Anyone who says they’ve never wanted to be a rock star is either lying or in denial. The desire to pick up a guitar and wail is just as much human nature as the need to breathe. It is an innate urge that does not discriminate among event the most tone deaf ears or wobbly vocals and it is one typically reserved for long nights of karaoke and far too much tequila. However, upon stepping foot in Seattle’s Experience Music Project, it is a dream that quickly becomes a reality.
The name may be an awkward mouthful but it couldn’t be any more fitting, the EMP is one hands-on activity after another. True the music museum is comprised of artifact-adorning walls, multi-media infused timelines and catalogs of information. And yes, visitors walk away with a better grasp of the progression of rock and the musicians that marked those eras. But the true stars of the show are the spectator-turned-aspiring artists that stop by to learn the chords of “Louie Louie” or belt out “Hey Ya” to what seems like a crowd of thousands.
While some claim the flamboyant Frank O. Gehry building is an eyesore among the Seattle Center, others declare it an apt representation of the American rock experience: a broken guitar of red, white and blue. Either way, it’s difficult to deny that Gehry’s unique method of manipulating metal into unconventional waves of brilliance is impressive. It also further glamorizes the visitor’s journey as a star-in-the-making. The shiny interior reflects the exhibits’ vibrant tones, resulting in an effect similar to the blaring explosions of a pyrotechnic suffused concert and giving the sensation that one is always on stage. Or perhaps it is more akin to the flashes of paparazzi cameras following the interim celebrity everywhere.
Aside from aesthetics, the plethora of exhibit interaction gives the impression that the visitor is there to be inspired, but also to create. For starters, artist Trimpin’s installation, If VI WAS IX: Roots and Branches conjoins more than 500 instruments and 30 computers into a giant metaphor symbolizing the morphology of music. Individuals can listen as six different guitars representing six different genres each play one string to generate one chord together.
From there, guests can really get involved in EMP’s biggest attraction, Sound Lab. The giant room is filled with state-of-the-art equipment suited for any skill level. Beginners can follow the computer guided tutorials to learn a few drum beats and/or guitar licks while those more advanced can master riffs and rhythms in a soundproof room. For those ready to drop a disc, the jam studio is just waiting to record the next big thing.
If vocals are the focus, instruments may be thrown to the wayside at On Stage, a very glorified sing-a-long session. Participants are put in front of a blue screen of smoke and bright lights, given programmed guitars, keyboards and drums, and faced with thousands of virtual fans. The recital is displayed live over closed-circuit television and posters capturing the experience can be purchased post-performance, offering a perfect excuse to finally take down that dorm room homage to Dave Matthews.
Sound and Vision: Artists Tell Their Stories features over 800 interviews with musicians of every variety. Visitors can listen to the individual histories of their favorite artists in a comfortable club-like setting that gives off a very intimate one-on-one feeling, as though the visitor is asking all the questions. The motivational tales of triumph may even prompt the “interviewer” to turn “interviewee” by taking the hot seat, discussing his personal path to stardom (even if only defined by the day’s activities) and leaving his own legacy to inspire others.
Current EMP Exhibits
American Sabor: Latino in U.S. Popular Music
I may not be skilled enough to salsa and I may not be able to sing along to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” with 100% accuracy, but I am aware of the Latino influence on [North] American music. After all, I did watch La Bamba twelve times the first week it aired on HBO. At least, I thought I was aware. Turns out I only had a smidgeon of a clue that there is more to the Latino leverage than Ricky Martin’s Puerto Rican flair having inspired such hits as 98 Degree’s “Una Noche.”
I was put in my place while visiting EMP’s temporary exhibition, American Sabor: Latino in U.S. Popular Music. The brainchild of three professors at the University of Washington is divided geographically into sections of the country that were most impacted by Latino music: L.A., San Francisco, San Antonio, Miami and New York City. Each area is a beautiful display of relics, facts and interaction. Informative yet not overwhelming, the presentation is a wonderful collection of stage costumes (El Vez, Linda Ronstandt and Richie Valens = sequins galore!), tunes of varying genres (there are several guided listening stations ready to incite serious hip shaking), interviews (over 45 artists discuss their own influences), instruments (Santana’s father’s violin from his Mariachi days), a dance floor (so you may follow the masters on-screen to perfect that fancy footwork) and much more.
The exhibit has had so much success that it will be traveling around the country for the next three years. Be sure to catch it before it leaves EMP September 7, 2008!
Jimi Hendrix: An Evolution of Sound
Even if you knew very little about Jimi Hendrix or Seattle, you probably at least knew the two were easily paired together. If not, you certainly would after visiting EMP. The lesson begins at the ticket office, where waiting in line turns into a sing-along as the lyrics to “Angel” and “Purple Haze” reverberate off the lobby walls. It continues after climbing the stairs to the museum’s main entrance, where visitors may choose an I-Pod inundated with Hendrix playlists rather than the standard audio guide.
And then, of course there’s the exhibition. Opened on April 26, 2008 the dim room is filed with a wide array of artist artifacts and tidbits of information. Old equipment, stage costumes and other memorabilia line the display cases. Although the items are undoubtedly interesting, the more fascinating aspect is the life map painted across the wall. The timeline is broken into five stages of the musician’s career, each represented by a different guitar and supplemented with other worldly happenings to give a historical and cultural context. Rather than focus on “glamorous stuff” this part of the exhibit delves into a more intimate side of the iconic figure. Hand-written lyrics are framed next to a doodle of a woman’s and man’s head morphing into one another. Also displayed are directions to the Isle of Wight concert that Hendrix scribbled for a friend on Londonberry Hotel stationery. Off to the side are the instructions, “Leave your house at 3:30.”
To round out the multi-media appeal that EMP consistently ensures, the exhibit is complimented by a theater of rare footage, continuous clips of concerts and I-Pods boasting the artist’s entire catalog – over 3 days’ worth of music. It’s a good thing then that the tribute is slated to stay put until April 11, 2010 if not permanently. That way you can come back as many times necessary to get the full Jimi Hendrix experience.
SFM-Science Fiction Museum
You don’t have to be fluent in Klingon or have a closet full of light sabors to appreciate Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. In fact, all you really need is a keenness for exploration, ability to expand your mind, a little imagination and the EMP ticket stub shoved into the depths of your back pocket.
Housed on the other side of Frank O. Gehry’s architectural masterpiece (which from this standpoint is often interpreted as a symbol of the future rather than a smashed guitar), the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (SFM) shows how easily overlooked – and yet how important – science fiction is in terms of influencing science and popular culture. The museum is divided into several galleries named aptly Homeworld, Fantastic Voyages, Brave New Worlds and Them; each is filled with related memorabilia (costumes, movie props, posters, etc.) and hands-on displays to keep visitors engaged and active in their own learning.
Robots: A Designer's Collection of Miniature Mechanical Marvels
Whether you consider them fun toys or the foreboding future of mankind, it’s difficult not to enjoy this display of robots. Designer Tom Geismar has been collecting the figurines of various shapes, sizes and styles for decades. Catch them accenting SFM’s own set of life-sized androids until October 26, 2008.