Bruno Mesz on his piece “Osmosonic study no 5”

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
8 min readApr 2, 2024


Read my interview with an Argentinian expanded music composer and art-scientist Bruno Mesz on his piece “Osmosonic study no 5”. “Osmosonic study no 5” was commissioned by the festival director Jose Manuel Serrano for a festival which is held in the south of Argentina, in the Argentinian Patagonia. He had invited the Stump-Linshalm clarinet duo from Salzburg and he commissioned Mesz for a piece for two clarinets and a prepared piano which used a substance called Patafix in order to mute the strings, so the sound would be very diffused and very soft. The conceptualization of the piece is also based on crossmodal smell-music associations and on the effect of music on smell perception and vice versa. Spectators are provided with two perfumery strips aromatized with two contrasting perfumes designed by María Zegna, and invited to smell them alternately at various speeds (slow to fast) during the performance.The weak intensities of both perfume and music are inspired by the concept of blandness in Chinese philosophy (François Jullien): the formless and (almost) toneless and odorless would possess the ability to lead to a harmony of the senses, to “communicate with all things” and “reach all destinations”.The composer did another version for a different festival in the following year.

Bruno Mesz works in the field of psychology of multisensory perception and in this piece specifically he focused on the relation between smell and sounds. The text version of interview was created by Armands Stefans Sargsuns.

What was the main concept of the piece?

Well, as in every artwork there are several concepts. One comes from my work as a researcher. I work in the field that is called the crossmodal correspondences between senses. There are connections that most people share between stimuli in different sensory modalities, for instance, in sound and smell or sight and taste. I did research on music and taste as well as music and smell specifically. During this research one of our studies was with researchers from Oxford University. We studied how the music would impact the taste of a glass of wine, so they drank the wine, they listened to different pieces of music and we used a temporal method where people answered what was the dominant flavour at each second, as we wanted to know if there was a relationship with between the music and the taste. But taste, you know, is mostly a retronasal smell, so, in fact, it’s also a study on smell. It showed a really strong influence of music, so it’s like the score was guiding the answers and they were very different for the same wine, based on different pieces of music. In that study, we weren’t necessarily interested… but rather the temporal behaviour of flavour, that is taste plus smell, under the influence of music.

The piece, on one side, has this concept of using smells and music and the smells change over

time. How I did it is that I gave two perfumery strips to the public and the strips, well, the smells for the strips were designed by my wife Maria Zegna who is a wonderful choreographer and also a creator of olfactory emotional atmospheres for her works and for our multisensory installations. She had created two very contrasting smells, so people could alternate between smelling one strip with one smell and the other strip with the other smell. I gave them instructions in the first version to alternate the strips in front of the nose at different speeds, also, giving a temporal dynamic to the smell perception at some places in the music. The pianist indicated when the strips were supposed to be smelled. Coming to the second concept, I don’t want to forget the names of the performers. They were: the duo Petra Stump and Heinz-Peter Linshalm and Fernand Gonzalez at the piano.

The second concept is a philosophical concept. Some years ago I read a wonderful article by two philosophers — Myin and Cook. The title was: “Is smelled thrill possible?” The subtitle of my piece is “Olfactory trills” They asked: if you smell two different odours in quick succession, how do you process this sensation? Because you’re not used to having a rhythm, a quick rhythm, they have an idea which is related to a hypothesis in philosophy of perception about what happens if you give the smell the temporal dynamics of music conversely. What happens if you give music the temporal and special behaviour of smells. Well, the piece uses some inspiration from that. For instance, there are long negative spaces without sound, so it’s like you perceive the smell when you inhale, but you don’t perceive it when exhaling. The piece has these negative spaces of no sound, but then you can concentrate your attention on smell, then on sound and have an oscillation of attention between the two senses.

For the third concept the source of inspiration is also philosophical and it comes from the Chinese philosophy of blandness which is exposed marvellously by the French philosopher François Jullien. The idea is that if you have very soft, almost imperceptible sounds, if the sounds vanish into silence, because if there is a sound you exclude the rest of the universe of sounds, but if you are in that limit of almost no sound, then it welcomes all other perceptions and all other destinations. I thought, “Well, what about very soft sounds and very soft smells in intensity?”

Watch full interview:

How did you choose the title of the piece?

It’s a combination of “Osmo” which is related to smell in Greek and “sonic” for sound. Similarly, I have pieces about taste and sound that are called “Gastrosonic”.

What was the process of composing like?

