Sensory Transposition: A Triadic Exchange Between Ron Hutt, Andreas Keller and Anna Novakov

Sensory Transposition: A Triadic Exchange Between Ron Hutt, Andreas Keller and Anna

For the past several years, composer Ron Hutt and olfactory artist Anna Novakov have worked together in a collaboration they call Provisional Art Space (PAS). Through a process of sensory transposition, they create performances that bridge sounds and scents. Inspired by a palette of seven chromatic hues, they compose fragrances and movements that, when performed together, shapeshift between sensory associations. Their performances, hosted in 2023 by Andreas Keller, owner of Olfactory Art Keller gallery in New York’s Chinatown, have attracted a diverse following. Performed in a salon style atmosphere, the events are open to conversations, conceptual exchanges and expanding creative partnerships. For Aromatica Poetica, Hutt, Keller and Novakov have compiled brief call- and-response texts that offer readers a glimpse into their evolving artistic process and conceptual motivations.


What scents and sounds do you remember from your childhood?

Ron Hutt: One vivid Midwestern fall memory from my childhood is of the rhythmic scraping sound of a metal leaf rake sweeping across my grandmother’s front lawn mixing the earthy scents of dry leaves, bruised grass and exposed topsoil. The rakes bright metallic sounds blending with the satisfying crunch of the desiccated leafs being pushed into piles for burning. The bellows of aromatic smoke sonically supported by short sweeps and scraps of the rake to contain the combusted biomass rapidly turning to white ash. Very jazzy.

Andreas Keller: I grew up in Nuremberg, a town in Germany famous for its Christmas cookies. We lived close to one of the largest bakeries in town, which started baking for the Christmas season in September and I vividly remember the odd mixture of Christmas cookie smells combined with the smells of late summer, like sunscreen and burnt grass.

Anna Novakov: I was born in Belgrade (former Yugoslavia) and grew up between Belgrade and Berkeley, California. From my early years in Belgrade, I remember the smell of cigarettes, tomato plants and chamomile. The 1960s in Berkeley were filled with the smell of eucalyptus and pine trees and the wafting smell of patchouli and tear gas from the burgeoning hippie culture.


What does the word composition mean to you and your creative practice?

RH: Composition is a continuous process of capturing and storing the small elements of creative thought that flows out from the self and new information that emanates into the self from the world.  The sorting and blending of these two streams stimulates creative associations and reveals potential for expressive impact in relation to the selected forms, structures and desired effects of the end product.

AK: Composition is an interesting concept. In music, it means arranging sounds in time, while in painting it means arranging colors in space. In scent creating, composition happens outside of time and space. A scent is composed of components that are present at the same moment in the same location. Composing in scent creating is analogous to mixing or layering in other practices.

AN: For me, composition is about a daily arranging and rearranging of parts. In my practice, I spend a lot of time moving around scents, texts, images to create a composition that has the right tone. It is a process that only stops because of a deadline, otherwise it is ongoing.


How did your experiences in academia shape your current interests?

RH: With graduate degrees in Expressive Arts Therapy and in Art and Technology, my studies and resulting careers are both based on human development, sensory information processing by the brain, models and theories of which carry over to electronic systems for processing and outputting of visual and sound media. My past studies and current interests can be surmised as moving from: art as self-expression, to art as healing and self-knowledge, to art as digital information and a second brain, leading to art as sensory experience that include elements of sound, visual and scent compositions in a live performance.

AK: The subject of my research throughout most of my academic career was olfaction, which has become my interest in non-academic endeavors.

AN: Even though my Ph.D. is in art history, I was always an artist-focused academic whose main interests were in nurturing the creative process in my students. I also found my own creative outlets in constructing new courses and engaging in exchanges of conceptual problem solving. I very much enjoyed teaching and continue my role as an educator but within a more streamlined and unrestricted setting.


What types of music do you prefer to listen to? Are there scents that you associate with that musical genre?

RH: My current ‘play list’ includes a wide range of musical genres and artists. 1. ‘The Rite of Spring’ by I. F. Stravinsky 2. ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ by G. F. Handel 3. ‘Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prélude’ by J.S. Bach 4. ‘Blue in Green’ by M. Davis and B. Evans 5. ‘Secret Journey’ by The Police (A. Summers) 6. ‘My Name is Ruin’ by Gary Numan 7. ‘Head Over Heels’ by Tears for Fears 8. ‘It’s Fun to Compute’ by Kraftwerk 9. ‘Sweet Jane” by Cowboy Junkies/Lou Reed 10. “I Speak Astronomy’ by Jinjer.

The scents don’t seem to be associated with any particular musical genres. Most often particular feelings and/or mental images evoked by the scents lead me to find corresponding sound shapes and timbers.

AK: After an all-consuming teenage obsession with Heavy Metal music, my interest in music waned as I got older. These days, my favorite music is what you may call post-punk: Joy Division, the Cure, the Fall, Talking Heads, etc. I associate this music with subdued colors, grey and brownish tones, maybe some pastel. The scents accordingly would be those that avoid being colorful, from leathery to oceanic.

