Friday, March 30, 2012

Seattle's EMP Museum: Rock and Roll and Monster Movies

Vacationing in Seattle this week, I was advised by my thoughtful girlfriend (who loves it when I mention her in blog posts!) to check out Seattle's Exploring Music Project Museum, or EMP.  Located under the shadow of the Space Needle (at least on days when there's enough sun to cast any shadows), the EMP is kind of a funny little museum, dedicated not only to the obvious arena of popular music (particularly rock), but also to science fiction and popular culture.  Over time, these latter two elements seem to have been toned down, but frankly that's alright with me: music is one of my great loves, and I was genuinely excited to go exploring that field, and maybe get a little sci-fi bonus at the end.

The museum closes at five each day (which is something of a crock), so I didn't get to quite do everything I wanted.  Among other things, I left a potentially very interesting display space on the technology behind the movie Avatar largely unexplored.  But I had a great time; apart from the typical museum fare, there were plenty of interactive installments that made the place seem a lot more adventurous and fun.  With my terrible camera phone in hand, I thought I'd share the highlights with you, my loyal readers.  Do check out this place if you're ever in town, and give yourself lots of time to explore.
Right off the bat we find this thing.  What is this thing?  It's sort of a tower, densely framed with guitars, basses, banjos, and all manner of stringed instruments on all sides.  You may notice that some these instruments have strange mechanical contraptions attached to their fret boards; these machines hold plectrums which pluck certain strings on cue.  Put on the headphones conveniently located at the sculpture's base, and you can hear their combined symphony, which periodically shifts between musical styles.  You can also watch a series of videos detailing the concept and execution of the piece.  The name of the sculpture is If VI Was IX; the artist is a fellow named Trimpin, who speaks in the explanatory video with a German accent and is clearly a bigger fan of Jimi Hendrix than he lets on.
If placards are to be believed, this is the very glove won by Michael Jackson at the Motown 25th Anniversary television special, the one where he did the moonwalk.  That's also the very jacket he wore, but the placard doesn't say much about that.  Where the pillow fits in, I'm not too sure, but it suits the glove tremendously.  The glass case holding these artifacts just sort of sits in the foyer, devoid of context.  But what can you do, as a glove and a jacket do not an exhibit make?
Off to the side was the Sound and Vision exhibit.  The text is basically legible in the picture so I won't be too redundant here, but suffice to say there are a lot of interesting recorded anecdotes and scholarly analyses of popular music.  Some of it's audio only and some of it's video.  I moved around a bit and heard from a diverse group of artists, and quickly realized I didn't have nearly enough time to listen to even half of it.  Many recordings included the complete songs that the artists were commenting on, and I rocked out for a good half hour before figuring I'd better move on.

Oh, and also there was science fiction stuff!  Mostly snippets and interviews with fellows like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, among other authors of much note.  There was also a clip of Nichelle Nichols talking about the first interracial kiss on television in that episode of Star Trek.  Between that and the story about her and Martin Luther King Jr, I wonder if anyone ever asks her about anything else. 
Back in the 90's, when rock music still mattered and grunge ruled the charts, the Seattle music scene rose to legendary status as a source of innovation and authenticity, and the EMP would like to remind you of this at every possible opportunity.  Here we see a close-up section from the Seattle Band Map, which shows a number of bands that have connections to the scene, either by having actually played in it, collaborated with a band that did, or shared a member with some such group.  This leads to the inclusion of a few acts that are barely even tangentially related to the Pacific Northwest (The Smiths!?), so if the purpose of the chart is to glorify Seattle, perhaps it overstates the case a bit?  But if the purpose is to simply celebrate the national and international reach of music culture, it's pretty neat.  I like the fact that it looks as if it were actually scrawled out by passersby and gradually added to over time.  Maybe it was?  I wish I could go back and read the placard again.
The most prominently advertised exhibit is dedicated to Nirvana and the grunge revolution they paved the way for.  Within the halls of Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, Cobain and friends are regarded as cultural champions, something akin to a real revolutionary vanguard.  And you know, maybe they were pretty awesome and revolutionary, but the turns toward hagiography can be a little stifling.  There are a lot of cool artifacts from Kurt and the gang, like letters and handwritten lyrics and photographs, not to mention recordings of home demos from their angsty teenage years.  That's cool; that's the sort of thing museums are made for.  A little more out there is the booth in the darkened room where you can step inside and tell the camera all about how Nirvana changed your life; a small theater outside then intersperses concert footage with clips from these fan testimonials.

