approximate it, one of which was given to us on a scent strip. This is the aldehyde named C12, beautiful and fresh enough that it instantly lightened my mood considerably. I would like to get my own supply of this stuff and use it for the house and as a perfume in and of itself. It is amazing how accurate it is, and with what strength it concentrates that pure experience so as to put it in the forefront of your mind while you are taking it in. To me it is close to the smell of ecstasy. It is often used in very minute amounts in laundry detergents and soaps and fabric softeners, so this ecstasy is being doled out in tiny doses to those of us who do the laundry.

I learned that all smells are made up of comparatively few elements of the periodic table, H,C, N, O, S - that is hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur, and that knowledge of physics and chemistry cannot predict how they will work together. A new perfume formula has to be built physically, like a sculpture, or by trial and error of tasteful choice, because even a slightly different combination of the exact same ingredients will produce entirely different effects. I learned that more than four or five perfume elements cannot be analyzed by the nose and brain in a fragrance at one time, so more than three to five descriptions of ingredients are not included in marketing descriptions. The art is in the manipulation of the elements of the composition and there will generally be many more elements in a perfume than our nose and brain can read, probably about 80, or more than 300 if natural elements are included. The others are there to modify and tweak and enhance and distance the main ones your mind will register. It's like building the perspective of a picture to create a landscape. I learned that only 30% of the about 2000 scent molecules are in use on the market at this time, but that it may be that many more will be utilized in the near future for many more purposes than we do now.

The chemical vocabulary is very rich and could potentially get very strange in time. Laudamiel brought something he called Screaming Green which he used in his Scent Opera performed at the Guggenheim (which was performed in the dark with individual scent tube "microphones" for each audience member). The formulation was so strong as to be overwhelming on the scent strip given us. I realize of that of course these elements are created in different strengths for different purposes, and the scent strip with this one would be wonderfully pleasant if it was diluted about 500 to 1, but as it was it took over the world for me. CL needed it to be strong for the device he built to diffuse tiny amounts of the scent to the audience through individual tubes that released different fragrances he created as characters into the air around them, as set to special music by Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson. Even after 24 hours, I had to take this immensely strong scent strip out of my notebook and remove it from my vicinity completely because it was permeating everything and making me dizzy. It was obvious that it was a gigantic version of a wonderful green-ness like fresh cut grass, one of my favorite smells, but only if it were much diluted, and wafting in from about 40 feet away.

I learned that we have about 340 brain receptors for smell, as opposed to the many fewer there are for the visual or auditory senses, and that these receptors are the same as those that use and recognize such things as dopamine, and drugs like ecstasy, and that the cortex of smell is very close to the seat of the emotions (the amygdala) and that these receptors regenerate themselves if they are damaged, unlike other parts of body. This would imply that our bodies and nature find them to be of great importance to us, even if we do not yet understand exactly why. The olfactory tissue in our noses are neurons and actually part of our brains, extended a bit out into the front of our faces, so that we can take in the world of outside information through smell. It was confirmed that smells are actually molecules, physical matter that travels into our noses, and that we can be overwhelmed by highly volatile scents, which will cause the brain to shut down the olfactory sense. The brain will reopen the door to our sense of smell if you try smelling something entirely different, like the skin of your arm, or coffee beans, for awhile. (Nothing special as to coffee beans in this way, you can simply use the skin of your arm to refresh your scent palate, as the professional do, it's the change and difference that will get your brain to restart its perception, and allow you to move on to the next new smell).

It was mentioned that it can be exhausting to smell a lot in one day, as has happened to me, but that you can acclimate and adjust your smell stamina over time, and that professionals eventually do so and can smell different things all day without collapsing into exhaustion or anosmia. It's like learning a new language, or doing puzzles all day, for the brain, you get very exhausted by it but you can eventually exercise the brain to accommodate a full day of strong olfactory information, if necessary. We all know that you sometimes must acclimate to unpleasant smells, such as the Paris 1730 CL passed around on a strip, which he with his partner Chistophe Hornetz developed for the Suskind book and film Perfume. This was their interpretation of the smell of Paris at that time. Urine, smoke, ashes, sweat, bread, animals, this can be tolerated by our modern sensibilities in tiny doses but if you take a deep breath of it it will knock you back. The scent of the body as it ages was also discussed, how a baby or a young person turns over skin cells rapidly and their scent is more acidic and fresh, while aging gradually causes this process to be slower and give off a fattier, more basic smell. So it may follow you can keep the smell of youthfulness with fragrance if you choose well, and practice rigorous exfoliation. I am sure there will be many more perfumes made devoted to veiling the wearer in a cloud of the fragrance of the youth of a teenage girl.

The loveliness and excitement of youth is most seductive. Still, and being of a certain age myself, I enjoyed the reminders of the fullness of time imparted by the calm beauty of the old Eastern art surrounding us at the Rubin. The philosophy of working with rather than against the natural seasons of life, the joy and sadness of a mature depth of memory gained by experience, and the interesting patina of age was personified by the ancient Buddhas and angels and demons and depictions of symbolic heavens and hells. They imparted a softness and wisdom informed by yet another path open to the pursuit of happiness. We may also perhaps look forward to new fragrances created to honor the richness and exquisite sensuality of beauty available to us through archetypal scent memories, built over time, incorporating all the world's different cultures and the fully developed passages of both personal intimate and cultural histories.

This event was all the more enjoyable in the company of two perceptive and discerning companions, who both have very engrossing sites: Jade Dressler and Leah Strigler. If you try the links and read you will have the opportunity to enjoy their company along with me.

P.S. Try this experiment they had us do, eat something dense and small, like a jelly bean or a raisin, while holding your nose, then when you have chewed it enough to open it up, release your nose and breathe out. It's remarkable how much the scent of a food is part of its taste, possibly about 80% of it. It's like experiencing perfume in the mouth, through taste, which is closely related in the brain.

Above, from the Himalayan art exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art.


askingLeah said...

One of my favorite details was CL describing how they used black currant for the urine note, amping it up and toning down the berriness - he said that that was noty something taught in perfumery text books.

Lucy said...


Yes, and the male sweat note in cardamon, which you told me, I did not realize that was why they put it in so many men's frags...

chayaruchama said...

You two are on fire !

A multifocal delight, and fascinatingly detailed, thoughtful post.

Laudamiel truly knows his subject well- having taught at MIT, in addition to all his other credentials.

He's been sharing his wealth of knowledge , touring the country;it is a gift to all who are able to participate.

Would that I had been there with you...

Lucy said...

Dear C,

Next time, and we will be getting together soon, withal...

Perfumaniac said...

This sounds amazing! I love the combination of chemistry/science in the service of art. I wish I didn't miss it! Lucy, if you love C-12, it can be had for a couple bucks from multiple sources. I got mine from the perfumer's apprentice, which sources their's from Givaudan.(I wonder if this talk was recorded, or transcribed?)

Lucy said...

Hi Perfumaniac/B!

Thank you so much for the tip, I went over there and ordered, plus a bunch of other stuff too. I can't wait to get the range of things, should be really interesting...
Yes, you would have enjoyed it so much. I don't think the talk was recorded, but I will look on the site again to see if they did or are planning any such thing.

do pheromones work said...

Thank you so much for this wealth if in formation that was a great tip. Anyway, will certainly visit your site more often now.