Music Is More Than Just Sound

This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

The flute music was, you know, good flute music. But for the hushed audience at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s kickoff event in February of its “Art of Noise” exhibition, the breathy scales constituted only part of the experience.

The colorful outfit belonging to the flutist (who was André 3000, by the way) was the experience, too. The crisp speakers were the experience, the smoke machine was the experience. And the two lasers passing through a glass of water balanced atop a traffic cone center stage — André 3000 has a growing interest in traffic cones, he had announced earlier — was the experience.

Music is music. But music is also the stuff surrounding the music.

From May 4 through Aug. 18, SFMOMA will illustrate this truism with an exhibition of visual and technological artifacts, plucked from music’s low orbit. “Art of Noise” comprises more than 800 pieces — among them early listening devices, cutting-edge speakers and iconic album covers — loosely grouped under the heading of design. Four more sound installations generate some artful noise all their own. But the show’s true subject might be our very relationship to music.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “The White Album,” Coltrane live at Birdland: On their own, these are but air molecules vibrating across our eardrums. Music becomes sacred partly through the material culture it inspires.

And just as music shapes design — think jazz album cover versus metal album cover — design also codes how we hear music. In an old Xeroxed flyer for a punk show was information on how to absorb those songs; in an iconic ad for Maxell cassette tapes lurked signals about the spirit of rock.

The show opens at a funny moment. Never has music been easier to listen to — or to ignore. Easy digital access to virtually any recording ever paradoxically diminishes our connection to all of it. Immersing oneself in a single cherished cassette for months on end, knowing the whir of the rewind button deep in the memory of a fingertip: Gone!

But gone is an invitation to reflect — to appreciate how we got here, and to imagine what’s coming.

“Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time,” Jean-Michel Basquiat is said to have remarked. But sometimes art decorates music, and nowhere was this more trippily vivid than the heyday of the psychedelic rock poster in San Francisco.

Four bright walls of these wild lithographs have been assembled here, a small shrine to a brain-melting era. Borrowing from Art Nouveau, acid trips and beyond, the posters existed to bring news of upcoming concerts; as with the space-age stereos and vintage headphones elsewhere in this exhibition, they were delivery technology. A concert promoter like Bill Graham would commission an artist to hype the upcoming Grateful Dead show and a week later, voilà. As advertisements, they were hard to read — this filtered out the squares — and even harder to overlook.

“The musicians were turning up their amplifiers to the point where they were blowing out your eardrums,” the rock poster artist Victor Moscoso once said in an interview. “I did the equivalent with the eyeballs.”

Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the ’60s rock poster has become overrepresented in the popular imagination of this city. But also like the Golden Gate, it bears a closer look. There’s nuance in those garish squiggles, unexpected variety from one poster to the next. And when you behold hundreds of them, cheek by swirling jowl in every imaginable color, something bigger comes into focus: a moment in time when music caused an American city to be plastered, week after week, in a new art genre all its own.

Years back, as Devon Turnbull was making a name for himself with his popular streetwear line, Nom de Guerre, he began to notice something troubling. His first love had been music — but that new iPod in his pocket was making a casual listener of him.

“I wasn’t having the meaningful experiences with music I had when I was younger. I wanted a deeper connection,” Turnbull said in a phone interview.

Trained as an audio engineer, Turnbull got to work creating a new kind of sound system, one that might rekindle that connection. Working under the name Ojas and sourcing obscure parts from Japan, he built Brutalist-looking amps and speakers that soon found cult followings — though not for their perfect fidelity.

“The way I design an audio system is not the way most high-end audio manufacturers would,” he said. “I design equipment that delivers more emotional content, not necessarily better specifications.”

In “HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 2,” created just for the exhibition, visitors can sink into that emotional content. Located in its own gallery, the smallish space has an austere, spaceship-like feel, but then you hear it: a stream of vinyl and reel-to-reel picks from various genres, each geared toward uncannily deep and naturalistic listening. It feels, as Turnbull put it, like, the musician’s “energy is actually in the room.”

“It’s as if he’s not building speakers so much as ears,” said Joseph Becker, SFMOMA’s associate curator of architecture and design and the curator of “Art of Noise.”

It was the early ’80s when music and design collided to blow Jesper Kouthoofd’s mind. The young Swede had beheld the civilizational leap that was the Sony Walkman, and its ability to make beloved music portable. Suddenly, impossibly, Kraftwerk could ride the bus to school with him.

Nearly half a century later, Kouthoofd makes a living blowing other minds with music and design. Teenage Engineering, the consumer electronics company he co-founded, creates futuristic synthesizers, speakers and other audio equipment. Some years back, the group came out with “Choir,” a set of eight speakers in the form of wooden dolls that form a kind of algorithmically programmed chorus. The dolls displayed here in the small media gallery belt out songs from a variety of genres, from barbershop to Baroque. The robotic choir also listens to itself via Bluetooth and, using counterpoint melody, devises original improvisations, bar by bar.

“In Sweden back in the day, everyone had an organ in their homes instead of a TV,” Kouthoofd said by phone. “The church organ is my favorite instrument, like the voice from God. It is very similar to my next favorite, the choir.”

All religions have their own soundscape, Kouthoofd added. This soundscape, by extension, might conjure its own strange religion.

One piece stands apart from the others — literally, on the museum’s second-floor outdoor landing. Against the backdrop of Natoma Street, a narrow jumble of tall and short office buildings, a mini copse of tree-ish sculptures rises. Approach these colorful metal tubes and it becomes clear they’re speakers, and they’re talking to us.

Or we’re talking to us. From a collection of local field recordings — church bells, foghorns, the rattle of a cable car — the Japanese artist and musician Yuri Suzuki was commissioned to compose a remixed soundtrack of San Francisco itself. (Dedicated sound sculpture heads will be reminded of Audium, the city’s pioneering sound art theater.) Using artificial intelligence, the piece combs the database of recordings for sounds with similar waveforms, then blends them into evolving patterns.

Is a city’s soundscape music? Wait, what even is music? You may ponder such questions or just sit there in the fresh air, hearing. A meditative disorientation suffuses “Arborhythm,” as this pastiche of urban sounds (cars, voices, random clanking) mingles with the actual urban sounds (cars, voices, random clanking) just over your shoulder.

And so you listen closer. If this is the end result — if this is the end result of the entire exhibition — that would be harmonious indeed.

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