Smells Like Teen Spirit

Music Room (empty!)
The KWCMS’ Music Room (from their website).

Do you remember what your elementary school smelled like?

I do, and I’d recognize that smell–which I can’t really describe–anywhere.

(I wonder if it still smells the same?)

Modern retailers are all about ‘signature scents’ now, and I’m not even talking about places like Lush that make their sections in the mall smell like a bath bomb tac nuke exploded in the store.   These are intentional scents that are ‘piped in’, as it were, to create a powerful association in customers’ brains between that smell and the merchandise sold there. H&M has a scent.  So do Hollister and Abercrombie.

Less intentional scents can also create powerful memories, stimulating the other senses as well.  For me, the scent of wood smoke evokes Pennsic, of torchlight playing around the edge of the lake, the sound of drums across the water.  The smell of a turkey roasting in the oven mingling with other savory smells is Christmas morning for me (even though I haven’t smelled that particular medley of scents in over thirty years).  I can almost taste it–although I only grudgingly ate a little turkey in those days.

And sometimes, a forgotten scent triggers a buried memory, and colours the perception of a new experience.

On Wednesday, I attended a performance by the Amatis Trio in Waterloo, sponsored by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society.  As usual, it was a Shostakovich rarity that lured me–a performance of his Piano Trio #1.  Not the powerful, glorious Piano Trio #2, but this early work, Op. 8, composed when Shostakovich was just 17.  It seems to have been forgotten not long after its composition, and wasn’t played publicly again until 1980, when it was discovered amongst his papers five years after his death.  Some portion of the ending was incomplete (different accounts say 16 bars or 22 bars) and it was reconstructed by one of Shostakovich’s former students.  I’d learned very early, as I fully immersed myself in Shostakovich’s work, that even his early works contain surprises.  His First Symphony – Op. 10 — is still regularly performed because it’s that good.  This work is dated to about a year earlier, and reminds the listener that despite Shostakovich’s precocity (having entered the Conservatory at 13 and graduated as a pianist at 16), he was still a teenager who was earning money by playing for silent films to help support his family after his father’s death.   There is a definite sense of drama and theatricality in this early Trio.

There are also hormones.  The piece is dedicated to Tatyana Glivenko, who he met when he was recovering from surgery to remove some tubercular lymph glands (even this early, things were trying to kill young Mitya). They carried on a long-distance relationship for several years after meeting, but she eventually met someone else, got married, and had a child, and that was that.  Shostakovich was certainly not spending his time pining away–in fact, there’s good evidence that he was the one who was reticent about commitment, and seems to have been a proponent of the then-trendy concept of “free love.”  It was the 20s.  All the kids were doing it–with all of the other kids.   So this Trio is a fascinating mix of romanticism (some gorgeous, longing, achingly lovely passages) interspersed with what could be film music and a few startlingly modern-sounding dissonances.

And as such, as performed by the young Amatis Trio — German violinist Lea Hausmann, British cellist Samuel Shepherd and Dutch/Chinese pianist Mengjie Han–the work was full of youthful fire and passion,  striking passages of lyricism contrasting with moments of grotesque harshness.  Sound familiar?  It was unmistakably Shostakovich.  You could hear the tonalities that would emerge in the First Symphony, and the piano lines, in particular, evoked that silent theatre atmosphere, or perhaps the “a few friends getting together to bang out some tunes” atmosphere that seems to dominate the final movement of the First Piano Concerto.  This piece almost demands performance by a young ensemble, and the Amatis Trio were perfect for the task.

But I haven’t told you about what it smelled like.

The music, of course, didn’t smell like anything, except, perhaps, the faint odour of rosin and sheet music (and pianist Han didn’t even have that–he played from a tablet computer.)

Let’s go back a bit to my arrival  The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Society is headquartered in a house, one of those late Victorians, apparently originally the home of its founder, a philosophy professor, who started the organization in 1974.  They’re an incredibly busy chamber music society, with concerts taking place several times a month during each season.  The music room is around in the back (I went around the wrong way the first time), through a red door and up a set of stairs to a large room added onto the house at some later time–by the decor, I’d guess in the 60s (although it seems to have been inaugurated as a concert venue in 1980).  It’s an intimate venue, chairs placed on two sides around a central area dominated by a Steinway piano–putting the “chamber” back in “chamber music” for sure.  It has a high peaked wooden roof, and stone accents on the walls, sort of classic late mid-century modern in aesthetic, with shelves bursting with sheet music all along the back wall,  assorted pieces of folk art decorating the walls, and a poster of Beethoven over by the piano.

I picked a seat, settled in…and inhaled.

What WAS that smell?

Faintly woody–perhaps the wood in the roof was cypress, or something similar. But it smelled like…music.  The room as a result felt like music–in particular, piano music.  Why was that?

And then, during the first intermission, it hit me.

I took piano lessons for three years, starting when I was 14.  My teacher, Mrs. Ripley, lived in a mid-century modern ranch house with a peaked wooden roof–and that same smell.  I could suddenly picture myself at her baby grand piano, playing scales and chords and plinking out beginner tunes in a rather futile effort to eventually play Chopin.  I had completely lost the memory of that association of scent and music over the years until they came together on a February evening nearly forty years later.  Thinking about it some more, I realized that I had for years unconsciously been associating the smell of cypress with music.

In an odd coincidence, I was just about the same age when those memories were created as Shostakovich was when he wrote the piece.  Somehow, that augmented my own understanding and appreciation of the work.

And that’s why Shostakovich’s Piano Trio #1–for me, at least–will always smell like cypress, and evoke memories of my own teenage years.


Here’s a performance of the Trio.

And here’s the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society’s website, including concert listings.  It was well worth the one-hour drive, and I’m sure I’ll be back.  (The Amatis Trio also played trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn, as well as a really evocative modern piece by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi called Moorlands that they commissioned.)