Friday, March 2, 2018

Brian Eno, Maurice Roucel and the Perfume of Unfinished Business

Brian Eno and perfumer Maurice Roucel collaborated on a fragrance project in the late eighties that never came to fruition. Sounds like the perfume of unfinished business, but decades later, no one is talking about it. That's a shame because an existing fragrance opportunity that intersects with music and technology is right under their nose—and the fragrance industry's.

An interesting fact surfaced in the Spring 2015 edition of Noble Rot magazine. Brian Eno (musician, composer, producer and all around polymath) revealed that he collaborated with Quest perfumer Maurice Roucel on a "sex" perfume back in the day. That was just for fun.

Eno refers to Roucel as a friend, but what doesn't surface are details regarding how the two became acquainted (Roucel currently works for Symrise). Putting the pieces together makes the case for artistic collaboration in the present using technology that didn't exist when the two originally worked together—an app that incorporates music, color and fragrant inspiration.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno was immersed in learning about perfumery at Quest during Roucel's tenure there (Quest was acquired by Givaudan in 2007). The perfumer and the fragrance company aren't mentioned in Neroli's liner notes, but what took place in this time frame is.

The deduction is not squelchy. Neroli (1993) is an ambient album inspired by the essence of orange blossom and Eno's passion for collecting ingredients used in perfumery (a picture of his fragrance kit packed with vials accompanies liner notes in the 2014 reissue of the CD).

The CD liner notes contain an excerpt from a radio interview Eno did with WNYC's John Schaefer, the host of New Sounds. They reveal that Eno was working on a commercial perfume project with a large fragrance company, and that he made monthly trips to the company's office in Paris to gather experience and knowledge. The timeframe is the late eighties.

It would make sense for Eno to withhold the name of the company he was working with in a taped radio interview. The fragrance industry is notoriously secretive. A non-disclosure agreement may have been signed, but if it was have the terms of the NDA expired? Does it matter where the project picks up if Roucel is now at Symrise? Is Eno interested in revisiting something he abandoned in a new timeframe with new tools? These questions and more are worthy of consideration.

Maurice Roucel via Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Roucel was working for Quest in 1989 and though he isn't mentioned in Neroli's liner notes, his participation can be deduced if one reads “An Evening with Brian Eno” in The Complete Music Magazine (1982), “Scents and Sensibility” in Details magazine (July 1992) and “Ode to Perfume” in Noble Rot (2015).

Eno's fragrance industry references are always Quest and Roucel, but the liner notes for Neroli, which are dated September 18, 1989, require further exploration. Content from the New Sounds interview doesn't match Neroli's liner notes verbatim and a deeper "industry" reveal is in the liner notes. So why the blip?

Shadow of Neroli by Michelle Krell Kydd

Eno's interview with New Sounds was broadcast on October 18, 1989 under the title #375: Ambient Music with Brian Eno. The content of Neroli's liner notes isn't the "edited" broadcast that aired on New Sounds. It would be interesting to hear the uncut version, but the past is gone and it's 2018—time for Eno and Roucel to combine their métiers and visit uncharted territory.

The Bloom app created by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers is a natural starting point. Bloom's haptic interface plays a sound every time a finger taps the touchscreen. Each tap generates a colored sphere and corresponding sound. Successive tapping creates multiple sounds and colors that are playfully synesthetic. The background color is set by the user as a "mood". Each mood on the Bloom app is named after an ingredient used in perfumery—there are 12 of them.

Screenshot of Bloom App on an iPad

Bloom's 12 fragrant "mood" settings are: Neroli, Vetiver, Ylang, Labdanum, Bergamot, Orris, Ambrette, Benzoin, Tolu, Cedar, Civet and Skatole. There are no smells in reality or virtual reality, though one could easily hack that with a collection of diluted aroma materials from suppliers like Eden Botanicals, Enfleurage NYC, Perfumer's Apprentice and White Lotus Aromatics.

Two product lines are immediately possible. The first is a collection of finished fragrances based on Bloom's mood settings. That's 12 perfumes Maurice Roucel can make and everyone knows he brings sexy back like it never left the room.

The second opportunity is a coffret containing each of the "mood" materials in dilution. This would encourage the development of a personal lexicon for smells, and indulging in scent layering to create perfume accords on skin.

The coffret addresses Eno's observation of fragrance as an "unlangued" sense. It's an opportunity to move through subjectivity into objectivity via learning to evaluate raw materials used in perfumery. Et voila. Glass Petal Smoke has just provided a fragrance brief for Brian Eno and Maurice Roucel.

One is reminded of writer Italo Calvino's words when considering the possibility that Eno and Roucel—two highly respected artists that are well versed in distinct disciplines—will never collaborate again:
…the phials, the ampoules, the jars with their spire-like or cut glass stoppers will weave in vain from shelf to shelf their network of harmonies, assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas: our deaf nostrils will no longer catch the notes of their scale.
        —“The Name, The Nose” from Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino
Let's hope perfumer Maurice Roucel (a 2012 Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres recipient) and polymath Brian Eno pick up where they left off, and don't leave us with dead air.

Thanks to WNYC Associate Producer Caryn Havlik for assisting Glass Petal Smoke in locating #375: Ambient Music with Brian Eno on the New Sounds website when the date cited in Neroli's liner notes didn't correspond with the date of the broadcast.

The liner notes referenced in this article are from the 2014 reissue of Neroli on CD at All Saints Records. It is currently sold out.

A perfume accord is the basic character of a fragrance consisting of three or four blended notes that create a new aromatic impression. It's like using a mirepoix in cooking; the sum in flavor is different than the individual ingredients that comprise it.

A generative audio-visual installation utilizing Bloom made news last February, but smells weren't included in the communal mixed reality experience shaped by Bloom and Microsoft HoloLens.

"Brian Eno Smells" took place on February 21, 2018 at the Ann Arbor District Library, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I introduced the Bloom app at the Smell & Tell and 40 people smelled Musk Ambrette while the Bloom app operated in Ambrette mode. The purpose was to encourage personal olfactory lexicon via intersensing, a form of multisensory learning. You can read about the Smell & Tell event here. Special thanks to Christopher Porter who covered the event as a journalist and participant. Porter rocked a stylish coif a là David Bowie on the cover of Low, one of three albums in the Bowie "Berlin Trilogy" that Brian Eno worked on.