Friday, January 11, 2008

Burr responds

The interview with mr.Chandler Burr sparked interesting commentary and gave a chance for all ends of the spectrum to be heard. It was refreshing to see and it gave Perfume Shrine great pleasure to read intelligent replies.

Mr. Burr himself wanted to comment, but since he is not really immersed in technology per his admission (perfectly valid! I was not either) and Blogger is not that welcoming anyway, he opted to email his response.
I thought it fair to publish it here in a seperate post, so that people might read it more carefully. He is replying to commentary published in this post (scroll for the readers'comments below the interview).

Here it is:

"Hi, guys.

OK! So I figured that when Helg did this Q&A ~her questions were perceptive, serious, and interesting ~ she’d get some interesting responses, and I (who am such an instinctive non-blogger, low-tech guy) am really glad to read these responses.

I realize that when what people know of you is only words that come out under your name in newspapers or magazines, you're both a very real person and, at the exact same time, a total cipher or come across at times like a prick. I’m not, I promise, but then that’s completely subjective as well, and if you met me, you could decide for yourself. I’m going to be flying around the country Feb 1-21 doing publicity for the book, so I hope to meet a lot of you guys.

First, there are the constraints I work under. Helg commented of my writing, “Sometimes, one (myself included) might perceive a limited-space laconic article as being less thought-out than it is,” and this could not be more true; I can’t give details because that would be unprofessional and my editors wouldn’t appreciate it—and my editors are doing their jobs, and ALL creation, including very much newspapers, is about constant compromise, constant negotiation, and sometimes last-minute, not-always-rational cuts and changes too—but I work under huge constraints. All journalists do. Please understand that not all of the time but certainly some of the time what I write is written to fit the space, to come in on time, to follow a theme I need to follow for the coherence of that issue, or date, or section, etc., etc. And that’s legitimate; that’s the way it works. But being a critic does not—not—mean I can write anything I want at any length I see fit or appropriate.

Second, the job of being a critic is by definition giving opinions, and being a journalist means expressing views and reporting facts, and there’s sort of no end to the amount of ways opinions can be disliked by those who (often quite legitimately) disagree with them and reporting can be interpreted.
IlseM wrote, “It's hard for me to believe that someone can be so rigidly opposed to natural ingredients in fragrance,” and I was just about to despair since it’s the exact opposite of what I believe when Joan gave exactly the right response: “I don't think that he is against natural scents, but feels that synthetics are just as valid and possibly less allergic.” Perfectly said.
Perfumer Michael Storer also precisely expressed my own point of view. Again, rather than write it in my own words, I’ll simply use his, since I agree with them completely: “[Burr] extolls the virtues of synthetics and the profound limitations we'd have without them. In my opinion, too, I find many ‘naturalists’ tantamount to religious fundamentalist in that they are simply incapable of hearing any other
Catherine says, “I find the growing discussion of synthetics in concrete term (rather than those vague, dreamy ad blurbs) refreshing and engaging,” and that makes me very happy. It’s true that my approach just isn’t going to work for people who aren’t interested in synthetics or the molecular components of perfume, and that’s fine; for others, it works great, and I write for people like Catherine.

Ilse: “[I]t seems [Burr’s] experience with naturals is limited to newly formulated scents. Could you ask him if he has ever sampled vintage fragrances.” My experience with the classics is indeed frustratingly limited, although it took a small change for the better recently; my next piece for T: Style magazine of Feb 24 is a piece about l’Osmotheque, the Paris perfume museum, and I spent an entire day
smelling the original formulas of classics. I’d of course have preferred to spend a month rather than a day, but there we are.

I love (and I know Helg loves) Carmencanada’s “dream of real schools of perfumery criticism, with solidly argumented controversies and discourse, as exists in other arts…. Maybe this is the beginning of something.” That is precisely the approach I’ve taken in “The Perfect Scent,” for example an analysis of Ellena’s work that starts on page 98. Because perfume is such an amazingly young art—the youngest of the
major human arts by far due to the fact that technology has only recently made it possible as an art form (though I suppose movie might compete with it for that title; Wikipedia says, “Mechanisms for producing artificially created, two-dimensional images in motion were demonstrated as early as the 1860s,” just before the first perfumery synthetics were being created)—and also because, by chance, it has been treated much more as a commercial product than an art per se, it has not yet had time to develop hugely deep schools, as has architecture —classical, gothic, Bauhaus, Tudor, Romanesque. But the schools are there, and I completely agree with Carmen that it’s incredibly exciting to start thinking about perfume in this way because it really facilitates the conceptualizing of perfume as an art.

That’s a macro approach. In other ways we need to take a micro approach. Michael: “I struggle everyday with trying to write profiles of my perfumes without using, for example, the word aldehydic. But in reality, it can't be done.” In my opinion, this is correct, and in order for perfume to take its place as a full-fledged art, our culture and the public need to learn and absorb perfume’s basic vocabulary
(which is the same for film, dance, and music). Brands hate aldehydic only because people don’t know what it means; if the public was familiar with it, there’d be no problem, and they’re going to have to be, sooner or later. Perfume should be taught in classes just like painting and literature. As Luca points out, what’s lacking is simply the vocabulary."

