Paul Allen Wants to be Cool


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North America » United States » Washington » Seattle
August 4th 2011
Published: May 7th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

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The Seattle Space Needle, photographed from many blocks away

Experience Music Project





The United States has a large number of museums that were founded by particular families or individuals.

They amassed a large collection of something, and created the museum to show it to the public.

For many people, that something was art.

The Frye Museum from yesterday is a good example.

With rare exceptions , most of these museums date to the early 1900s.

The reason is simple enough: Assembling a collection large enough for a good museum is incredibly difficult when most worthy items are already held by other museums.

The Experience Music Project in Seattle, opened in 2000, may be the most interesting example of a modern museum founded by a collector.

It exists primarily because Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, wants to be seen as cool and likes Jimmy Hendrix.




Paul Allen was smarter than most people who undertake this sort of project.

If he did everything himself, it would feel like a vanity project, which isn’t very cool.

He hired the best people available, and gave them enough creative freedom to do the project properly.

The building itself
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Outside the Experience Music Project building, designed by Frank Gehry
is by Frank Geary.

He designed one of his typical mazes of flowing metal.

Beams and walls curve in all sorts of unexpected places.

Major parts of the outside are made of colored aluminum, to reflect the rare Seattle sunlight.

When the lighting is right, for example, one part of the building casts red starbursts on everything around it.




The centerpiece inside is something called the Skychurch.

The name comes from a mystical place in a Jimi Hendrix song.

It’s the one part of the complex that doesn’t require buying admission.

The description talks about “distilling the sprint of great music”, but it’s basically an incredibly designed music video room.

One wall is an absolutely huge screen.

The surrounding walls and ceiling are covered with the type of swinging lights and filter effects seen in nightclubs.

The light effects are synchronized to whatever video is playing.

Personally, I think it would be a really fun place to have a party.

The videos themselves were all over the place, and a surprising number were really dull.

I did enjoy the live concert footage.

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Another picture of the Experience Music Project, showing the incredible light reflections



Next to Skychurch is a huge sculpture made of guitars, Roots and Branches.

It looks like a huge tornado of instruments.

Some of them have special attachments so they can be played by a computer, but I never heard this happen.




The next major spot is something called the Sound Lab.

The Lab consists of a series of computer workstations that are connected to instruments like guitars and drums.

The purpose of this setup is to teach the basics of playing rock music.

For me, it felt like a more sophisticated version of the painful “learn to play” programs from the early days of personal computers.

For those who get the hang of it, they can play along with famous songs, Rock Band style.

Those who are really enthusiastic can reserve a room with multiple of these machines and make a CD (which costs extra, of course).

The most enthusiastic can make a DVD of themselves jamming away with a photoshopped audience!




Next up is an amazing array of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia.

Jimi Hendrix grew up in Seattle and became one of the most inventive guitarists in history.

He played
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A small portion of the Skychurch within the Experience Music Project
his guitar behind his back routinely, and occasionally played it with his teeth.

Beyond those stunts, he also greatly expanded what could be done with the instrument, inventing now routine techniques like feedback and layered loops.

The display has all sorts of costumes, records, and instruments.

The most surprising fact for me is that before he became a hippy icon, Jimi Hendrix was an Army Ranger!

He played guitar in the army, and after his discharge played in a number of blues bands.

The overall display was as dry as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame although it had a lot more stuff.




The museum has space for temporary shows.

The one when I was there was on Nirvana, one of the icons of Seattle rock.

They formed in Aberdeen in 1987.

At the time, the Pacific Northwest was a hotbed of indie rock.

Bands were isolated enough from the major music trends that they came up with new forms of rock.

Eventually, these forms coalesced into what became known as grunge.

The display tries to push the idea that this was
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One of the corridors within the Experience Music Project by Frank Gehry
a new way of doing things different to the corporate rock supported by the major labels.

Songs were mostly distributed on cassette, and bands were publicized through zines created on photocopiers.

Personally, I think what they did was similar to the punk bands before them, and the rock bands in Memphis before that .

The closest parallel, however, is Liverpool in the 1950s.

Bands could experiment with a wide variety of styles because nobody knew who they were, and they had exposure to a wide variety of records.

Like Liverpool, large groups of fans ultimately discovered the scene and things exploded.




Nirvana can be considered the Beatles of grunge, and the parallels are somewhat scary.

They were the right band at the right time.

They started out writing very noisy punk songs, but then moved toward mixing in pop elements like repetitive courses and guitar hooks.

They became annoyed with local label Sub Pop’s inconsistent royalty payments, so they quietly had major label Geffen buy out their contract.

For a band identified as the symbol of independent music, the unavoidable irony is that they only really broke big after
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A rare picture of the Space Needle from directly underneath it.
MTV decided to air their ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video in heavy rotation.

From there, the huge fame and pressure ultimately tore them apart.

Leader Kurt Cobain developed a huge heroin habit, and ultimately committed suicide during withdrawal.

Like the Beatles, the fame machine ultimately destroyed its heroes.




Like Liverpool, dozens of bands followed in Nirvana’s wake.

Some of them, like Pearl Jam, were quite good.

Others, like Soul Asylum were not.

Things never reached the point of Liverpool where any band with a connection to the city could make money, but it came close.

The display tries to make the point that Nirvana’s real legacy is that any band that is inventive and stays true to themselves can be successful, but I think they are pushing things too much.

