Perfume is an emotional thing. One spritz and you’re transported back to childhood, a first love or a special place you’ve visited. Scent is evocative and primal, with the power to revive a memory in an instant.
Perfume is also an art form, created by olfactory artists who blend sophisticated compositions worthy of display in a museum or contemporary art gallery.
Saskia Wilson-Brown understands all this. She’s the founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO), a Los Angeles-based non-profit devoted to providing accessible education on perfume in all its aspects. IAO’s mission is to create initiatives where artists and perfumers collaborate and even innovate projects where scent plays a major role.
In January 2014 one of these collaborations debuts as a scent concert. Yes, that’s right, a concert as in a performance. How can scent make a concert? After all, there’s no audio in a perfume bottle.
A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited sets out to introduce audiences to the performance artistry of perfume. The concert takes place at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles for a limited engagement January 9 to 12, 2014.
Saskia happened upon the story of art critic and writer Sadakichi Hartmann, who created the first scent concert 1902 called A Trip To Japan in Sixteen Minutes. Its debut was a colossal failure. She learned about this story from a bookstore clerk as she was buying perfume books. He asked if she had heard of the scent concert. She had not. “It’s just a sad story about a mega failure,” she says. “Sadakichi tried to do something very cutting edge and it just imploded. The more I thought about it the more I thought we should try to revisit that concert.”
Sadakichi’s concert, A Trip to Japan, was to debut at an avant-garde venue, the Carnegie Lyceum. Unfortunately the venue fell through at the last minute and Sadakichi had to find a new home. That new home, a burlesque theater, was a disaster. A completely different and rowdy crowd was in the audience, and it didn’t help that it was a smoke filled room. The concert bombed and Hartmann stopped it early. Filled with disgrace, he never attempted to perform the concert again.
Saskia put out a tweet asking if anyone knew anything about it. She calls it a “happy accident” that Dr. Christina Bradstreet, based in London and an expert on Sadakichi Hartmann, just happened to be following Saskia on Twitter. “She connected me with a lot of information,” says Saskia. “Without her I never would have been able to pull this together.”
Saskia also learned of a Hartmann archive at UC Riverside. She found a wealth of information on him and the scent concert, including sheet music from the original concert, which was played on piano. Now she had enough information to pull together a revival.
She approached the Hammer Museum, who enthusiastically said yes to staging the concert. Saskia went to work putting her team together to recreate and update A Trip to Japan, including veteran perfumer Sherri Sebastian to develop the six scents representing the six stages of the voyage. Sound designer Bennett Barbakow created the soundtrack. Kamil Beski and Eric Vrymoed built the scent delivery mechanism to disperse the fragrances into the room. “I am most proud of the level of collaboration, everything is tied into everything else,” says Saskia. “The sound really works with the scent, the machines and even the programs, it’s all been very collaborative and that’s what I really hope people perceive.”
While the format of the performance – six modules of two minutes each – is true to Sadakichi’s original scent concert, Saskia explains they’ve updated the perfumes and the soundtrack to contemporary times. “He had six fragrances, we have six fragrances,” she says.” The difference from his scents is that his were single note smells like rose or orange blossoms, whereas our are completely composed perfumes. They are a lot more complex but I think that’s what he would have done with the access [to many more aroma components] if he were alive today.”
Another difference is that as an audience member attending at the Hammer, you’ll be blindfolded. Sadakichi’s 1902 audience was not blindfolded. “Maybe had he done it it could have gone better for him,” says Saskia. “There’s something about being blindfolded that allows you to be passive and sit back and experience the scents as they come.”
The original Trip to Japan started out in New York harbor on a boat departing to Japan. People threw roses as the ship departed. In the revisited version, that departure is a Super Shuttle ride through Los Angeles to LAX Airport. Saskia says they imagined an ice cream truck driving by, so you hear the sound of that truck and smell the scent of ice cream.
Perfumer Sherri Sebastian has been working on creating the six perfumes for the “trip through music and scent.” She’s been making perfumes for 20 years, working at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) and now Fragrance West (a sponsor of the concert). Sherri is also the founder of Sebastian Signs, a niche artisan perfume line, known for her Purusa Dream Extract and innovative Purusa Naturals perfume gels. While she’s created custom scents for celebrities and private clients, Sherri says, “it’s such a pleasure to create fragrance for the sake of art.”
She calls the scents “a conceptual interpretation” of the journey from Los Angeles to Tokyo. In imaging the shuttle ride to LAX passing an ice cream truck, Sherri concocted a fragrance that has a milky, creamy aroma. I was able to preview a few of the scents last month and this perfume certainly makes you think of ice cream cones.
The plane fragrance is truly evocative of boarding a plane, finding your seat and settling in. The scent of orange blossoms and muguet fill the hotel arrival module, and this relaxing aroma just makes you go ahhhh.
Both Sherri and Saskia say the main challenge has been how to not only disperse each fragrance among the audience, but how to clear it out for the next scent. The scent machine is most likely very different than the one Sadakichi used.
“It’s basically a pump based on air pressure, so air pushes the scent out of a jar and pumps it into these tubes that run across the audience,” according to Saskia. She says “Sherri brilliantly has worked the scents in a way that makes them perceptible when a new scent comes in.” She describes “a river of air, creating a scent river, to get the fragrances in and out as quickly as possible.”
Remarkably, tickets for A Trip To Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited are free. You just need to reserve your seat. “At the very least it is an aesthetic experience and I hope people enjoy it for the sake of itself,” says Saskia. She hopes people come away with “an appreciation for scent as an art piece.”
“We have the opportunity to make Sadakichi’s failure right,” says Sherri. “There’s an emotional aspect to recreating it in a way he would have envisioned it in a modern day adaptation.”