Swoopy Hang On What's interesting about Paul Allen's Experience Music Project is that it's got music in the title; it's not the Experience Rock and Roll Project. As the second big pop music museum in the country?a second attempt by searching, tormented baby boomers worried that their youthful passion might not be remembered by the ages as the world-changing force they believe it to have been?it's the first to consider, obliquely, if not exactly in its content, an explosive musical century that includes Hank Williams and Duke Ellington, and might note Louis Jordan as something more than a distinguished stepping-stone to the conception of Little Richard. I haven't been there, so I don't actually know. What I do know is this: the fourth-richest man in the world owned the guitar Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock, plus numerous other pieces of Hendrixiana. Shamed that Seattle's sole tribute to Hendrix, a native Seattleite, was a heated rock at the zoo, he aspired to build a museum in which to enshrine the guitar. Negotiations with Hendrix's estate went badly, and Allen consoled himself by brightly switching his project from a temple to Jimi to a temple for music itself. Music: which this writer considers to be a vast and nebulous thing that is greater than poetry, greater than language, greater than mathematics, maybe greater than all its cousins except the sense of sound itself.
The E.M.P. and its accompanying website earnestly maintain that their purpose is to teach the kids to rock. The stuff on the webpage is funny to a jaded big-city know-it-all like myself, stuff like the Guitar Lick of the Day, and a Term of the Day (the day I wrote this it was "compression," a studio term that I doubt any young aspirant, regardless of precociousness, would be interested in, or for that matter could understand from just the recorded examples on the Web), but I wonder if some kid who wanted to make music would actually find it useful. Certainly, when I was in junior high and learning to play guitar, I found some good basic instructional substance from such corny sources as PBS' Rockschool. The fact is that hard information on how to play rock music is very scarce out there in the terrible suburban world. Which raises the question?if he really wanted to bring rock power to the kids, why didn't he buy a shitload of cheap electric guitars, hire a bunch of unemployed musicians as instructors and dispatch them in Rockmobiles to the far corners of the nation?
Because he wanted to build a big cool building. Which, really, I have no beef with. And I imagine a kid would most thoroughly enjoy a giant fake tree made of guitars, or a massive "swoopy" building that a monorail passes through. It's kind of like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, except it's not about rockets and biplanes, it's about music. Why not? Why shouldn't a billionaire spend money on his hobbies, just like an amateur guitarist of less spectacular means?
And that's precisely what Allen is?a hobbyist and an amateur guitarist. I'm fascinated by these tales of Allen hiring top-drawer rock musicians to play his parties?Carlos Santana, for instance?and then leaping up onstage with them to play guitar on the encores. Surely it'd be difficult to find a famous rock guy who got paid a ton of dough for the private gig to come out and say, Yeah, we let the guy who paid us come onstage, and of course he was lousy, but what the fuck, he was a really nice guy, and he flew us first-class, and he paid us double our regular guarantee and we got a day off in Venice besides. But I'm pretty sure that's the case. The website itself is almost purely the domain of the amateur guitarist. Nothing on the front page addresses the drummer or the keyboardist, much less the trumpeter or the turntablist. There's a link to bass tablature, but that's kind of the guitar that the less aggressive kid whose friend already has a guitar gets stuck with. And there's nothing about learning how to sing, which Patti Smith, interviewed on the site, might be able to tell you is something that in fact can be learned, that can be created out of the sheer will to sing, and doesn't have to be a gift from the Lord.
The amateur guitarist is the would-be rock star Everyman. A friend of mine went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and said that it's a terrible place to go if you're a guitar player, because there're hundreds of them, but an awesome place to go if you're a French horn player, because there're like three. People who play instruments other than guitar tend to revile guitar players, because guitar players tend to know the least about music. Because, really, they're not interested in music, they're interested in guitar playing. And that's the vibe I get from the E.M.P. site.
A couple years back, the conventional wisdom was that music was beginning to wane as the central element of youth culture; rather than identifying themselves by the music they listened to, young people were beginning to define themselves by activities. Skateboarding, snowboarding, video games, website design, etc. In 1998 it seemed just as likely for a tv actor to appear on the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone as it would be for a singer. So there was a great surge of music companies trying to bundle their artists with video games and snowboarding videos, and in general to create sources of income other than simple CD sales. Due to the advent of MP3 file-sharing, it might not be unwise for a person who earns his money making music to keep investigating these avenues. But it's also arguable that Napster?and perhaps the thrill of minor piracy that accompanies it?has provided music with a function as an activity, and thus?in tandem with the teen pop, which trains young people to be music consumers at ridiculously early ages?maybe the teen/pop symbiosis has a couple decades left in it yet. So maybe this indirect relationship with a potentially revitalized music culture justifies Allen's right to have a big fat Frank Gehry-designed gloat fest.
But it's intriguing to me that the E.M.P. site shows little concern for the computer itself as an instrument. In five years it will be possible for a kid who wants to play music to have at his command an almost infinite capacity for multitrack recording, along with every guitar, keyboard, bass, drum and horn sound that's been fashionable in the past 50 years, sitting right there on his hard drive. You can get this today for a few thousand bucks; in five years it very well might be cheaper than the cost of a Sears-catalog Christmas-gift guitar. Rather than learning an instrument and searching for compatriots who play the bass and the drums, any kid with a G4 will sensibly opt to replicate any musical ensemble he could dream up. The palace of the amateur guitarist that Paul Allen has built may well become an equivalent to a vaudeville hall of fame.