Nirvana’s (and the Beatles) arc shows that independent promotion only goes so far.

If Nirvana had stayed on Sub Pop for example, they would likely have been a really successful regional band (like Black Flag in Los Angeles or Fugazi in Washington DC) that only diehard fans from elsewhere ever knew about.

Even the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and REM, two of the
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The Pacific Science Center in the Seattle Center, the original United States Science Pavillion at the World's Fair.
most inventive bands of the last twenty years, only broke nationally after signing with major labels.

They key at the time was working with the system without selling out to it.

That would have been a fascinating exhibit.


Science Fiction Museum





The rest of the museum really reveals a lot about Paul Allen.

Like many computer people, he is obsessed with science fiction.

Unlike many, he can indulge this obsession on a grand scale.

Paul Allen owns one of the largest collections of science fiction movie and TV memorabilia on the planet.

He uses his museum to show it off.




One exhibit was on the TV series Battlestar Galactica, one of the best series in recent memory.

The original version from 1978 retold the story of Exodus in space, with a good humanity fleeing from a race of relentless evil aliens.

The recent revival changed the aliens to intelligent robots humanity created as slaves, and then added exceptional layers of thematic depth

Good characters are filled with flaws; evil characters may become good almost by accident; some play both sides off each other out of
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The Seattle Center Mural by Paul Horiuchi, next to the Space Needle.
pure self preservation; and moral issues appeared weekly without clean solutions.

The display has an astonishing array of memorabilia, including flight suits, manuals from the show (with the necessary cut corners), helmets, model raptors, and a certain red dress.

Also included are a large number of video stations where people involved with the production talk about their roles and what the show meant to them.

As a fan of the show, I enjoyed it.




Also on show was an exhibit on Avatar.

James Cameron and his team took some really huge risks to push the boundaries of special effects.

The displays that dealt with this part of the film were fascinating.

Those which dealt with the story can mostly be skipped.




The two most important enhancements were real time rendering and the virtual camera.

All of the Navi are based on real actors.

They wore special equipment that captures their motions, and the computer animates the Navi creatures to match.

Traditionally, both the actors and the director need to imagine what the final result will look like during the capture sessions.

Using advances from video games
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The Seattle Center Fountain, centerpiece of the World's Fair.
(where the visuals are created in real time),the technicians were able to project a rough cut of the resulting footage during the session.

James Cameron could then correct the actor as needed.




The virtual camera was even more important.

I believe it will be standard for special effects films within a year.

James Cameron wanted something where he could direct computer generated cameras as though they were real ones.

The device he ultimately used was a video screen connected to a bunch of motion sensors.

He moved the camera through an empty studio that was filled with objects that only existed in the computer, and saw a rough cut of what the camera would see.

He played with the moves over and over until he got what he wanted.

The end result is a computer generated film that feels like it is live action, a huge advance.

The museum has a highly simplified version of the camera so visitors can try it out themselves on sample footage.




The last part of the museum contains the oral history room.

Museum staff approached a large number of
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View of part of the Olympic Sculpture Park, featuring The Eagle by Alexander Calder
people who worked in both the music and science fiction industries to tell stories on different topics.

For example, early magazine editor Frederick Pohl talked about publishing fanzines in the early 1940s, and former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins talked about mishaps scheduling the band’s shows.

The recordings are organized by topic for people to listen to.

The Smithsonian Institution considers this part of the project so important they gave it a grant.


Seattle Center





The Experience Music Project is the latest addition to a complex called the Seattle Center .

It was built for a World’s Fair in 1962, back when people still considered such showcases important.

The centerpiece is the most famous building in Seattle, the Space Needle.

It looks like a round spaceship on huge concrete legs.

The Space Needle is also a notorious tourist trap, with people waiting in line for hours to see the view from the top.

I skipped it.

Next door is an outdoor amphitheater with a huge mural at the back by Paul Horiuchi, the one piece of artwork remaining from the original fair.

It’s entirely abstract, and represents the future.
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The Seattle waterfront from Kerry Park


Next to this is a long grassy hill that ends in a large spherical fountain.

The fountain shoots of jets of water from random angles.

This fountain was the centerpiece of the fairgrounds.


Olympic Sculpture Park





I found something much better close by on the waterfront, Olympic Sculpture Park.

The park is a large sculpture park run by the Seattle Art Museum.

It’s filled with large outdoor sculpture of all sorts, ranging from the obvious to the subtle.

Roxy Paine created Split, a stainless steel tree in the middle of an open area.

Alexander Calder contributed one of his stabiles.

A spinning ampersand appears next to the highway.

Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III by George Ricky is a pair of spinning reflective planes that reflect light all over the place.

I had fun here.




None of the tourists visiting the Space Needle know that a view of Seattle almost as good, and possibly better, exists nearby for free.

Queen Ann Hill rises just north of the Seattle Center.

A series of steep and winding streets climbs to the top.

This is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in
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One of the most iconic photos in the Pacific Northwest, downtown Seattle in front of Mount Rainier. This view appears less than thirty days a year.
Seattle, so they really don’t want people coming up here.

The reward is Kerry Park, an open area with one of the best views of the city in existence.

On a clear day it stretches from the Cascade Mountains in the west to the harbor in the east and everything in between.

On a very clear day it also provides a perfect shot of downtown Seattle with Mount Rainier directly behind it.

I got the picture :)

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