This is, in some ways, a really cool idea, so I don't want to criticize it too much.  Inviting museum goers to respond to the exhibits, and displaying those responses, is an interesting way to make the experience more interactive.  But lavishing all this special attention on Nirvana seems to take things into the realm of the creepy.  One testimonial I saw ended with a kid remarking that what he said "probably sounded kind of stupid."  After reading all the notes on the wall detailing Cobain's complicated relationship with the media and the music industry, I can't help thinking he might say the same thing.
The most interesting part of that exhibit, for me, was the wealth of historical background for the grunge movement: video interviews with alternative and punk bands and producers, not to mention selections from albums of the underground and indie rock scenes of the 1980's.  I've been known to give 80's music a hard time; I've even been known to describe the 80's as a cultural wasteland of infinite despair.  Stations like this, however, are reminders that a pulse was really beating in the culture after all.  I much prefer the "alternative" to the "punk," but there's a really good case here that they shared a common cause.
The EMP's second favorite artist is far and away Seattle's own Jimi Hendrix, who gets his own exhibit (Jimi Hndrix: An Evolution of Sound), filled with historical background, recordings, and an impressive display of guitars.  The terribly blurry, lens-flared picture here is of three different instruments smashed by Jimi at various shows; the foreground fragment has words from "psychedelic poems" written on the side.  I couldn't actually make out any lines from this alleged poetry, but their psychedelic character is not to be denied.  Unless your only basis is this illegible picture, of course.
The Hendrix exhibit has all the usual things, like lyrics, session notes, and biographical sketches, but the best part was clearly the mixing consoles in the back corner.  The slides on the board allow you to hear different parts of the studio arrangements at different volumes: you can isolate vocals and slowly bring all the other parts into the mix, or experiment with radical ideas (like removing all of Jimi's leads, or taking out drums and pushing percussion to the max).  It's a lot of fun to play producer, and besides you get to rock out to Hendrix for a while.  Nothing wrong with that.
Upstairs is the interactive Sound Stage area, where museum goers are invited to play your basic rock instruments.  Experienced players can rock out freely (well, the instruments are bolted in place, but you can play whatever you want), while beginners can do simple tutorials and make a bunch of noise.  For the truly adventurous who don't mind spending a little time and cash, there are recording booths with a variety of instruments that allow you to cut your own CD, which you can then purchase in the gift shop.  I almost considered doing this, but by this time I'd been in the museum for several hours and we were now within half an hour of closing time.

I really kind of regret not allotting more time to that section, because the hands-on exhibits are usually the most fun at places like this, and it would be pretty fun to have a little record of my bass-playing skills to share with the world.  But with time running out, there was still one major exhibit I wanted to see...
The Experience Music Project is also a science fiction museum, at least in theory.  But rock n' roll dominates the agenda, and as I understand it the dedicated science fiction exhibit was recently closed.  Downstairs, however, is a temporary exhibit called Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film.  There are a couple of cool artifacts and effects here; my favorite was this projector wall, which alters your silhouette with constantly shifting, spooky shapes.  There's also plenty of information on genre elements and tropes along the walls, and a "scream booth," where you can record yourself screaming in affected terror.  Yay?
Along one wall there was a list of one hundred horror movies the curators considered essential viewing.  Being a wimp, I generally cannot stand modern horror movies, but I have a lot of respect for the old classics, which make it easier for me to admire the artistry without wetting myself in fear.  I also appreciated getting to see video clips from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, a film I've been meaning to see since my Freshman year in college, but have never quite gotten around to.  I think I may have to make time for that someday soon.  The exhibit didn't really change my mind on the genre, but it has somewhat revitalized my enthusiasm for really old things.

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