The New York Times The New York Times Travel March 2, 2003  

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Are You Experienced? A Rock Museum Helps

Ron Wurzer for The New York Times
Vladena Gertseva sings along in the sound lab.


I WASN'T one of those kids who grew up with dreams of becoming a rock star. I didn't nag my parents for guitar lessons or fantasize about trashing my hotel room after a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden.

So why was I so thrilled to be standing in a little soundproof room with an electric guitar in my hands, laying down the bass line of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in front of a virtual arena full of screaming fans?


Hey, it's a midlife crisis thing. You wouldn't understand.

Then again, maybe you would - at least if you spent several hours at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Opened in June 2000 at Seattle Center, right in the shadow of the Space Needle, the place is a huge multimedia museum devoted to American popular music, with a strong emphasis on the rock 'n' roll heritage of the past half-century.

Conceived by Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, and his sister, Jody Patton, the place is meant to be more than just a collection of artifacts and interpretive exhibits; its purpose, according to its Web site, is to be "a destination for celebrating musical innovation and for inspiring young and old to feel moved by music." And while that's certainly an admirable mission, I myself came to the museum with a slightly different agenda - namely, to bathe in nostalgia for those glorious days when "Turn down that music!" was something I heard from my parents rather than something I say to my daughter.

The "experience" in the museum's name begins even before you pay the steep $19.95 admission. The Experience Museum Project is housed in one of Frank Gehry's more whimsical extravaganzas, a 140,000-square-foot cavern cloaked in undulating sheets of stainless steel and painted aluminum shingles. The color scheme of the six-sectioned exterior- red, blue, mirrored purple, brushed silver and bead-blasted gold - is meant to evoke the bright finishes of electric guitars.

But Mr. Gehry (who admits that his musical tastes incline more to Bach than to Jimi Hendrix) found a different source for the building's irregular forms, basing them on the fluid textiles sculptured in stone by a 14th-century Flemish artist, Claus Sluter. (If that reference is a little too esoteric to convey the museum's overall appearance, just imagine a partly deflated hot-air balloon draped over the low-rise buildings of an office park.)

Entry to the museum is by way of the Sky Church, a grand hall with 85-foot ceilings and one vast wall entirely covered by video screens. At night, this space serves as a performance space, but on the day of my visit it was mainly an impressive vestibule, its "video frieze" pulsating with images from a frenetic rock concert. Here, just beyond the ticket taker, I was issued the first of the museum's many technological innovations - a Museum Exhibit Guide, a digital audio tour guide worn over the shoulder and connected to a pair of headphones. It can be used to customize a tour by pointing it at displays that interest a viewer; for instance, someone seeing a guitar on display can hear it played by its original owner. After a quick bit of instruction in how to use this device, I was set loose to explore on my own.

For anyone who wasn't weaned on MTV, the initial experience of the museum can be a bit disorienting. Sensory overload is an immediate danger, and one must learn to multitask while being assaulted from all directions by aural and visual stimuli. I found that the electronic guide took some getting used to, at least until I figured out: (a) how to point the device at the proper icons in the exhibits to hear narrated commentaries, (b) how to enter numbers on the keyboard to get access to additional verbal and musical content and (c) how to do (a) and (b) without dropping my notebook and museum floor plan.

Once I got the knack of it, though, the guide proved to be useful and even fun. And it delivered just what it promised: a fully customized tour, complete with the opportunity to bookmark certain topics for further study in the E.M.P. Digital Collection (or E.D.C.; they love abbreviations here) or on the museum's Web site,

The exhibits themselves range from the relatively straightforward to the truly bizarre, the latter represented on my visit by Artist's Journey, a special-effects thrill ride that would seem more at home in Disney World than it did here. As my fellow voyagers and I were seated in front of a wraparound video screen, the platform bumped, juddered and rocked us through through a flashy visual narrative called "Funk Blast," in which two musically clueless young men were educated in the art of funk by none other than James Brown himself. Frankly, I'm not sure what the point of the whole experience was; in any case Artist's Journey closed in January, to accommodate new exhibit and performance space, the museum said.

