Entertainment

I Spoke to an 'Aroma Jockey', Who DJs Smells for Deaf Audiences

He told me about "smound", a perception or sense experience produced from the convergence of scents and sounds.
March 15, 2017, 11:01am

(Top photo: ODO7 at work)

What's the most unusual DJ set you've ever experienced? A gabber-swing mash-up? Your uncle trying to play trap at a wedding and getting it very badly wrong, blasting out an hour of the Trapp Family Singers to a room of highly bummed out people? Or maybe it's a set that involves mixing smells instead of songs, and wafting them into the crowd using huge industrial fans?

That last one is known is known as "aroma jockeying", and is popular at clubbing events for the deaf. The concept was developed by Austrian artist Erich "ODO7" Berghammer, who was looking to work in a new, under-used medium, and saw smell as the perfect candidate. He believes that all performances could benefit from a scent component, and that odour is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to live gigs.

Advertisement

I got in touch with him to find out more.

VICE: How did you first come up with the idea of DJing smells?
ODO7: I studied graphic design and worked as a book illustrator, but was never really satisfied with working with colours, so I started looking for a new medium. I came up with the concept of aroma jockeying in 2002 when I went to a performance by a Japanese artist in Amsterdam. I was looking forward to experiencing a perfect performance, but for some reason the place was suffused with an unpleasant odour that prevented the entire audience from enjoying the concert. At that very moment, the concept of aroma jockey was born. My thoughts were, 'How can this artist, being so superb at all levels, overlook one of our most important communication channels, namely smell?'

What's the main audience for your work? I've heard aroma jockeys are popular with deaf clubbers.
They're very popular at events for deaf or blind people. In fact, those events were amongst my first jobs. The promoters were looking for something extra to offer their audiences.

Where else do you play?
I get inquiries from many different places, from live concerts to club events. I work with DJs a lot and perform with artists for product launches, openings, private parties, etc.


WATCH: 'Locked Off', our documentary about the UK's illegal rave scene.


I've heard you often perform smell-based versions of popular songs so that deaf audiences can experience the latest hits. How exactly does that work?
In order to interpret popular songs with scent, you need to be able to listen to a song with your nose, meaning you naturally choose scents that harmonise with what you're hearing. There is no common recipe or specific scents to use. I perform all over the planet. This allows me to go deep into the fragrance culture of the places I visit. Interpreting songs with scent depends not only on the kind of music, instruments, voices, purpose and size of the concert hall, but also the country or place the show is set in.

There are certain rules for creating synaesthesia and harmony with scent – creating "smound", a perception or sense experience produced from the convergence of scents and sounds in the brain. There is an octave of odour, already defined and written down by the ancient Chinese in book of Weng-Xian and expressed in the art of kōdō [an art form focusing on the appreciation of incense] in Japan.

Advertisement

Can you give examples of smells you'd play for sets involving some different genres of music?
I once performed alongside the Amsterdam chamber orchestra. I used classical scents like cedar wood and neroli [bitter-orange-blossom oil]. Energetic house smells like grapefruit blended with castoreum [a secretion beavers use to mark their territories] essence. It can be unbelievably pleasant to smell strong menthol deep into the night when dancing in a techno club. R&B or rap sounds very much like spices, floral scents and spearmint.

You research the properties of various different aromas to help decide what to include in your sets. Can you say a bit about that?
Knowing about the properties of scents means knowing their effects, which scents can be combined with each other, what results in a high quality scent, the technique of burning incense, what the ideal temperature for a scent to be heated up to is, etc. I am currently recreating kyphi, an ancient Egyptian incense mix that was burned at the beginning of the evening. I love to create incense mixes with recipes from ancient times.

There are scents that I produce myself. In my studio in Amsterdam you can find jars with tinctures of musk, tonka [a fragrant bean from Central and South America] essences, lilac elixirs, ambergris [a substance found in sperm whales' digestive systems] extracts, dark chocolate concentrates and lapsang souchong [a type of Chinese black tea] essence.

Advertisement

How are your performances usually received? 
I get a lot gratitude from my audience. Scents have a direct impact on the limbic system, where emotions and memories are created. I work with scents in order to uplift the mood, energise the audience and trigger positive emotions.

Okay. Finally, what do you think the future holds for the aroma jockey?
"Aroma Jockey" is the 21st century term for an ancient profession. In fact, all ancient cultures had professional incense burners who performed their art publicly in front of huge audiences, be it for religious rituals or cultural events. The western world of the 20th century limited the use of scent so that it was mainly used for church rituals or to cover unpleasant odours. Mainstream entertainment permitted only sight and sound. Awareness about the importance of scent is now growing at many levels. We've entered a new era in which the mainstream spectator is no longer prevented from experiencing scent. As long as there are people dancing, celebrating and gathering, there should and will be aroma jockeys.

@nickchesterv

More on VICE:

This Is What It's Like to Go Clubbing When You're Blind

We Went On a Tour of London's Worst-Rated Nightclubs

The Tragic New Type of Nightlife Threatening UK Clubbing