Apr 152012

Black Sun

I recently spent on a few days up in Seattle enjoying the uncharacteristic sun, and the characteristic strong coffee, cold beer, and heavily blue and green landscapes that that city offers. And while I strongly associate Seattle with music, during my 5 days there, I noticed other ways that music is closely entwined with the visual art culture.

Exhibit 1: Theaster Gates, The Listening Room at Seattle Art Museum. Yeah, yeah, your MOMA has dj nights and rooftop parties, but Theaster Gates’ exhibit offers (in his words) “critique through collaboration” and an altar to the African-American experience through the soul, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop music from the ’60s to ’80s. Like a church, there are lights highlighting the immense record collection gleaned from the now defunct Dr. Wax record store in Chicago, the pulpit-like dj booth, a case where instead of the topic of today’s sermon, letters spelled out: “SUP BBY GURL,” and gothic arch-backed chairs and benches. One entire wall is lined with albums. And in the center of the floor, gently bathed in a spot light, was an old-school turntable, headphones and several crates of records. I spent quite a bit of time leafing through and listening to the albums, experiencing nostalgia at the $6.99 price tags, the double-leaf album format and the feel of old cardboard. While I was flipping through albums by Rick James, The Three Degrees, Grover Washington, Prince, Willis Jackson, and Jean Luc Ponty, a mother and toddler son came in to the room. He started to dance to the music; she asked him, “Do you know who this is?” She offered him a second clue: “It’s Aunt Sue’s favorite musician,” and the little kid replied, “Stevie Wonder!” That alone was worth the price of museum admission.

Exhibit 2: Soundgarden, the Artists’ Band. Years ago, a friend took me to a sculpture in Magnusun Park, the 1982 work by Doug Hollis entitled, “A Sound Garden.” Parallel to the beach, a series of tall steel pipes are arranged and when the wind blows by (which is about 99% of the time), slots in the pipes allow them to act like a pipe organ and emit all sorts of eerie notes and chords. Here’s a video of the sculpture in action:

I tried to find it again but access is now limited as it’s adjacent to NOAA property. My friends thought I had been hallucinating, but this year, I found another piece of art that the band Soundgarden adopted. In Volunteer Park is a large black stone disc with a central opening. Locals refer to it as “The Black Hole” but the name of this 1969 sculpture by Isamu Noguchi is “Black Sun.” A hit single is born. When you peer through the hole, you are able to see the Space Needle and…

Architecture on drugs.

Exhibit 3: The Experience Music Project. I felt a little let down by the contents of this music museum, but all of it (including an extensive science fiction collection) is housed in a Frank Gehry building said to resemble a smashed electric guitar. Inside, I wandered through exhibits on Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, and spent a lot of time in another room watching and listening to musician/producer/critic interviews. The EMP also includes a room full of guitars and basses, some which are so beautiful they look like objects d’art. And then there is the famous “Roots and Branches” sculpture: a huge assembly of guitars and other instruments swirling up in to the ceiling and beyond. You can also listen to the individual components through headphones. In my two hours there, I didn’t even make it upstairs to the Sound Lab, where it is advertised that I could “play a variety of instruments, lay down tracks, and purchase a CD of your performance.” This is certainly better than what I imagine a Hard Rock Cafe to be like.

So next time you consider a visit to Seattle, come for the music and stay for the art.


  3 Responses to “Sound and Vision”

  1. trigmogigmo

    Sounds like very interesting places to spend some time. I haven’t spent time in Seattle since well before the “Experience” existed. Next time I’m up there for a conference or visiting distant relatives I’ll be sure to take some extra time for some exploration.

    From that angle/photo the Gehry architecture looks more like a melted car engine to me than a smashed guitar….

  2. ladymisskirroyale

    I was pleasantly surprised, too.

    I’ve been traveling up to Seattle somewhat regularly since the early 90’s and every visit finds something new. It helps that there are great markets and restaurants there, too. But as a CA native, it seems that art (music and visual arts) is interspersed with daily living to a greater degree and in less precious way, and isn’t announced as loudly as in NY.

    I’m really interested in other peoples’ perceptions and whether their cities offer something similar. Maybe it’s these smaller cities that are more willing to take artistic risks.

  3. Seattle must be the Hall’s most-covered trippin’ destination, that is, pieces tagged as rock tourist reports. I will always encourage Townspeople to write up a report on a rock mecca that they have visited.

    I had no idea that Soundgarden’s name and biggest song were derived from their own rock landscape.

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