Other exhibits are more overtly educational, showcasing the museum's impressive collection of instruments and other music memorabilia (my favorite artifact: a pink feather boa once worn by Janis Joplin). The Guitar Gallery presents a history of rock's most essential and versatile instrument from its early acoustical incarnations in Spain and Italy through its electrified and computerized versions of today.

Northwest Passage focuses on the local music scene of the Seattle region ("from the first Native Americans gathering to dance on these shores to the mosh pits of the grunge era"). And Milestones is a gallery of exhibits tracing the broader development of rock 'n' roll, with special sections on icons like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Supplemented by the electronic guide's recorded commentaries and performance clips, these galleries create at least the illusion of a comprehensible order to the chaos that is rock history (although I did think that my favorite band, Talking Heads, was woefully underrepresented).

The heart of the museum is really the Jimi Hendrix Gallery. Paul Allen, arguably the world's biggest fan of the late, great guitarist, initially conceived Experience Music Project as a place to display his personal collection of Hendrixiana. And even though the mission eventually grew far more wide-ranging and ambitious, Mr. Allen's collection still has place of honor at the very center of Mr. Gehry's building. As somebody who once ruined his sister's Woodstock album by playing and replaying the Hendrix "Star-Spangled Banner" cut, I was squarely part of the target audience for this particular gallery. In fact, I went through it twice, making sure I didn't miss a thing - especially not the remains of a Fender Stratocaster that Jimi smashed and burned at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

For me, though, the best part of my visit was the Sound Lab, on the top floor, where I got to make some music of my own. The perpetually crowded lab (the best time to visit is just after opening and just before closing) consists of numerous sound pods and musical instrument platforms where visitors of all abilities can sing or play guitar, keyboard or drums, following an instructional program displayed on a small touch-screen monitor. The technology involved is apparently something special; according to the museum literature, the instruments use a Musical Instrument Digital Interface - or MIDI- which means (roughly) that you don't so much play the instruments as use the instruments to tell a computer what sounds to produce. All I know for sure is that I got to play guitar along with a live-performance video of Nirvana, with all of my mistakes drowned out by the rest of the band.

By the time I was finished jamming with Kurt Cobain and company, I figured I'd had about enough musical stimulation for one day. Visiting the museum can be exhausting, especially if you try to fit everything into a single session. But then, just as I was leaving, I passed a guitar sound pod in which someone was wailing on the three-note bass-line of "Louie, Louie" with the Kingsmen. This seemed too good to pass up, so I slipped into the sound pod next door to try the same program. Sure, my brain was fried, and the museum was set to close in another five minutes, so I probably should have called it a day. But in the fantasy world of the Experience Music Project, it's hard to resist taking that one last encore.

Visitor Information

The Museum

The Experience Music Project is at 325 Fifth Avenue North in Seattle, (206) 770-2700,, just north of downtown and easily accessible by bus, cab, or monorail (which runs right through part of the building). The museum is open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; from Memorial Day to Labor Day the hours are Sunday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday to 9 p.m. Admission is $19.95; $15.95 for those 65 and older, and those 13 to 17; $14.95 for those aged 7 to 12.

Where to Eat

The Turntable Restaurant and the Liquid Lounge are in the E.M.P. building, but they open and close later and do not require an admission fee. The Turntable features eclectic regional American cuisine, which encompasses everything from red beans and rice to pan-seared Idaho trout. Except for the Little Richard Bouffant Sundae, the menu is blessedly free of cutely named, theme-related items. Lunch for two with wine is about $40, dinner a few dollars more. Upstairs, Liquid Lounge is a busy club that offers live music nightly with no cover charge. Food is available from the Turntable's kitchen.

Other Activities

E.M.P. offers a varied program of films, concerts, lectures and workshops in its various facilities. Call the box office, (206) 770-2702 or (877) 454-7836, or visit the Web site for schedule information. "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," runs to June 8. The exhibit features some remarkable artifacts and sound clips from that era, not the least of which is an album cover and audio cut from something called "The Ethel Merman Disco Album."

GARY KRIST is a novelist and short story writer.

Forum: Join a Discussion on Traveling in the United States

Technology Brings Alive The History of Rock 'n' Roll  (June 22, 2000) 

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Ron Wurzer for The New York Times
Frank Gehry designed the museum.

Ron Wurzer for The New York Times
The Royale band, led by Kristen Kennedy, at E.M.P.

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