All of the sounds around
Svend Brown is greatly impressed by a spectacular exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the recording giant EMI. The exhibition that has just opened at Edinburgh's City Art Centre, Music 100, is part of the centenary celebrations of the recording giant EMI, which include the establishment of a new charitable trust. The Music Sound Foundation will provide funds for musical education, some of which will be generated by the takings from this exhibition.
Music 100 is a "must-see" exhibition - three floors of fascinating information, sensationally presented. It takes a "time tunnel" approach, so that as you walk through the exhibition you walk through the century. En route you learn not merely about one recording company but about the whole social history of 20th century music. The period detail and set-dressing is stunning. The elaborate and realistic mock-ups include First World War trenches, an art deco set for the Thirties and a Fifties coffee bar, all lovingly recreated by the Castle Museum in York - who are old hands at this sort of thing.
But although the exhibition is saturated with visual images, it is still the sounds that are most powerfully evocative. That is brought home by the "Sound Points" - 10 jukeboxes dotted around the exhibition, each holding the essential sounds of a single decade. Take the Thirties: what would they be without Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again" or Ginger and Fred tapping their way into people's dreams? Or the Fifties without Elvis and Bill Haley? Of the non-musical recordings on show, the most extraordinary must be the one of Florence Nightingale. It is impossible to make out every word, but there is enough to confirm that she sounded every bit as formidable as she looked.
Parallel to the social history is the mapping of technological change. As it should be, this is the most interactive aspect of the presentation. You enter the exhibition in the age of the wax cylinder, and the first opportunity to participate is at the door: record your own voice on to wax and see how it sounds.
Later, you can create your own mix of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", and explore the worlds of stereo, sampling and magnetic tape. There are masses of buttons to press. Let's hope that queues for the different installations do not clog the works.
To go with the exhibition, EMI has produced an education pack for teachers, Tune In, targeted at 5-14 levels B-D. It includes a wide range of teaching materials covering everything from the science of sound to a practical exercise involving the creation and marketing of a pop band. It does not rely on children attending the exhibition, but many of its topics are covered in workshops at the gallery too.
All in all the exhibition is a triumph. I have only two reservations, both of which may merely show my age. The pop really does eclipse the classical music, allowing scant reflection of EMI's central role in nurturing great classical artists throughout the century. The closer you get to 1997 the more marginalised it becomes: Dame Nellie Melba, Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are there, but Stephen Kovacevich, Roberto Alagna and Barbara Hendricks only just. Maybe only the earlier portions of the exhibition will really fascinate classical enthusiasts.
The other problem is an unfortunate side-effect of Music 100's bravura style. From the moment you cross the threshold, you are surrounded by sound and visuals: everywhere you turn there is another screen, more music, flashing lights and a surround-sound montage soundtrack. It is as exciting and exhausting as an amusement arcade. Kids will love it, but overload will come at different points for different people. I was glad to escape after an hour, despite the wonders on offer.
The EMI Education Pack is available, free, from P O Box 503, Leicester LE94 0AD. Details of available funds from the Music Sound Foundation, co 43 Brook Green, London W6 7EF