St. Johannes Evangelist Kirche, Auguststraße, Berlin
The idea of using smells in art isn’t new, but its history isn’t particularly illustrious. Smell-o-Vision was voted one of the hundred worst ideas of all time; Scratch’n’Sniff didn’t fare much better. Osmodrama, a two-month festival in Berlin, was not deterred: centred on artist Wolfgang Georgsdorf’s digital scent-organ, ‘Smeller 2.0’, it was determined to showcase the possibilities of ‘olfactory art’ or ‘storytelling with smells’. Its various events included film screenings and literature readings accompanied by the organ’s ‘scent sequences’.
I caught two of the perfumed musical evenings. The first included two ‘Orchestral Whifftracks’ by British composer Stephen Crowe and smells by Georgsdorf. Neon Lizard featured hyper-charged electronics cycling through musical ideas at digital speeds, set against the outstanding Aisha Orazbayeva’s abrasive and springy violin solo. Find Warm Wind Farm was a freewheeling piece for electronically mangled French horn and clarinet, from which Tom Jackson conjured a jaw-dropping array of sonic effects. Both pieces were full of the thrill of the new, but ran roughshod over the subtle scent compositions like a bull in a perfume shop.
Following this, Georgsdorf and his Berlin Improvisers Orchestra cut loose with an extended jam session, with the artist creating scents on the fly from an electronic keyboard. The ensemble is a glorious rabble with a fantastic sense of fun, and took random outbursts (musical and otherwise) in their stride. However, the smells weren’t vivid or congruous enough to avoid making this a herbal peace-out.
The festival closed with a late-night session of electronic music, including a performance by Carl Stone, who studied with West Coast electronic pioneer Morton Subotnick. Stone’s elegant minimalist soundscapes use sampled glimpses of everyday life to create studies in pure sound. At Osmodrama, the pastoral – birdsong, rustling trees – gave way to the urban – muttered conversations on street corners, lorries passing in the street – before phasing into thumping bass and, finally, a serene synthesised hymn.
The meditative pace of Stone’s music gave space to focus on nasal specifics. Georgsdorf accompanied the initial tone painting with the tang of grass, earthy soil, the sweetness of hanging fruit. However, the Smeller’s limited palate meant the same smells recurred often – bitter coffee, sweet perfume – and the overall scent profile hardly evolved. While there is an obvious pleasure in smells being remarkably familiar, it was hard to experience these olfactory compositions as anything more than a colouristic play of surfaces.