A pilgrimage to Bletchley to find the right perfume…

The beginning: A lecture at the British Library

I met Pia when she gave a lecture at the British Library about fiction and perfumes. More specifically, it was about the creative process behind composing scents and how literature can be used as inspiration for that.

It is as if that lecture had been conceived with the “Bach and Sonnets” show in mind: My dream had been from the beginning for an experienced and knowledgeable perfumer to choose a perfume that would suit the mood, and the emotional “story line” of the evening.

Olfiction means Pia Long and Nick Gilbert

Pia Long is immensely knowlegeable about scents, the science behind it, and tells fascinating stories of how and why certain scents become popular. A lot of whatnshemsays sounds fascinatingly foreign and fresh to my ears, but I did recognise challenges common to all creative processes, not least the once in creating performing art.

The creation of a perfume often starts with a brief by the fashion house that wants to add a new product line that will fit in with their overall image. A kind of mediator [proper jobtitle] then translates this marketing vision into something that will be more meaningful to perfumers, who themselves do not concern themselves much with marketing, but are specialists in creating complex scents that tap into olfactory memories that many of us don’t even realise we have.

But, as Pia pointed out in her lecture: Experimenting, drafting, reviewing, changing, adjusting is all well and good, but in the commercial world, this is all pointless without a final product, and therefore, the question becomes pertinent:

“Who decides when it is done?”

In the end, the fashion house will decide what suggestion it wants to go for, but even final decision, intermediate milestones have to be set, and product suggestions finalised. At the end of the day, all creative processes face similar challenges.

I had wanted to find somebody to give me a hand, and even decide which commercially available fragrance would best fit my project. I had neither the time (minimum 3 months) nor the budget (let’s not go there) to have one custom designed, but luckily, the world of perfumes is much more varied than most of us realise.

In short: Even though Pia and her business partner Nick are extremely busy, they agreed to help me.

A pilgrimage to Bletchley

So I found myself one Friday morning on a pilgrimage to their lab in Bletchley. It also famously is the home of the team around the genius mathematician Alan Turing that broke the Enigma code that the German military used in the second world war to communicate internally.

Comparisons with encoding and decoding mysteries suggested themselves, and I was not disappointed:

It quickly developed into a journey into a weird and wonderful world that I had never before been privy to. Pia and Nick are very eloquent in talking about smells and cleverly prime your brain for the olfactory experiences that they are about to expose you to.

I was introduced to a whole universe of intense and subtle smells, some of them overwhelmingly intense and by being so, often were surprisingly offensive even though you still recognised what in greater dilution would be a wonderful experience, others miraculously complex and yet gentle, even developing their effect slowly over time.

Well over a dozen paper sticks were handed to me, and I often had to smell them several times before my brain could make any sense of them, but Pia’s words gently guided it in the right direction until it created connections to past smells and experiences.

The world of fragrance is simply put a huge lot bigger and even more varied than I had expected. But being educated and marvelling at that brave new world had not been my ultimate aim.

I had come to describe my vision for a fundraising evening at the world famous Jazz Club Ronnie Scott’s in London. A melée of sonnets by Shakespeare and cello music by Bach, crowned with a rendition of the aria “Ave Maria” by Verdi’s Otello in memory of my father who had passed away earlier this year. Without me having conceived it that way, the show is at the core of what were his passions.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are different from many of his contemporaries. While the show starts with the more straightfoward love poetry, it quickly moves on to a more lustful voice, and then descends into rejection, dejection and with Verdi’s hand, even death.

It’s Eau de Protection

The moment I finished my description, Nick exclaimed “I have got it. It has to be Eau de Protection by Etat Libre d’Orange” Pia looked at him, smiled and said “Of course!”

So, the way Nick describes Eau de Protection, it starts with a very intense rose scent “as if you crushed a number of freshly picked roses in your hand”, but then quickly develops into something much more gentle, almost fragile – practically mirroring the emotional development of the show.

I left Bletchley feeling very much more aware of the immense variety that lies hidden in the magical world of scents. I feel immensely lucky to have had the guiding hand of experienced and passionate professionals like Pia and Nick to help me choose a fragrance for the actress.

Using fragrance in support of creating an immersive experience in the theatre seems an obvious decision once you think about it and are fortunate enough to either have sufficient knowledge and training already or simply have access to people who do.

You can find out more about Olfiction at www.olfiction.com.

Tickets for the show still are available here on this website at www.bachandsonnets.com/tickets.php

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