Monday, May 7, 2012

Amanda Feeley Devil #1, #2 and #3 Desk Crit:

(I am reviewing individual perfume modifications or sketches as "desk crits", based on my experience of how architectural projects are critiqued during the design phase.  When all of the perfumes are in, I will do a "final review", again modeled on the way architectural projects are reviewed as a whole.)
There is something “Puck-ish” about the *fragrances Amanda Feeley has created for the DevilScent project.  Puck is the mischievous trickster and nature sprite who appears when you speak of the Devil.  He’s also known as Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin (derived from Robin) and other variations.  As a literary character he makes his appearance in Faust’s “A Walpurgisnacht Traum” but is best known for his role in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Puck seems close to Amanda’s heart, imbuing her work with knavish delight and whimsy.  After all, it was Ms. Feeley who organized, or should I say, orchestrated last summer’s “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream”, an ambitious project involving 16 perfumers and 11 bloggers that owed as much to Mendelssohn’s symphony as it did to the play.  Ms. Feeley created two perfumes for that event:  Pixie Dust and Bottom’s Dream, the former smelling of the forest, the latter of peach (“Do I dare eat a peach” The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock).  
Her perfume modifications for the Devilscent project are three interpretations of a Puck-like devil who inhabits the forest.  All three versions share the same labdanum bed to a varying degree. Devil #1 has a fir balsam note layered onto labdanum that’s paired with a vaguely minty top.  Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) comes to mind which wouldn’t surprise me since Ms. Feeley’s handle online is the "Absinthe Dragonfly".  All of the plants in the Artemisia family dwell in the wild and pay heed only to their hunter goddess, Artemis.  Devil #3, on the other hand digs underground and is noticeably earthier, muskier, possibly due to a liberal addition of angelica root, perhaps intended as a symbol for a fallen angel? 
While Devil #1 and #3 share similarities and arrived on my doorstep in the same bag, Devil #2 was alone in his own bag and when I smelled him, I could understand why.  It was clear this little guy was not willing to share the stage with the others.  He had also sneaked out of the vial and had smeared the label.  Ahhh, calamus root (Acorus calamus).  But why this botanical?  I went back and discovered that the rhizome of this grass (also known as sweet flag or sweet grass) was thought to be an aphrodisiac and was possibly one of the ingredients used to make absinthe (the green fairy again).  To further support the aphrodisiac claim given to calamus, it appears as though Walt Whitman added a section to the third edition of his “Leaves of Grass” calling it “Calamus” where references to the plant were symbols of love and lust, the Devil’s calling card.  
The etymology of calamus reveals that it comes from the Sanskrit word “kalama” which in Farsi (Indo-European language) has two meanings.  It can mean either word (kalameh) or pen (qalam) pronounced with the gutteral qu’ain and related to the reed pens used in calligraphy that were made from a special hollow grass (probably calamus).  Of course, the reed is also used for certain wind instruments, like the oboe or pan-flute that would have been played by our mischievous Puck as he would lead folks astray in his woodland domain. 
While Devil#1 and #3 are interesting compositions, #2 captures the trickster embodied by Sheila Eggenberger's Dev, but more importantly, it lies at the heart of Amanda’s quixotic work.  This is the scent I imagine Stanley Tucci’s wry and satirical Puck would have, a trickster after my own (naturally) perfumed heart! 

*Ms. Feeley works only with natural and botanical essences.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Neil Morris "Dev#2" Desk Crit: Semiology of Scent

(I am reviewing individual perfume modifications or sketches as "desk crits", based on my experience of how architectural projects are critiqued during the design phase.  When all of the perfumes are in, I will do a "final review", again modeled on the way architectural projects are reviewed as a whole.)
My initial reaction to Neil Morris’ Dev#2 was:  “Well, knock me down with a feather . . . preferably one that comes from a fallen angel . . . and reel me in with sexy cumin”.  Mind you, this is not Le Labo’s Rose 31 version of cumin, but a gorgeously bitter and fermented concoction with notes of wine soaked raisin/date/nut meat like the haroseth prepared for a Persian seder with smokey pepper thrown in.  
To my nose Neil’s creation has the same elements as *Kyphi, the sacred Egyptian incense made with wine, dates and raisins which most likely contained labdanum, another mainstay of the ancient world.  Like an artifact from antiquity, Neil’s Dev#2 has an abstract quality. It is, indeed, an incense type fragrance, but deconstructed.  One that can be reduced to the abstract interplay of its two main components, cumin and cistus, notes that have been structured in a way that defy a homogeneous cultural reading.  Cumin and cistus act as signifiers that identify a heterogeneous concept of the signified (incense).
Deconstruction in architecture, unlike Jacques Derrida’s practice of analyzing texts to reveal ambiguities of intention, became a means of overlaying a (sometimes arbitrary) system of generating form which would not be referable to any cultural or historical language.  It attempted to create an anti-symbolic method of designing buildings, but was ultimately flawed and contradictory because nothing can ever be reduced to a non-symbolic form so as to be read and understood by everyone.  There’s always a layer of cultural meaning that seeps in to muddy the waters.  And that muddiness and ambiguity is what becomes interesting anyway.  
Deconstruction in perfumery however, could be more fruitful and less polemic, both in terms of creation and analysis.  I sense that Neil Morris is already working within the parameters of ambiguity, especially through his “Vault” line (, if Dev#2 is any indication.  As an independent perfumer, he is free to explore concepts and fragrance combinations that commercial perfumers could never touch.  The fragrances he offers are part of an oeuvre, or life work that describe his trajectory of exploration.  I also sense that he is a minimalist, preferring to pare down his perfumes while allowing them some muddiness.  Dev#2 is wearable but certainly not conventional.  I would contend that Neil Morris has nailed it with this modification he sent me as his interpretation of the devil’s scent in Sheila Eggenberger’s novel Quantum Demonology.

*I have a theory that the haroseth prepared during Passover is a Jewish interpretation of kyphi and may have initially been an incense which was eventually transformed into one of the edible, symbolic elements of the seder table.

Image:  Red Bird of Paradise Feather from the Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg