To independent perfumer Euan McCall, fragrances are dreams brought to life through the combination of aromatic materials. His work moves effortlessly between the realms of perfume and art; both provocative and enticing, the scents he creates challenge the notion of fragrance as mere corporeal embellishment, imbuing the experience of adornment with a deeper symbolic meaning. We talk about the relationship between scent and emotion, the musicality of fragrance, and reveal the deeper understanding of human nature that comes with harnessing the sensory desire of an audience.
What drives you toward fragrance and its creation?
Above all else, it is working with creative, intelligent people in the creation of something new. I am privileged to be able to produce something that has the ability to move others, bringing them an intangible and intimate joy that is especially rare in a digital age whereby everything is likeable and consumable visually. The perfumer’s is a solitary and pensive working environment, disrupted only by the repetitive pulse of a magnetic stirrer and the metallic rasp of opening flasks, allowing the spirit of flowers and chemical vapours to escape and fill the environment. It is not a glamorous job. It’s dirty, it’s long, and it can be frustrating at times. Yet I can’t imagine living without this olfactory world; scent is everywhere and a perfumer never stops learning.
Fragrance has often been likened to music, in its composure of different notes in different levels of an olfactory score. Does your creative process reflect this, and how do you envision scents yet to be created?
I have always related fragrance creation to music. Every material used in perfumery has volatility and an overall odour impression, like a sound, has a frequency and tone, and although not technically linked, both sound and olfaction share a similar relationship: the biological mechanisms that allow us to perceive smells and noises work in a similar fashion. In addition, perfumes are composed of materials with different characteristics, just as a musical score is comprised of different instruments. Base notes are the least volatile and take longer to come to life: they are persistent and have incredible longevity. Materials that are fleeting can be referred to as top notes. These provide the initial impression, and are in place to embellish the materials that are not as volatile, allowing them time to evaporate and showcase their different facets. The heart notes are lighter materials than those found in the base, but denser than those in the top; in musical terms they form the main theme of the scent. However, as the industry evolves and more sophisticated materials and extraction methods are explored, we can witness the development of more linear compositions, those that change very little during the entire evaporation of a perfume.
We assign our individual impressions to these aromatic chemicals and frequencies: a like, a dislike or a feeling somewhere in between. Some are high and sharp, others low and soft. Some are dark, while others are bright. Aromas have texture, like music has timbre. I am fascinated by the play between tension and release; materials clashed together, hard against soft, creamy against metallic. Beautiful dissonances can be produced, which are both intriguing and provocative, somewhat like the challenging arrangements of Varèse or Bartók. Things get dull when everything smells chemically perfect. Everything becomes oddly still; repetitive and unimaginative, safe and filtered, even. I hope that changes with the growing rise of independent perfumers. In each of my works I try to take each formulation to a stage whereby I have perfected it, and then go even further: to where it feels lived in, worn and yet somewhat unfamiliar, even if chemically or conventionally it may not be correct. What is perceived as imperfection can be astounding and incredibly alluring.
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Is scent creation an emotional process for you? Are there always self-reflexive elements in the work you produce?
It is, and there are. Not only do I have to consider my own emotions, but also those of the client and the consumer. As a perfumer, you have to take your training past the point of having your own impressions and emotions with regards to materials and accords. You must be able to distance yourself enough so that you are able to appreciate every material and aroma for what it is, and what it can do. However, for me fragrance is part of the never ending journey to express oneself where words cannot; each scent wordlessly communicates something about its creator as much as the wearer. So far I am very lucky in that all of my clients have been detailed in their wants and desires and yet have also allowed me to express myself, bringing a very human and emotional element to the final work. Some may argue for a purely technical fragrance design; however, I would argue the difficulty of creating anything without emotion. After all, our olfactory memories are held within the limbic system: the region of the brain that deals with memory, behaviour and feeling.
Is imagining how others would process smell always part of the creative process, and how do empathy and knowledge of sensory desire feature?
