The single most stunning thing about Seattle's new Experience Music Project is its architecture of the Early Swoopy-and-Bulbous Period. No. Make that its futuristic use of technology. No, no. Make that instead its mission to transform museumgoers into musicians.
Nope—I was right the first time. The single most stunning thing about Seattle's new Experience Music Project is unquestionably its building, a controversial, rainbow-hued, steel-swathed structure so, well, swoopy and bulbous it resembles nothing so much as a smashed Stratocaster on steroids.
And though many befuddled Seattleites will insist otherwise, this is not a mistake. Four years ago, local billionaire Paul Allen, the cofounder of software giant Microsoft and a major-league rock and roll aficionado, and his sister, Jody Allen Patton, approached acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. Allen and Patton had a vision for a museum to celebrate not just rock and roll music, but the renegade creative spark behind it. The word Allen offered to inspire Gehry was, you guessed it, "swoopy." Multiple blueprints, 280 ribs of undulating metal, enough steel to build a 20-story office building, and not a single right angle later, the Experience Music Project opened its doors this past June.
Through those doors the sensory assault begins. Rising 85 feet above you is Sky Church, a great hall that takes its name from Jimi Hendrix's democratic vision of an all-welcoming cathedral of music. There on the world's largest video screen: ambient images pulsing and flashing to throbbing music. Above: photos of music legends from Buddy Holly to Bonnie Raitt rotating around the ceiling. Below: glowing floor-tile time capsules to be filled with memorabilia from bands that play this room. Beside you: Roots and Branches, a towering sculpture of 500 instruments, 40 of which are wired to play various genres of American pop music. Before you: Artist's Journey, the multimedia extravaganza whose motion platform lets you feel—at times in the pit of your stomach—you are "riding" James Brown's funk music.
Is the word "overwhelming" forming in your mind?
You've only just begun. Scattered throughout the 140,000-square-foot facility are exhibits on everything from Gehry's career to the development of the electric guitar. In the Milestones room, the evolution of rock is laid out in a panorama. (Did rock and roll begin when Elvis Presley sang "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Dorsey Brothers TV program Stage Show in 1956? You be the judge.)
In the Northwest Passage display, the story of Seattle music is told through photos of the '40s Jackson Street jazz scene, Ann and Nancy Wilson's Heart costumes from the '70s, and Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain's handwritten song lyrics from the '90s. Coolest for local rockaholics is the Hendrix Gallery, devoted to the Seattle-born guitar maestro who is Allen's musical deity and the inspiration for EMP. From Allen's own collection come many of the 5,000-plus pieces of memorabilia, which include Hendrix's trademark black felt hat and the Stratocaster he played at Woodstock.
To navigate this thicket of information you can use a museum exhibit guide, or MEG, a piece of wizardry you point at guitar-pick icons for further narration.
The MEG is just the tip of the high-tech iceberg. In myriad ways, EMP uses technology to let visitors explore the process of creating music. In the Sound Lab, you can riff away on an electric guitar along with a machine designed to teach you to play. I learned Alanis Morissette's "Thank U" on an electric piano whose lighted keys guided my noodling. I could have turned it on "Jam" and played in harmony with friends, or retreated to a soundproof booth to perfect my technique.
Doubtless I'd then be ready for On Stage, an amped-up version of karaoke, where groups can take to the stage and make their adolescent dreams come true. Real instruments (self-correcting to simulate actual talent), amplification, and hot lights combine with a simulated audience to complete the fantasy, which is beamed into the lobby for the, um, appreciation of the crowd.
Overhyped, overpriced (tickets are $19.95 per adult) homage to a billionaire's air guitar fantasy? In-your-face emblem of a once-quiet city's play for acclaim? Enduring tribute to the rebel geniuses who ignited a musical revolution? In Seattle these days, it just depends on whom you talk to.
Which means you might have to Experience it yourself.
For more information on the Experience Music Project, call (206) 367-5483 or visit www.emplive.com