When Music Changed the World

„You say you want another revolution?“


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Many missed what was likely the greatest moment of the 1960s. Because of delays, the headliner of the Woodstock Festival, Jimi Hendrix, only appeared on Monday morning at 8 a.m. and the crowd in front of the stage was noticeably thin. But Hendrix didn't care. He just went ahead and did what he always did: He grabbed his guitar, plugged it into the amplifier and began to play. But what he played became nothing short of a three-minute revolution.

  • Author: Gunter Ulrich
  • Photos: V&A Museum London

Not because Hendrix pushed his tremolo to the limit, savagely bending the notes. Not because his guitar howled and screeched. But because his performance was an extremely political statement. Every note was an indictment, an expression of mourning and protest, a cry of anger against the American war in Vietnam and for freedom and resistance.

„If you are wondering where the world is heading, you have to look to the 1960s for answers.“

Forty-seven years later, this moment, this Monday in August 1969, is being revived in the V&A Museum in London, with the help of the AMBEO® 3D audio system. On September 10, an exhibition is opening its doors to bring the rebels and heroes of the late 1960s into the present. It is called "You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970" and is curated by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, who enjoyed significant success with their 2013 exhibition on David Bowie, another music rebel. Sennheiser is the exhibition's official partner, responsible for the innovative sound experience with its immersive audio installation at the world's leading museum for art, design and performing arts.

"Values that were in focus during the 1960s become pertinent once again: emancipation, tolerance, anti-racism and equal rights for all," says Martin Roth, director of the V&A. He hopes to convey those values, but he also wants the exhibition to serve as a warning to museum-goers. "You have to wonder how are we approaching these values today? We have created a very entertaining exhibition, but it raises difficult questions at the same time."

In one of the exhibition's main rooms, Hendrix's performance is projected onto four giant screens. Black-and-white images show how his face remains expressionless at the beginning before opening his mouth wide. His screams are the tones coming from his guitar, which mirror the bombs and gunfire in Vietnam. Eight Sennheiser speakers transport the groundbreaking sound from the past to the London of today. In addition, Sennheiser's GuidePort system conveys the era's soundtrack to exhibition visitors.

With its upmix algorithm, the AMBEO® 3D system gives listeners goose bumps, and not just because of the historical significance of the tones. The screeching of the guitar comes from above, below, right and left, with the screams and applause from the audience coming from behind. The 3D sound technology has no sweet spot, so the listener thinks that the sound is coming from everywhere. You can feel the atmosphere of the festival, considered today to be the apex of the hippie movement and an event that became legendary in counter-culture America.

„The AMBEO® system is an element of the exhibition on its own. It is a new and unique experience for visitors.“

"It is important today to bring together diverse technologies in an exhibition," says Roth. The museum director explains that there is nothing more boring than lifeless mannequins wearing beautiful dresses. He puts on exhibitions that become vivid and alive through the use of film, photography and music. "The AMBEO® system is an element of the exhibition on its own. It is a new and unique sound experience for visitors."

"It wasn't just about having a fantastic sound quality at this exhibition," says curator Marsh. "We wanted to convey how the music was listened to." Sennheiser proved to be the perfect partner for the project. "It was a privilege working with the sound engineers who came from Hanover and installed this incredible sound system," says Marsh. "It has an enormous influence on the listeners – it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck."

Beneath the speakers, on the green, artificial grass on the floor, there are several beanbag chairs along with a glass cabinet displaying the remnants of a guitar destroyed by Hendrix in addition to two of his undamaged Fenders.

Curators Broackes and Marsh have brought together more than 600 objects for the exhibition. They include the suit worn by George Harrison in the Sgt. Pepper video, John Lennon's lyrics for "Imagine," penned on New York Hilton note paper, and drums used by The Who. They also include original pieces of clothing and, of course, loads of record covers, instruments, paintings and posters. The most important objects are what Broackes describes as the "backbone of the exhibition": the more than 200 LPs from radio legend John Peel's sizable collection.

Revolution Records
„With a soundtrack in their ears, visitors experience so much more than they would if they just looked at things in glass boxes.“

An Exhibition that Pushes the Limits

"We wanted to present an exhibition that pushes the limits of the exhibition concept," says Broackes. There have already been a number of exhibitions about the 1960s, but they have always been monothematic, focusing on fashion, posters or music. "We saw the ties between these areas," she continues. "By bringing them together, we can present the different objects in new way while at the same time reflecting on the significance they have today."

She and Marsh weren't interested in nostalgia; they wanted to create an exhibition with modern-day relevance. In light of the upcoming presidential election in the US, Brexit developments in Britain and the current situation in Europe, the Sixties have enormous significance for both Roth and Broackes. "It was a time of dreams and of making those dreams come true," she says. "If you ask yourself today how you can actually achieve your really big goals, you have to look back at the people of the 1960s."

At a time when a person in England could still be hanged for certain crimes and both abortion and homosexuality were illegal, music took on an important role. "Newspapers and television stations were mostly controlled by the government," says Marsh. "But music connected all young people." Music was the globally understood form of communication and took on the role that social media plays today, he explains. "At the end of the '60s, music made people feel like they were part of the broader world." He believes the roots of the environmental movement can be traced back to this time, in addition to the push for gay rights and our modern era of communication. "This all seems totally normal to us today. That's why we focused on the key figures who provoked enormous turbulence in the arts, music and politics during the five years between 1966 and 1971."

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The exhibition itself is a revolution. A sound revolution providing the ultimate listening experience. "Without its soundtrack, the exhibition would be nothing," says Marsh. What he means is that the principle for museums has remained the same for hundreds of years: Visitors would walk through the rooms and look at things. "We realized with the David Bowie exhibition that it is possible to make the museum experience a lot more exciting for visitors," says Marsh. One way to do so is by providing them with headphones that play the appropriate song for each topic or space." Sennheiser has provided us with the visionary, perfect sound for our exhibition," says Marsh. This new way of listening also transforms the content. "Visitors experience it in an entirely different way. They aren't as stiff – sometimes they dance or sing along as they make their way through the rooms. Music relaxes people. People experience so much more than they would if they were just looking at things in a glass box."

Sound engineer Carolyn Downing is responsible for this immersive soundtrack. She took it from the original vinyl and mixed it so that its authenticity can be heard – the scratch of the turntable needle rather than the crystal-clarity of modern sound. "Young people should experience the character of music as it was back then," says Downing. "We want to give visitors the feeling they are right in the middle of the Sixties."

It should give them a feeling, but also make them think. "Every visitor should go home with a question in the back of their mind," says co-curator Victoria Broackes. "What revolution will be next?"

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A Museum, London until 26 February 2017.

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