~Chandler Burr

Pic sent to me by mail unaccredited


  1. As a former journalist, I've experienced the frustrations and limitations you describe, Chandler. In fact, the only man who ever made me cry, whom I wasn't in love with, is a former editor in chief (I was younger then, with thinner skin).
    I was recently discussing the necessity for different schools of "perfume discourse" with a prominent perfumer. It's a real uphill struggle (especially in France where newspapers have much smaller circulation, so less pages and less money). He and I both agreed, as I'm sure you do, that most perfume copy in magazines is antiquated (even in France, it's mostly very "chichi") and that new approaches must be found. Again, I salute your trailblazing and hope that the example set by the NYT will be followed. I'm rolling up my Mitsouko-drenched sleeves as I write.

  2. Like you all, I would dearly love to see perfumery recognized as the art form it clearly is [ and can be].

    I'm not certain how long it would take the public to acquire the vocabulary...
    WE have to work on that ourselves !

    This process has been so enjoyable, and illuminating.
    Thanks, CB, CC, aqnd Helg !

  3. D dear,

    crying is not worth it, I am sure we have all learned that through life's experiences. But there is a limit to editorial freedom whom the writer comes up against, true.
    The perfumers with which I had discussed this in the past assured me that they enjoy the discourse, given they also have a say in the economic side of the business; so I am afraid that it is mostly the accountants who have objections.

  4. Dear I,

    thank you for your kind words.
    I do hope that we all work towards a better understanding and appreciation that can be translated into order and method; if only to be as best as can be communicated.

  5. Anonymous15:24

    Excellent series, as always.
    So helpful in understanding CB's viewpoint.
    Just to clarify, I am not a "naturalist". Surely there is room in the world of modern perfumery for both synthetics and naturals.
    My objection is mainly to the oakmoss/chypre situation. There is no excuse for the loss of an entire category of fragrance.

    Ilse M.

  6. I'm struck by Burr's invocation of the synchronicity between photography and modern perfumery. Burrs excels in his firmly materialist descriptions of scents, going a step further -- into the invisible world -- making them into evanescent three-dimensional objets d'arts.

  7. Thank you Ilse.
    I think it was fair to let him clarify his statements and elaborate on certain points. I know I had often misunderstood some details myself while browsing articles; so it is useful for our readers as well.

    I can't agree more with you on the chypre/oakmoss situation (there is no satisfactory oakmoss substitute and deiminishing the percentage in the formula skews the whole composition) as I have often blogged about: luckily the restrictions might not be implemented in their strictest form, from what I hear from reputable sources. The fight is still on.

  8. Dear C,

    I like to read perfume appreciation anyway. And if there is a link to other art forms, so much the better :-)

  9. fredricktoo19:16

    I read this and the voice doesn't sound like the first two parts at all. I won't go into specifics.

    I think I may have had a stroke before starting part one of the Burr interview because it doesn't sound at all like Helg as questioner and this doesn't sound at all like Burr in his commenting on the comments.

    Too many mini strokes and surely more to come but the sniffer works great.

  10. This naturals vs. synth debate is interesting enough, but seems tedious at times. Isn't perfumery, and those of us who love it, magnanimous enough to be all-inclusive? Maybe I'm missing the point, but I can't imagine a world of perfume without synthetics...and vice versa.

    I'm looking forward to reading Mr. Burr' book.

  11. I am furious with myself for taking so long to get over here and read these CB posts. Great stuff, E! And the comments are fascinating as well. FWIW, I wish everybody understood a little bit more about how the sausage is made in the world of journalism, and Burr's comments about that worth remembering whether the reporting is on perfume, politics or anything else.

    I don't have a dog in the naturals v. synths fight--I think the real battle is between the people who love perfume and the bean counters who'd just as soon be selling mop handles. Burr's first few columns made me think he was just a slave to the latter, but his recent ones have changed my mind.

  12. Dear Mary,
    yes, perfume loving people can be all inclusive. I think most are anyway.
    Hope you find interesting things in the book.

  13. Dear M,

    "the real battle is between the people who love perfume and the bean counters who'd just as soon be selling mop handles": isn't that the truth!!
    And I was surprised by mr.Burr myself: he showed a genuine desire to explain his thinking and his limitations.

  14. Dear Gary,

    I can only hope that the mini strokes have left you with your perceptive abilities intact :-)
    Because surely the questioner is very much Helg (the days when I have an assistant to do my work for me are in the dimly lit future I'm afraid) and the commentator-on-comments is very much mr.Burr (if you have followed his board entries you know).
    Sorry if we disappointed.

    Sometimes the "coming across" impression is exactly how one might get confused, though, isn't it?


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