Ah, Seattle. Home of Kurt Cobain, Starbucks, and the mother of all chick flicks. Besides the crummy weather and abnormally high suicide rate, what’s not to love?
Claire and I added quite a few more reasons to our Why Sheattle is Awshome list when we visited last month. For starters, the weather was actually quite nice. In the entirety of our five-day visit, we didn’t see a single raindrop (or suicide). We discovered a place that both rented kayaks and served margaritas, a concept so brilliant I’m thinking of opening my own chain of them called “Kayakarita” (patent pending). It seemed you couldn’t turn around without stumbling into a sculpture garden, banjo-playing hippie, or bratwurst festival (no, seriously).
The main reason for our trip was to attend a wedding and visit some of Claire’s old college friends, but a journey across the country deserves a little time on the town as well. When traveling to a well-known place, I usually end up doing some touristy stuff just to have the ability to say I did it. Someone will inevitably ask me if I saw the Washington Monument when I went to D.C or what I thought of the Eiffel Tower, so I find it useful to have a detail or two handy just to avoid the shameful tongue-clucking I receive when I tell them I didn’t do those things. It’s silly, I know, but it makes rehashing my trip more inclusive. That’s not to say that doing these things isn’t fun or interesting, but if they fall short of my over-hyped expectations, it keeps them off the highlight reel.
So I welcomed the pleasant surprise that was the Experience Music Project. After hearing that it was a “must-see” for our trip, we decided our day of tourism should include it. Fortunately, it lay in the very shadow of the Space Needle. Two birds with one stone!
The EMP (and adjoining Science Fiction Museum which the nerd in me demands I make mention of) display the marks of good design; rather than simply displaying a bunch of memorabilia and making you read about why it’s impressive, the curators really make you—well–experience them. The 30-ft tall tower of instruments (it’s literally a stack of working guitars, and keyboards welded together) is a marvelous abstract sculpture on its own, but it also plays original music composed by the artist—using those instruments.
The most experience-able exhibit in the entire complex, though, is easily the Sound Lab (The Lab, as I’ll refer to it). The EMP undoubtedly succeeds in its goal of giving patrons an accessible encounter with music, and I would say that’s mostly due to The Lab. Even though it became clear that the Lab could put music teachers like me out on the streets, I couldn’t help but be inspired by it.
Its beauty is in its simplicity. Live guitars, keyboards, and electronic drum kits perch invitingly in various booths scattered about the Lab. Each booth is arranged with two others like it with an inward-facing window between each panel. You’re free to play around with any instrument, and if you feel like a lesson, just follow the step-by-step instructions on the computer monitor and the friendly disembodied voice will give you a crash course in the ways of rock. Presto! You’re a rock legend in ten minutes.
In addition to instruments, the Lab even includes a mixing board complete with tutorial. I am a noob in the world of recording and mixing, so I decided to try it on lesson mode. Like all the instrumental tutorials, it was informative but not patronizing, specific but not pretentious, and left all the power in my hands. As a result, I now know quite a bit more about the basics of mixing though not under any illusion that I know it all.
These robo-instructors provide what I consider to be an ideal first lesson for a new musician. The guitar lesson, for example, breaks it down to the essentials: strings, frets, and fingers. From there, the lesson neatly segues into forming power chords (the Miller Lite of music; commonly used, not particularly fancy or dignified, but effective nonetheless). Before you know it, you’re rocking Smells Like Teen Spirit complete with backing track. In mere moments, the student has all the tools needed to play a respectably cool song. My own experience tells me that a teacher has less than five minutes—and that’s a conservative estimate—to get the student hooked.
This is all well and good for novices, but what if you’re an experienced musician like yours truly? I tried all the instruments, but I won’t lie; I immediately dashed for an open keyboard booth just so I could show off. As I was rocking out, a message popped up on my monitor: “Bass Guitar wants to jam.” I looked to the adjoining booth and Claire was making the universal sign for Rock-On with her free hand. I emphatically returned it and selected “Yes” on the screen. The thud of her bass filled my booth and my riff sounded in hers. The balance was perfect; neither instrument overpowered the other. We exchanged a look through the window that basically said, “Sweet!” and commenced jamming. I decided to extend the invitation to the neighboring drummer, but I don’t think he even noticed. Judging from his fierce look of determination, he was ensconced, resolved to master the cluster of rubber pads before him even if he died trying.
I could go on, but this is running kind of long. I’ll sum it up with this: the best thing that can be said about the Lab is that it casts aside the notion that music is “beyond” anyone. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: music is a part of you, whether you like it or not. Whoever designed the Lab gets a gold star for understanding this.