EMP Rocks Seattle: Experience the Music
Seattle found itself in a media frenzy last summer when
billionaire Paul Allen presented his exuberant Experience
Music Project (EMP) to the world. Allen's interactive museum--an
ode to guitar great Jimi Hendrix--awed, inspired and had
many people shaking their heads in bewilderment over its
twisted metal exterior. Some compared the architecture to
a squashed tin can, but crowds still came by the thousands
to discover the music inside.
Daunted by press reports of waiting lines snaking around
the block and back, at first I let EMP do its thing without
me. Because I'm hearing impaired, the music world has gone
by pretty much without my notice for the past several decades,
although I admittedly rocked to Hendrix in person at the
1969 Newport Pop Festival.
Last month though, I had a great reason to explore EMP.
I work for Eastside Employment Services, a non-profit agency
in the Seattle area that helps people with disabilities
find employment and supports them throughout their careers.
One of our clients, 21-year-old Jenny Harris, had recently
landed a wonderful job--her first--and she wanted to celebrate
her prized first paycheck with a trip to EMP. Jenny, who
has a developmental disability, was blessed with perfect
pitch and thought it would be cool to be in a place that
was totally music.
The initial tidal wave of visitors had receded, and a quiet
EMP greeted the five of us: Jenny in her supercharged wheelchair;
Bekki Redfern, Jenny's aide and navigator; Lisa Fox, Jenny's
employment coordinator from Eastside Employment and a musician
herself; me; and Rosie, my German shepherd hearing dog.
We found ourselves among those shaking their heads at the
exterior design of EMP. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry,
famous for his use of bold colors and atypical shapes, stayed
in character when he molded EMP. Having more of a Bach personality
than a Hendrix fetish, Gehry bought several electric guitars
when he first came to Seattle and cut them into pieces to
study their shapes, colors and textures. These elements
were the beginnings of the structure that symbolizes the
energy and fluidity of music--and possibly the electric
guitars that Hendrix invariably smashed during each performance.
The first impression of the interior of EMP is one of high
tech design and almost industrial space. With few visitors
at this mid-morning hour, it felt almost cavernous and strangely
quiet for a venue dedicated to high decibel rock and roll.
After navigating the ticketing area and having our hands
stamped concert-like, we entered the celestial, 85-foot
high Sky Church that broadcasts to the heavens on the largest
indoor video screen in the world. This dramatic reception/performance
area is named for Hendrix's vision of a Sky Church where
all kinds of people--regardless of age, background or interests--could
come together to appreciate music.
If the ADA had been written in the O60s, Hendrix might well
have added "regardless of disabilities" in his
vision of Sky Church. From the very conception of EMP, access
to all visitors was a priority. Nationally recognized accessibility
consultant Kevin McGuire--who uses a wheelchair--was hired,
and the designers and architects worked with the Seattle
disabilities community to ensure easy access to all parts
of the museum. However, as Facilities Manager Mike Allison
said, EMP is a unique, one-of-kind "experience"--sort
of a cross between a work of art and Disneyland--and accommodations
are constantly being fine-tuned as the need becomes apparent.
As we were being fitted with a Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG),
our personal listening device, I discovered the first area
where that fine-tuning would be appreciated. I use an infrared
listening system at home while watching television, so I
assumed that MEG and I would get along just fine. MEG's
voice, however, was so low that even with the volume at
full tilt I was unable to hear her directions. According
to Allison, the MEG system has since had an overhaul, and
the results are helpful to both normal hearing and hearing
After leaving the ethereal Sky Church, we went in search
of decibels but were stopped short by an imposing two-story
sculpture comprised of over 600 guitars and other instruments
donated from around the country. This "Roots and Branches"
tree of music really grabbed Jenny's attention, especially
since 40 of the instruments were playing themselves. She
declared it "awesome".
Still looking for some heavy-duty music, we continued to
the popular Sound Lab on the third floor, which was easily
accessible by elevator. Here, using interactive technology,
visitors can learn to play electric guitars, basses, keyboards
and drums, or even experiment with mixers and microphones.
Jenny and Lisa, both excellent vocalists, went into a sound
room for a duet, while Rosie and I headed for the drums,
one instrument I figured I could hear. A computer equipped
with speakers vocally leads visitors through the basics
of playing the instrument, but since it lacked a closed
captioning option, I was a little lost until the Sound Lab
supervisor coached me on the finer points of thumping a
drum. It was a kick really, although I'm not sure Rosie
appreciated the unusual noise I was making.
