In the search of perfect composition. Why music is closer to perfumery than we might think.
I was never at ease with hunting perfume by the note. There are several reasons for it.
Firstly, I am not familiar with every note out there (can anybody tell me where I could possibly test out the hyraceum note?) and even the ones I am familiar with can be split into two categories – the ones I have smelled in real life (rose, bourbon vanilla, jasmine, etc.) and the ones I have learned by some sort of olfactory deduction from the perfumes I have come in contact with. Which means that I can never be sure for the latter, whether what I thought I was smelling was an accurate representation of the real thing and whether what I was smelling was not a combination of “notes” or an accord that registers in my memory as a single note.
Secondly, some notes used in descriptions are artificial constructs and are meant to give you an idea of what it smells like by association but the things they try to represent oftentimes don’t smell of anything or by contrast smell of everything. For example fresh mountain air or water. Go figure.
Thirdly, there is no way of knowing whether the listed olfactory composition of a given perfume is exact and comprehensive and oftentimes people detect notes that are not listed (although it may be akin to seeing a mirage, since our noses are by and large somewhat unpredictable and untrustworthy) . The unreliability of these descriptions, therefore, makes it more difficult to judge the composition without testing it because who knows - you might find that under that lush jasmine-dominated floral exterior is hiding the dreaded lily note (or whatever that dreaded note is for you), carelessly omitted by the marketing team, barely there and yet mighty enough to ruin the pleasure.
Finally, and most importantly, like in the case of recreating a nonexistent smell or an idea of it, the difficulty lies as much in the entire composition as in its individual parts. And here I have to bring up another sensory art form (although it sounds almost insulting to reduce it to being merely sensory) – music. Can you tell me what is your favourite note? Are you a minimalist and don’t like one too many? Do you only listen to compositions with prominent E-flat?
Musical analogy is no stranger to the world of perfumery. We are constantly talking about notes and accords but this is often where it ends. I know, smells are arguably much more subjective than sounds. However, what the art of perfumery tries to achieve using smell is not that different from what music does with, you know, musical notes. Both create an image, a mood, a feeling and both only have a limited range of constituent parts to play with. Both are similar in that the formula can be recreated by different hands using different instruments or absolutes of different quality and therefore end up being an alteration, not quite the same, give or take. Will the piece be played with a Guarneri or an Amazon bargain, will it be produced by a niche brand with exceptional raw materials or a steal from the Middle East? Funnily enough, the way either of those will be perceived by the on-looker is an entirely different matter!
The beauty of any good composition be it in music or perfume (....or flowers, you name it) is that it makes something else (and something better, preferably) out of what is actually made of. It makes a bunch of notes into a fugue and another bunch into a concerto and another bunch into a different concerto. One will make you reflect, the other one will make you smile, the next one will have you remember. Bach, Salieri and Shostakovich all had the same stuff to play around with and ended up with tremendously different results.
I wish there was a better way of describing perfume than by the means of the current olfactory pyramids but any attempts at describing smell in terms of mood, feelings and associations are tinted by individual perception and are deeply subjective. Is smell really such an intimate experience – no one else in the world will feel any given perfume exactly the way you do? Well that must be a marvelous journey for all of us blind-buyers, as long as we are open-minded and a little adventurous!