What is it about odor that leads those who emit it in the name of art to proclaim themselves revolutionary innovators, despite a long and not too interesting history of previous emitters? The creators of "Green Aria: A Scent Opera," which played for five sold-out performances at the modest-sized theater in the sub-basement of the Guggenheim Museum last weekend, portrayed themselves as path-breaking extenders of Wagner's theory of the "total work of art," even though their effort was limited to smell, sound and some explanatory projected text.
Of course this is to ignore the long tale of synesthesia, studied scientifically and explored artistically. Scriabin's color organ comes to mind, as does the long tale of composers associating keys with colors. And of course there was Aromarama, born in the days when the film industry was searching desperately for gimmicks to outflank television. As in Cinemascope, Todd-AO, 3D and the like. Aromarama involved pumping odors (orange, as an orange was being sliced onscreen, as a film-director friend reminded me) into a theater, waiting for that odor to disperse and then pumping in a new one. Elephantine.
"Green Aria" was conceived by Stewart Matthew, a former DJ, mathematician and Wall Streeter who, it says here, "recently formed companies dedicated to creating new forms of art and entertainment using affective and cognitive technologies." He seems to have a knack for marketing and publicity, too. He worked with Christophe Laudamiel, a "perfumer" who has devised fragrances for lots of well-known perfume brands.
Together they oversaw the one truly innovative aspect of their "opera," "scent microphones" that audience-members could position at will near their noses and that allowed the relatively rapid dispersion of odors (every five or ten seconds or so) from a "scent organ" in the back (this was "designed and manufactured by Flakt Woods"). The technical aspects of this system, which involved tubes snaking through the theater and the microphones mounted to each seat, all spiffily done, were ingenious. The odors had to be pumped into the tubing in such a way that each seat, no matter how far from the "scent organ," got the same scent at the same time. The scents had to build on one another, so that the residue of one augmented the next.
But to what end? The "opera" was described in the press as an hour long. But that included panel discussions at the outset of each show, a "cast of characters" with the their associated scents, the opera itself, and a credit list with all the characters and their odors repeated. The actual "opera" lasted 17 minutes. Which was more than enough, since some listeners/smellers complained afterwards of headaches and sinus issues. As we left the auditorium we were each handed a smelly program.
The "opera" consisted of a fatuous allegory involving nature, technology and their fusion.There were five elements (the expected four plus "base metal") and 18 characters with names like Evangelical Green, Funky Green Impostor, Meretricious Green and Runaway Crunchy Green. The 17 minutes consisted of scents and associated sounds, and I don't think I was alone in losing track of the "story" in the first minute.
The prerecorded instrumental and electronic sounds came courtesy of Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, best known as Bjork's producer and as the producer of Muhly's first CD. As a documented admirer of Muhly, very much including that first CD, the best I can say about the "Scent Opera" score was that it was trivial. Muhly has made some wonderful music, but he's also made some blandly anonymous music, too, as in his orchestral score a couple of years ago for American Ballet Theatre and his noodling soundtrack for the film "The Reader." He works too much, accepts too many projects in his first rush of fame. I hope he settles down and focusses, because his is too great a talent to waste. Maybe he thought "Green Aria" was just a joke. If so it was a pretty expensive and elaborate joke.
As for the future of scented opera, I remain dubious. Scratch 'n' sniff advertisements are widely resented. Aromarama didn't last. The technical systems are expensive. Most odors are stubbornly unspecific. Having a plausible plot and some singing might help. But a gimmick is still a gimmick, and one suspects Matthew knows that full well.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.