All of us got together to try the Jam-o-Drum located in
the center of the Sound Lab. A large table-like structure
(at an appropriate height for those in wheelchairs) houses
drums which use velocity sensitivity to measure the impact
of our hands, creating larger or smaller graphics depending
on how hard we banged on the surface. The graphics also
moved in synch with our rhythm, creating a psychedelic aura
in the dim atmosphere. Adding to my appreciation of the
Jam-o-Drum were woofers embedded in the floor that send
vibes right through your feet.
We moved from the Sound Lab to On Stage, a theatrical experience
where visitors can sing and play guitar, keyboard or drums
on stage--with lighting, background and even frenzied fans
simulated to provide real-life quality. Jenny excitedly
named her group "Jenny and the Girls," although
Rosie and I opted to remain backstage due to the extremely
high decibel level when things got rocking. Jenny headed
up the band on the keyboard, Bekki wielded the sticks and
Lisa took up the electric guitar for a 15-minute jam session.
Although they received automated assistance on the instruments,
they were actually able to create music and sing, while
a digital camera snapped a shot to capture the experience
in a color poster. After her moment of fame, Jenny came
out of the soundstage glowing with excitement, declaring
it the absolute, best experience ever. Her poster gets top
billing in her family's living room.
Since she gets sick on "rides," Jenny decided
to pass on Artist's Journey, the closest thing to a Disney-like
attraction at EMP, but Lisa and I wanted to experience James
Brown's Funk Blast video that we'd heard so much about.
However, this is one area of EMP that doesn't meet federal
guidelines for accessibility for people with disabilities,
including those with service animals. Visitors sit buckled
in on a state-of-the-art motion platform, and there's no
way to secure dogs while the platform gyrates to music.
There are transfer seats available for individuals using
a wheelchair, but because of the simulated aerial acrobatics,
they must have upper body control and be able to support
themselves in an upright position. Pregnant women and people
with heart and other conditions are also advised to skip
We lucked out though, as they made an exception and let
me and Rosie peek through the curtains in the back of the
room and watch not only the video but also the platform
dancing around in the dark, swaying when James Brown swayed
and bucking in reaction to heart-stopping sensory and lighting
effects. From her seat center stage, Lisa found it engaging
all of her senses; very funkadelic, like being in the front
row of a great concert. Rosie, however, had a different
reaction to Funk Blast. Normally very mellow no matter what
the environment, she tried to head for the door several
times when body shuddering vibrations and lightning-bolt
visual effects ripped through the room.
After that sensory load we took a break for lunch at the
museum's Turntable restaurant, which serves surprisingly
upscale food ranging from a Lobster BLT Pizza to a Waldorf
salad with shredded duck. However, the huge sandwiches with
piles of fries seemed to get the most votes, and--while
we didn't imbibe--we had fun with the creative cocktail
names: Blue Suede Booze, Lovely Rita Margarita, Experience
Citrus Project and Monkey Water for the kids. Our servers
were great, swapping fashion tips with Jenny and sharing
her excitement over the "Jenny and the Girls"
We meandered the rest of the afternoon through Crossroads,
where four main exhibits pay tribute to many Northwest artists
as well as musicians from around the country. We learned
more about the inspiration for EMP, Jimi Hendrix. An entire
room is devoted to guitars and how the instrument evolved
into the present day electric guitar. Allen has amassed
over 80,000 artifacts, with 1,200 of them currently on display,
including Hendrix's signed contract for his performance
at Woodstock in 1969; Quincy Jones' original trumpet from
his Seattle days in the O40s; and song lyrics handwritten
by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, circa 1988. The amazing costumes
are here too: Elvis Presley's black leather jacket, Janis
Joplin's floral bell-bottoms, Vivienne Westwood's punk "bondage"
outfit and Jimi Hendrix's orange velvet jacket.
Video displays flash everywhere in EMP--the massive screen
greeting visitors in Sky Church, videos banked on the walls
in Crossroads describing the creation of EMP and other displays,
a roomful in Artist's Journey pumping you up for Funk Blast--but
no closed captioning. When I asked Allison about this, he
said they're still wrestling with some issues and that it's
a challenge to integrate certain accommodations while maintaining
the essence of EMP. "We don't have all the answers
yet, but we are continually working on finding them."
We all gave EMP a thumb's up at the end of the day. Because
the project speaks in so many ways--through color, motion,
sight and sound--people can appreciate music here no matter
what their disability. As Jenny will agree, it's an awesome
experience. By Danielle M. Clarneaux Danielle Clarneaux
is public relations coordinator for Eastside Employment
Services in Bellevue, Washington and is also a freelance
writer and editor. Rosie is her 24/7 assistant. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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