Well, José Serrano commissioned me for the piece six months before the concert. I was interested in these three concepts and then I said, “Well, I have to combine this.” After that it was rather quick. I mostly did everything during a trip one month before the performance. But I used very complex vapour like textures which was an idea that came from the beginning, like a sound that goes into air, constantly oscillating between sound and air and also flickering between high and low frequencies. Of course, I talked with my wife about the design of the smells and that took a while too. She came up with two smells with citric notes, but powdery. These perfumes also have names, so one is “Light your inner sun” and the other is “Red fox”. “Light your inner sun” is more citric and “Red fox” has floral notes. Also, based on our study with Manuel Zarzo on smell-music crossmodal correspondences, to compose I use citric smell to relate it with sounds which are high in frequency and floral for those who are more complex. I mixed the concepts and I didn’t work with the musicians, because they were in Austria, but I worked with them when they came to Patagonia.

I was constantly thinking of these smells, because these negative spaces and the characteristics of the sounds were all based on this inspiration from the smell and temporal dynamics. I always had that in view. Just the idea of how to deliver the smells to the people, because I previously used technology and for this festival I didn’t have it, so I came up with the idea of using olfactory strips and giving them to the people.

Did you give instructions to the audience?

I gave some verbal instructions. I remember that in that first version I didn’t use strips, I only did that in the second version. But in that first version I used flags, some small flags and one half had one smell and the other half had the other smell. The audience had to move this flag at different speeds. I explained verbally before the performance that when the pianist raised one finger they had to smell and alternate slowly then two more quickly and at three was the thrill. The sound from flags was also a sonic component there and I suggested to the spectators to oscillate their focus of attention between music and smells to have this kind of diffused attention.

Watch the Osmosonic study no 5:

What was the sensorial experience that you wanted to create?

I have a theoretical expectation of experiencing the relation between, well, on one hand, some influence of the smell on the music perception. If you’re changing the smell and listening to music that sounds more or less similar, how that would change your emotion, your perception. Then experiencing the music also had many thrills on quick alternation of flickering harmonics, etc. to find and to experience these temporal quick temporal dynamics unusual in smell and what happens when you experience the smells changing fast together with the music. There are many, many things.

In my experience it’s that people either concentrate on the sounds or on the smells. It was too much, maybe, as it was too short a piece and there was too much information. For example, they said, “I didn’t understand the smell, but I liked the music.” But only a Japanese composer told me that he liked the integration of sensation.

For the second version I didn’t regulate the dynamic, I only said that people can alternate the olfactory strips at different speeds, but freely, and then no one commented anything at that performance, so it’s complicated. Maybe I’m thinking now that the piece should be longer to have more time if I want to achieve this kind of effect. Maybe it’s always a failure, I don’t know, because it’s something unusual.

Can you imagine the piece without the smells?

Yes, I think the piece works, because, as I said, the composers concentrated on the sounds and they had positive comments. In a way the smells are mapped into the sound, so this kind of timbre and dynamics, etc. I think it works, but for me the interesting thing is the combination, it loses a lot without the smell.

How did the collaboration with other artists shape the piece?

Well, once my wife decides the notes of the smells, that’s crucial, because I have this idea that certain notes will be associated to musical features from my scientific work. The citric notes would be high pitch, so if she uses citric, I would turn to that, so she decided the smells and then I chose the sounds. In other cases it has been the opposite: I have the concept and she designed the smells, based on the concept.

The work with the performers, well, the clarinettists were marvellous also in the second version — Griselda Giannini and Constancia Moroni were the clarinettists here in Buenos Aires and I played the piano as I’m a pianist too. Because I use some unusual kinds of whistling into the clarinet, their input was very crucial to this collaboration too.

What would be your suggestions to composers who would like to integrate senses into their compositions?

Well, mine are very personal, so it’s difficult. Composers should be free and should follow their gut, because smell, you know, in the brain smell is very close to the centre of emotions and memories, so smell can lead you to so many trajectories of personal remembrances. I did like a very systematic idea of cross modal correspondences, but the potential is huge. Before the interview I was telling about how in a Tango performance I used smells coming from the universe of the Tango, so they were local from Buenos Aires which is my city. The potential of smell in emotions is great as there are so many emotions that you can evoke.


Screenshot from youtube video of Osmosonic study no 5:

Bruno Mesz is an art-scientist. Professor and researcher at Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (Argentina). Studies in mathematics at Buenos Aires University and music at National Conservatory of Music (Nat.Prof.Music). Main research interests: multisensory perception, crossmodal correspondences, and mathematical music theory. Designed multisensory performances and installations, showcased at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (New York), MALBA Museum (Buenos Aires), International Tango Festival of Buenos Aires, BIENALSUR (Buenos Aires), Andreani Foundation (Buenos Aires) Miami Art Week 2019, Loop Barcelona 2019, among others.