AN: Growing up I listened to Motown as well as the folk and popular music on the radio in Serbia. My father was a great lover of opera, and he passed on this passion to me. My preferred musical form today remains opera with a special fondness for Dmitri Shostakovich. I love live operas mix of music, acting, visual art and social contact from the gathering of so many people in one place. To me, in many ways, it is the most complete creative genre.

I’m working on a new project called Opera Profumate that will be an installation of the scents of different operatic scenes. The piece will use the settings of arias, such as parks, monasteries and boudoirs, as the basis for the scents with participants listening to the arias on headphones.


What is the role of live performance in the gallery? How do you know if your event was successful?

RH: A live performance of scents and sound can fill a space with a huge and complex sensory experience that has an immediate and powerful impact. Feelings, memories, thoughts and questions flow and overflow with the forward movement of the performance and, at the end, wonderful conversations arise. Very exciting!

AK: Many artists think of scents as events rather than objects. In live performances, scents are free to be events, unburdened from all the requirements that come with being an object, like a definite position in time and space and permanence over time. A scented performance is successful when the audience members continue to think about it after they leave. It doesn’t matter if it is because they are confused, moved, inspired, or offended.

AN: An event is successful if it results in meaningful conversations and new projects that would not have been possible without the performance. At its best, live performance is a seed that is planted during the event only to be realized in later works.


How do you view the collaborative process? What role do partnerships play in your practice?

RH: Collaboration can push each of the collaborators’ ideas and practice towards a fuller and more energetic realization.  Collaboration is at the heart of most musical forms and performances and when collaboration extends to the audience through their participation and post-performance feedback some sense of shared humanity with others is produced.

AK: As a gallerist, I generate ideas and give feedback, but I’m not involved in the creative process. It’s a perfect position: I get to play around with ideas and have opinions, but I’m not responsible for the final product.

AN: I have always practiced collaborative creative work. As a writer, I enjoyed working on texts with artists. The process leads you to a place that you would never get to on your own. For the past eight years, Ron Hutt and I have worked together under the name Provisional Art Space – an open framework for explorations into sound, imagery and scent.


What parallels do you see between tangible musical scores and fragrance formulas?

RH: A musical score is – descriptive – not – prescriptive. Music emerged from our sensory experiences of the world around us as we mimicked the sounds of animals, as we noticed the rhythms of our breath, of walking and running. Music emerged to soothe our fears, give us courage and to express joy and sadness. Then much much later came musical scores to help us describe, communicate and preserve the elements of music to one another for reproduction. I see the fragrance formulas as an algorithmic design for triggering personal memories and collective instinctual emotions.

AK: That is an interesting question. I think the important difference is the role of improvisation in music and scent creating. Music is more immediate and flexible and open to experimentation than mixing scents. The purpose of musical scores seems to be to tame improvisation. The purpose of fragrance formulas seems to be more that of a memory aid.

AN: There is an element of stability in scores and formulas – they are the ideal for the creator. This template is immediately shifted when chance is introduced through musicians, instruments, availability of materials and human error. The beauty of both is in the ways in which the original plan morphs into the practice.


The traditional pedagogy of musical composition and perfumery is quite rigid and prescribed. How does improvisation fit into your practice within these fields?

RH: In my process of musical composition, improvisation is the first step to matching scent with sound. From the sensory – smelling and hearing – emerge sound selections, then small motifs that begin to fit together into sections, sections change in duration and dynamics, some looping to provide a space for improvisation during the performance. Structures need to be fluid and each time the work is performed it is transformed in real time by interaction with the audience and live ‘smelling’ of the scents.

AK: I am interested in anything that is outside the rigid traditions of perfumery. While the conventions of perfumery exist for a reason and play an important role in making the infinite ways of mixing molecules manageable, they also limit discovery and innovation.

AN: I was trained in my olfactory practice at the Institute of Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles and the Experimental Perfume Club in London. Both organizations cater to artists interested in scent. In many ways, this training in perfumery was ideal in that it opened up so many options for composition. The parallels in musical and scent composition, to me, focus on knowing the rules and traditions and then breaking free of them.


—About the Authors—

Ron Hutt is an electronic music composer, performer and multi-media artist. He has a professional background which includes being a university professor of digital art and design, scientific visualization collaborator and expressive arts therapist. Hutt’s current musical compositions and sound art works are often utilized in a programmatic style of matching music and sound to visual images, scent compositions and specific locations for live performances.

Andreas Keller, the author of The Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, is a New York-based academic with PhDs in neuroscience and philosophy who is interested in olfactory perception. He is the owner and operator of Olfactory Art Keller, an art gallery dedicated to olfactory art.

Anna Novakov is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, designer, curator and educator. She was born in Belgrade, Serbia in 1959 and was raised in Berkeley, California. Novakov produces olfactory installations, wall works, screenplays and textiles. She currently retains studios in New York and Limoux, France.


If you enjoyed this, you might also like our interview with natural perfumer Mandy Aftel or our interview with perceptual psychologist Lawrence Rosenblum!Novakov