Karim Al-Zand: Music: Quelques Fleurs

Quelques Fleurs

for clarinet, cello & piano

Quelques Fleurs is inspired by the fragrance of flowers. Connections between sound and smell have a long history in both poetry and science. In Septimus Piesse’s treatise The Art of Perfumery (1857), the author posits a gamut of six octaves, in which each note is paired to a corresponding olfactory equivalent. (For instance, according to Piesse, “essence of rose” is equivalent to middle C, while the smell of cinnamon lies a half step lower.) Even the vocabulary of the perfumer relies on musical analogy: a fragrance is formed by a “chord” of three scents—a “top note”, a “middle (or heart) note” and a “bass note.” Quelques Fleurs [a few flowers] was the name of the first mass-marketed perfume, created in 1912.¹ The perfume apparently combined 300 different floral and other scents in its formulation. My piece contains four: Rose, Lavender, Jasmine and Orange Blossom.

It is often claimed that smell is the sense most intimately connected to memory. For me, the smell of roses is particularly redolent. It reminds me of confectionery, imageespecially the Middle Eastern sweets I enjoyed as a kid, many of which use perfumed rose water in their recipes. This triggers another reminiscence: my father’s LP records of Arabic music playing in our living room. My siblings and I were usually aloof to the music, but we would occasionally join in with a catchy song (though we never really knew what the words meant). I recall only tiny snippets from these tunes. I quote one memorable fragment in the first movement, Attar of Rose.² The movement represents a kind of perfumed nostalgia, a fragrant musical trace.³

Lavender has a sweet and soothing smell; it is frequently found in potpourris and in simple folk remedies, as an herbal salve. The music of the second movement is similarly calm and gentle, and quite simple in character.

Jasmine is the most heady of floral scents. It thrives in Texas: there are several jasmine shrubs and vines around the Rice University campus. As you pass one of the flowering plants in the spring, the smell is intoxicating, almost overpowering in strength. I think of the third movement as an atmospheric nocturne (jasmine flowers only at night), which tries to capture a gradual envelopment by the potent bouquet.

Orange blossoms are harvested from the bitter orange tree, and inherit from its fruit a refreshing, citrus-like aroma, which makes them a frequent perfume ingredient. The final movement projects this floral zest in its delicately animated mood and musical filigree.

To convey the immersive character of the flowers’ aroma, each movement is a kind of musical “static study.” The first uses a reiterated rhythmic pattern (ostinato); the second cycles through a harmonic progression (passacaglia); the third employs an unchanging collection of notes (mode); and the fourth maintains constant motion by repeating a few short motives (moto perpetuo).

1. It was created by the Parisian Houbigant firm, which had served as perfumers to the French aristocracy since the 18th century. Its founder, Jean-François Houbigant (1752–1807), was appointed Royal perfumer to Queen Marie-Antoinette, and later, Napoleon.

2. Attar (or otto) refers to an aromatic essential oil, and comes from the Arabic (via Persian) ‘Attr, meaning “fragrance.”

3. It turns out the tune is something by a rather Westernized group with the fantastic name of George Abdo and the Flaming Araby Orchestra.

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12 minutes

clarinet, cello, piano

Arts NB for the Beausejour Trio

1. Attar of Rose
2. Lavender
3. Jasmine
4. Orange Flower Blossom

July 23, 2010, Austin TX | ClarinetFest
Beausejour Trio: Wesley Ferreira, clarinet | Julia MacLaine, cello | Stephen Runge, piano


1. Attar of Rose
2. Lavender
3. Jasmine
4. Orange Flower Blossom