Knowledge is power; and researching how larger audiences perceive certain materials, structures and olfactory families allows the creation of perfumes that will be widely accepted. However this knowledge also gives you the tools to do the opposite: to challenge the audience and channel your efforts towards a more niche demographic. Most of the time for me –if allowed– it’s a balance somewhere in between. Humans have always been attracted to compounds that are comforting and familiar, even erotic. Historically, perfumery is a strange world of adornment, desire, expression, ritual and sacrifice. Things are a lot tamer now, a tad too sterile for my liking. Tastes change in the different parts of the market constantly, and different parts of the world have very different tastes with regards to perfume. Years ago, you would never have found heavy musk based scents in Southeast Asia; fruity fresh aromas are preferred by South Americans and the North American market is still obsessed with compositions laden with clean components. These are of course sweeping statements, but the latest trend reports for these markets show that this is the case. In Europe we still find vanilla and chocolate aromas pleasing and expensive, in South America they find it cheap... The sociological aspects of the industry are just as fascinating as the creative elements.
Everything can be traced back to our animal instincts: how we interact with and perceive smells. I find myself continually using materials that are very human or animalic, for example cumin, costus, indole, skatole, saline and materials derived from animals (synthetically produced now). At first many would find these odourants almost repulsive, but when blended they evaporate and exude their powerful beauty, which brings interest, intrigue and a primal familiarity to a fragrance. I smell everything, anywhere and take field notes: it’s almost voyeuristic at times.
“I smell everything, anywhere and take field notes: it’s almost voyeuristic at times.”
Your recent projects have been highly conceptual. Do you think there should always be more to perfume than mere sensory delight?
I definitely feel this way, although I do realise that perfumery is a big bucks business and companies that drive change and innovation have to produce products that sell in huge volumes. Because of this, the conceptual side is somewhat diminished in favour of pleasing a very wide demographic. Trendier formulas have always been the driving force in the industry, yet I hope the projects I work on will always have other symbolism and meaning. Highly conceptual work definitely has its own pitfalls, however. Some of my works have had to be technically wrong so as to fully facilitate the brief. I am pleased that these works have been controversial and polarising, they should be! The area of art fragrance is a tough one, especially when the work manifests as a consumable product. I believe fragrance should be challenging and I embrace with open arms more perfumers and artists working in this area. Indeed, perfumers are artists, but the nature of the business is that sadly very few are able to create highly conceptual work. That’s where combining fragrance and conceptual art can allow a perfumer’s creativity and innovative nature to flourish. An often overlooked aspect of the industry is the work of chemists and biologists, who create new molecules and conduct further studies in olfaction. Perfumers use what they create, and in turn compose new creations.
Ideally, how would you like to see the fragrance industry develop in the future? What does the future hold for you?
My goal is to continue creating fragrance for others, undertaking projects that resonate with me emotionally while also focusing on personal ventures. I have been working on several concepts and ideas over time, and hopefully these will metamorphose into something bold and original. I love working in the art world, often artists allow you huge creative freedom to realise their concept. Time is the biggest luxury we have: the realising of concepts, creation of a formula, and the production of bulk fragrance all take a very long time. I firmly believe that good work cannot be rushed.
I would like to see more independent perfumers making noise within the industry, and like myself, being entrusted to create for small companies. Great works are being created in this area: there are often few budget restraints and sometimes the finished articles, while not perfect, push the boundaries of what fragrance can be. With independent perfumers, there is a drive to create beauty regardless of cost and often a disregard for conventionality regarding the dosage of materials. You find many independent perfumers using materials at what we refer to as an overdose level, a level that is much higher than you would normally find, and this creates stunning results. Perfumers are, after all, part scientist and part artist: and by limiting the perfumer’s olfactory palette one therefore limits the works that can be produced. It is like telling an artist they can only work with block colours; the painting can still be created, but perhaps not with such extraordinary sensual power as could have been if there were no material limitations. Imagine a Richter composed of only block colours...
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