Perfumer Michel Roudnitska
Synesthesia has made a mark on perfumery thanks to artists like Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and Bruno Fazzolari. They experience scent as color. Their work in perfumery ranges from depiction of their experience (Chroma) to more abstract exploration. The audience can speculate as to what synesthesia ‘feels’ like, but the work doesn’t induce a synesthetic experience. The early 20th century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin apparently wanted the audience to experience the phenomenon more directly. Though it never came together during his lifetime, a days-long performance that incorporated music, dance, aroma and light took place at an elevation of 11,800 feet at the Thikse Buddhist Monastery in the Ladakh, India in June of 2015. “Mysterium” was a symbolist approach to the Vedic principle of divine energy animating and linking all aspects of being. The people present for the event were considered celebrants as much as audience members.
Michel Rounitska composed a number of scents that were integrated into the performance. He also composed Himalaya, a perfume tribute to the Mysterium project. The perfume conjures a cold, arid climate. The chilly, metallic olibanum is aerated with ozonic materials to create a sensation of cool winds. It has light, sweet vanillic tone that is balanced by a yogurty tartness. A floral quality floats in the air but never lands. It enhances the incense but stays in the background. An almost fruity aspect appears when the sweetness inherent in olibanum is brought out. Frankincense is the clear center of Himalaya. All other notes circle it and point to it but they never take center stage.
Scriabin’s piece has some of the early 20th century exoticism that flirts with fetishizing the foreign. I’m thankful that Roudnitska chose not to take an orientalist approach to the perfume. He chose a material that is appropriate to the setting (frankincense) and then used it to express an introspective, contemplative attitude.
Intermedia events might seem like a contemporary topic, but Scriabin beat us to the punch by about 100 years. Whether creating a performance that explicitly incorporates all the senses will lead to a synesthetic experience for the audience is an open question. Hallucinogens might help.