Are You Experienced?

The Experience Music Project is as bad I was expecting, if not worse. The defining metaphor for the place has got to be the sculpture made out of several hundred guitars, none of which will ever be played again. Despite the name, there's no music to experience there. All sorts of assorted musical paraphenalia and lots of gee-whiz gadgets, but no way to feel at all connected to the music.

Julia pointed out that the place was a sample of what it's like to be Paul Allen. You like Jimi Hendrix? Buy up his old guitars! You want to learn how to play guitar? Hire someone to tell you how an electric guitar works! Concerned about all the money you're spending to share your musical tastes with the world? Charge twenty bucks to get in! Today I learned that Paul Allen is a profoundly lonely man.

The EMP is also, without a doubt, the worst-curated museum I have ever seen. The exhibit halls are basically large collages of rock bric-a-brac: a broken Kurt Cobain guitar, skate punk album covers, Sir Mix-a-Lot's first drum machine. You get maybe one paragraph of overview for every two or three dozen objects. Then you're supposed to use what is essentially a Star Trek scanner to get more in-depth information about the objects that interest you. Each snippet of information takes about fifteen seconds to load, and lasts about that long, during which you learn maybe half a factoid, because it's entirely narrated, rather than textual, since in the future we're all going to be illiterate. It's impossible to get more than a trickle of information out of the EMP's exhibits: you could learn about ten times as much by reading a book, or just by sitting down with some CDs and just listening closely to the music. No music and no useful context, just lots of fancy clothes -- the EMP represents exactly the sort of reduction of music to pure image that critics are always railing against. I understand now what they're talking about.

I'm not going to criticize Frank Gehry: I think he did an okay job, definitely a very creative one. I am going to criticize EMP's self-obsession with the okay job Frank Gehry did -- there's an exhibition on his vision for the place, which is the sort of navel-gazing that real museums have to earn the right to engage in. The main hallway of the museum reminded me of nothing quite so much as the Promenade from Star Trek: Deep Space 9: all metallic greys and walkways and people walking around with headphones slung backwards on their heads. And as for the "Sky Church," that spacious video-enhanced shrine to Jimi that forms the "heart and soul" of EMP, according to the brochure -- well, we walked right through it without realizing what it was, because it just kind of looked like a big atrium to us. The heart and soul of EMP is a hollow room with piped-in classic rock greatest hits and a big video wall that doesn't show anything interesting. Very telling.

The one nice part was the "Sound Lab," where you could learn a bit about playing guitar, drums, and keyboards, and even pretend to sit in with Bob Marley and the Wailers. There was almost nothing there, though, that you couldn't have experienced by going to a music store and having one of the clerks show you a few of the basics. I say "almost" because the tutorial on effects pedals was quite nicely done and gave me a very strong hands-on sense of how guitarists can play with the sound quality of their instruments. It really enhanced my respect for the ones who can coax out the perfect tone for a given song.

Not a complete waste, then, but close to. "Lame" was Julia's assesment, and I have to concur. The Epxerience Music Project fits right in at the Seattle Center. That home to a second-rate science museum and a second-rate amusement park and a second-rate novelty tower and a second-rate fountain and a second-rate stadium and a second-rate exhbition hall is now also home to a third-rate musuem.