No one, I think, is more convinced than I am that olfaction, like hearing and color vision, is a spectral sense. I have spent the last twenty years proposing and developing the very idea that the nose is a vibrational spectroscope (for a 12-minute version please see my TED lecture). Does this mean that the three senses map onto one another in an obvious way? Not really. Yesterday I mentioned that Kevin Verspoor was a synaesthete, today I got some samples from Jazmin Saraï whose homepage asks what does music smell like? , links every fragrance with a piece of music and claims synaesthesia inspired them.
If you’re a synaesthete, then sounds (not just music) may cause sensations of color, taste and smell. For synaesthetes these are actual sensations, not associations or vague impressions. I remember reading about a man who saw all instances of the number 9 in red. There is a huge difference between actually seeing something and associating something to something else, just as there would be a difference between a vision of an archangel standing in your room, as opposed to daydreaming about the existence of archangels: the former would likely change your life, the latter is mere chitchat. Also, these associations are different from one synaesthete to another: Scriabin saw a particular chord in one color, Messiaen in another, etc. There is so far no general law of synaesthesia.
Many people have asked me whether my writing about perfume is, so to speak, powered by synaesthesia. The answer is no, and I don’t think I would bother to write about perfume if smells evoked colors and sounds: I’d just spend the day enjoying the show. No one would dream of asking a music critic whether it was the smell of Parsifal that made it a great opera, etc. Some wonder whether, if indeed we smell molecular vibrations, the rules of musical harmony must then govern smell aesthetics. The answer is also no, for reasons a bit too technical to go into here. Accordingly, it seems to me that the notion that perfumes and music go well together is a conceit, as opposed to (in increasing order of solidity), an analogy, a parallel or a deep insight.
It is a conceit I share, and I even had the good fortune of being asked by BBC Radio 3 to put a perfume playlist together on Saturday Classics (you can hear it here). Conceits are light-hearted fun. Insights are something completely different. People love insights so much that they make them up. Example: oceans of technical and semi-mystical prose have been written since Pythagoras about the laws of musical harmony and their relations to geometry. All that millennial jetsam was swept away by one very smart guy, Bill Sethares, who showed that the laws of harmony are built into timbre. His book is one of the best I’ve read, and the musical examples in it are hair-raising. Edwin Land did a similar thing to color vision. That’s what science does best: clear the air. We don’t yet fully understand the senses, never mind their synaesthetic connections.
Which brings me to Jazmin Saraï. I did not hit the music button, because I don’t like sound on websites. I enjoyed the fragrances, though. They are engaging and skilfully put together naturals. My favorite is Neon Graffiti , a fresh and beguiling spicy floral that supposedly goes well with/is inspired by Sunshowers (2004) “by the wacky, kooky, one of a kind, groundbreaking trendsetter, recording artist, M.I.A.”.
Niche houses tend to be high-concept, though I would personally be just as happy if they numbered their perfumes sequentially and merely said “try this, it smells good” on their blurb. Dana El Masri, the Jazmin Saraï perfumer, is “inspired by the concept of Synesthesia, Intermodal Perception and Septimus Piesse’s remarkable work”. Septimus Piesse may have had some useful things to say, but in my opinion his connections between music and perfume, like his famous scale depicted below, are hilariously daft. God help us if he’d graduated to semitones. I have a feeling that these fragrances are good despite, not because of, Intermodal Perception and Septimus Piesse.