At SFMOMA, music is more than just sounds


This article is part of our Museums section, looking at how institutions are working to give visitors more to see, do and feel.


You know, flute music is good flute music. But for the hushed audience at the launch of the “Art of Noise” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February, the gasping scales were just part of the experience.

The colorful costumes of the flutist (who is André 3000, by the way) are also an experience. Crisp speakers are an experience, smoke machines are an experience. Two laser beams shot through a glass of water balanced on center stage in a traffic cone – André 3000’s growing interest in traffic cones, he had announced earlier – is the experience.

Music is music. But music is also something that surrounds music.

From May 4 to August 18, SFMOMA will illuminate this truism through an exhibition of visual and technical artifacts plucked from music’s lower orbit. “The Art of Noise” contains more than 800 pieces, including early listening equipment, cutting-edge loudspeakers and iconic album covers, loosely grouped under the heading of design. Four more sound devices create some clever noises. But the real theme of the show may be our relationship with music.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “The White Album,” Coltrane performed live at Birdland: By themselves, these are nothing more than air molecules vibrating against our eardrums. Music became sacred in part because of the material culture it inspired.

Just as music shapes design—think jazz album covers versus metal album covers—design also shapes the way we listen to music. In an old photocopied flyer for a punk show, there’s information on how to absorb these songs.In the iconic ad for Maxell cassette tapes Hidden in the tape are signals about the spirit of rock and roll.

The show starts off at an interesting moment. Music has never been easier to listen to or ignore. Paradoxically, easy digital access to almost any recording weakens our connection to all of them. Having immersed myself in precious tapes for months on end, knowing deep in the memory of my fingertips the whir of the rewind button: Gone!

but Disappeared It’s an invitation to reflect—to appreciate how we got here, and to imagine what’s to come.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is said to have said, “Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.” But sometimes art decorates music, and nowhere more so than on a San Francisco psychedelic rock poster It was more vivid and lively in its heyday.

With four bright walls hung with these wild lithographs, the place has been assembled into a little shrine to a brain-melting era. The posters draw on Art Nouveau, psychedelic trips, and more to convey the message of the upcoming concert; like the space-age stereos and vintage headphones elsewhere in this exhibition, they’re all about transmission technology. A concert promoter like Bill Graham would commission an artist to promote an upcoming Grateful Dead show, and a week later, voila. As ads, they are difficult to read – which filters out the squares – and harder to ignore.

“Musicians turn up the amps so hard they burst your eardrums,” rock poster artist Victor Moscoso once said in an interview. “I did the same thing to my eyeballs.”

Like the Golden Gate Bridge, ’60s rock posters occupy a disproportionate share of the city’s popular imagination. But like the Golden Gate, it deserves a closer look. There are subtle differences in these fancy curves, with unexpected changes from one poster to the next. When you see hundreds of them, cheeks swirling and various colors, something bigger comes into focus: The music that’s engulfing American cities with a new art genre week after week.

A few years ago, when Devon Turnbull, best known for his popular streetwear line Nom de Guerre, started noticing something disturbing. His first love was music – but the new iPod in his pocket made him a casual listener.

“I didn’t have the meaningful musical experiences that I had when I was younger. I wanted a deeper connection,” Turnbull said in a phone interview.

As an audio engineer, Turnbull began working to create a new type of sound system, one that might rekindle this connection. Working under the name Ojas and sourcing humble parts from Japan, he built brutalist-looking amplifiers and speakers that quickly gained a cult following – even though their fidelity wasn’t very high .

“The way I design sound systems is different from the way most high-end audio manufacturers do,” he says. “I design devices that offer more emotional content, not necessarily better specs.”

In HiFi Pursuit of Listening Room Dreams 2, created especially for the exhibition, visitors can immerse themselves in the emotional content. Set in its own gallery, this small space has an austere, spaceship-like feel, but then you hear it: a selection of vinyl records and reels from a variety of genres, each with a surprising fit for deep and naturalistic listening. As Turnbull said, it felt like the musicians’ “energy was actually in the room.”

“It’s as if he’s not building a speaker but an ear,” said Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design and curator of “Noise Art” at SFMOMA.

In the early 1980s, Jesper Kouthoofd was struck by the collision of music and design. The young Swede witnessed the civilizational leap brought about by the Sony Walkman and its ability to carry your favorite music with you. Suddenly, magically, Kraftwerk could ride the bus to school with him.

Nearly half a century later, Kouthoofd makes a living from music and design. Teenage Engineering, a consumer electronics company he co-founded, produces futuristic synthesizers, speakers and other audio equipment. A few years ago, the team unveiled “The Chorus,” a set of eight speakers in the form of wooden dolls that form an algorithmically programmed choir. Dolls displayed in a small media gallery play songs from a variety of genres, from barbershop to baroque. The robot choir also listens to its own voice via Bluetooth and uses counterpoint melodies to devise original improvisations verse by verse.

“In Sweden at that time, everyone had an organ in their house instead of a television,” Kuhlovd said by phone. “The church organ is my favorite instrument, like a voice from God. It’s very similar to my next favorite choir.

Kuhuvd added that all religions have their own soundscapes. By extension, this soundscape might conjure up its own strange religion.

One of the pieces stands out from the rest—quite literally, located on the museum’s second-floor outdoor deck. Against the backdrop of Natoma Street, a narrow jumble of high-rise and low-rise office buildings, a cluster of small tree-like sculptures rises. If you get closer to these colorful metal tubes, you will find that they are speakers, talking to us.

or yes Talk to us. Japanese artist and musician Yuri Suzuki was commissioned to create a remixed soundtrack of San Francisco itself from a series of local field recordings (church bells, foghorns, the rattle of cable cars). (The dedicated sound sculpture head is reminiscent of Audium, the city’s pioneering sound arts theater.) The work uses artificial intelligence to comb through a library of sound recordings with similar waveforms, then blends them into evolving patterns.

Are urban soundscapes music?Wait, even what yes music? You might ponder such questions, or just sit in the fresh air and listen. “Arborhythm” is full of brooding disorientation as this imitation of city sounds (cars, sounds, random clangs) mixes with actual city sounds (cars, sounds, random clangs) over your shoulder.

So you listen more carefully. If this is the end result, if this is the end result of the entire exhibition, it would be so harmonious.



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