One Thousand Scents

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coherence: L'Artisan Parfumeur Bois Farine

First of all, an interesting article on not El Bulli itself but its imminent closing and on the many articles that have been written about it, relevant because near the end the author says,

The Washington Post's Andreas Viestad summed up the chasm between the uninitiated and the proselytizers nicely: "This food tastes wonderful, but it is hard to find words to describe it … How can you convince someone who has never tasted tuna marrow that it is delicious?" It's a problem inherent to writing about any kind of sensory experience, of course, but at least with less experimental food, critics can assume their readership has a baseline familiarity with most of the flavors they're writing about.

That is a problem: how do you describe flavours and smells without reference to others? You have two options, I think: go off on poetic flights of fancy, or root your description in the familiar (and hope that readers are familiar with your references). I'm not a flights-of-fancy kind of guy: I can't go on about unicorns and magic-carpet rides and whatnot. I'd rather say that something smells like a tuberose wrapped in warm wool, or like Joy only not so good, and assume that you can figure out what I mean.


Now. If you have not heard this, then you ought to.

It isn't really called "Death Waltz", which is an actual, though deliberately unplayable, parody of sheet music containing such instructions as "with pesto" and "bow real fast (slippage may occur)" and "balance your chair on 2 legs". That thing up there is a synthesized-piano transcription of a piece of video-game music, and it recalls Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano music, though it seems clear that no physical instrument could play it: certainly no human being could. And this is what astounds me the most, what I find the most puzzling and incomprehensible: the sheer number of notes on the page, which is the thing that makes it physically unplayable, ought to, you'd think, render the composition increasingly unlistenable, because it seems as if it should dissolve into a mere blur of notes, and yet it never does. Midway through there's this alarming mass of notes

and then a bit later there's this

which soon gives way to this

with fifteen or more notes being sounded simultaneously and in frighteningly rapid succession, yet to my amazement, you can always understand exactly what is happening musically: the parts of the music, the left and right hands, the glissandi and arpeggiation, all of it perfectly clear and obvious. How can this be? Is it the orchestration, my brain, or some combination of the two? I don't know enough about music to know how this is possible, but all of the pieces fit together into a whole.

I wish that were true of L'Artisan Parfumeur's Bois Farine, but it is a jumble to me, a thoroughly incoherent and unlikeable scent. Bois Farine--"flourwood"--is based on a tree which grows only on Reunion Island and whose flowers smell like flour. The scent doesn't smell of flour, exactly, but it does start off smelling much like unsweet baked goods, no gourmandise here: the top note is suggestive of peanut-butter cookies without nearly enough peanut butter, and soon after that of stick pretzels. It isn't bready, because there isn't any yeastiness to it, but it does smell like flour-based food. And then someone goes and smashes a bottle of cheap iris cologne on the floor and wrecks everything.

There's cedar, too, and eventually some sweetness in the form of benzoin, but that men's-cologne iris: what's that doing there stinking up the bakery? It would have been possible to build some sort of bridge between the bake-shop opening and the sweetened-wood base, and it might even have been possible to do it with a floral middle, but this was not the way to do it.

Bois Farine doesn't smell like anything else, and if you like iris, then you might like this. But I just wanted it to go away. I wore it four times so I could think and write about it, and each time I felt as if I couldn't scrub it off fast enough.



  • As i began reading, I thought that you were leading up to some bombastic, over the top praise for BF, and when you didn't, I laughed like a popped balloon: suddenly and loudly! That was a fun ride: while I disagree with you on the merits of Bois Farine, I loved your review... So thanks! ;)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:52 PM  

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