Everyone knows what a museum is: a space dedicated to the contemplation of works of visual art. No comparable venues exist where visitors can listen to music in studio quality. “Playback Room”, a series of projects conceived by Wolfgang Tillmans, seeks to close this gap with a room specifically designed for listening to recorded music.
Concert halls allow us to experience live music, and operas are staged in buildings erected for the purpose. Studio music as a distinctive art form stands out for lacking venues dedicated to its reception, even though many musicians regard the final recording of a song or album as the true essence of their art. They spend months in the studio working hard to produce a version with optimum sound quality, yet most playback equipment — including home audio systems and portable devices as well as commercial audio installations — is not fit for perfect sound reproduction. In recent years, digital compression has compounded the widespread problem of low sound quality in playback.
Music is no doubt an important source of inspiration for visual artists, and many of them have favorite recordings they deeply admire. Most attempts to put music in exhibition spaces resort to paraphernalia; presentations of the music itself in suitable facilities, which would also require high-end speaker systems, are the rare exception. The project “Playback Room” hopes to initiate a critical discussion of this divide.
The Lenbachhaus’s Georg Knorr Auditorium is temporarily converted into a music playback room and equipped with a high-end hi-fi sound system that allows visitors to listen to music in the original recording quality. Two playlists supplied by Wolfgang Tillmans will be heard in the room. The first, compiled by Wolfgang Tillmans, will be composed specifically for the Lenbachhaus; it will also contain tracks that were already part of Tillmans’s “Salle Techno” at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1994. The second playlist, titled “Colourbox – Music of the group (1982–1987)”, has previously been presented in the project space Between Bridges in Berlin. Evening events and a symposium will round out the project.
Elisabeth Giers, Matthias Mühling
Playlist I: To Know When To Stop
February 16 – March 18, 2016
This playlist combines personal favorites with pieces that, to Wolfgang Tillmans’s ear, attained the greatest perfection in the original studio recording. It is music that has been on his mind for over thirty-five years, inspiring and influencing him with its structural layers and production qualities. Tracks that, when they were created, conveyed a promise and vision of the future, that were not, or were not meant to be, science fiction and yet sounded futuristic and utterly contemporary at once and made the feel of the present moment palpable in new sounds. The undiminished fascination of these tracks and the fact that musicians continue to study them, Tillmans believes, attest to their quality and their creators’ pioneering spirit, spurred by innovative developments in instruments and production technologies. To experience these acoustic masterpieces, we need to listen closely and carefully, and we need high-end playback equipment. This observation has prompted Tillmans to wonder why there are no dedicated venues that enable the public to listen to top-quality playbacks of studio music in all its nuances. What might such a venue be, what would it be like? And is the museum a suitable place to “display” music?
Playlist II: Colourbox – Music of the group (1982 – 1987)
March 19 – April 24, 2016
Colourbox’s approach to music-making predestines the band for a critical engagement with recorded music. They refused to perform live and were generally reluctant to mediate their work in forms other than the records they put out. The brothers Martyn and Steven Young together with Ian Robbins, Lorita Grahame, and Debian Curry were pioneers of experimental pop music. They created an eclectic sound, taking inspiration from reggae and soul, beat-box driven hip-hop rhythms, and blue-eyed soul as well as a fusion of influences ranging from classic R&B to dub and industrial.
Using montages of analogue magnetic tape bits and experimenting with tape machines, Colourbox were on the forefront of sampling, which in its digital form would become ubiquitous in the course of the 1980s. Yet although they preferred the seclusion of the studio, the label “artistic research” would not seem to fit, given the band’s ostensible anti-intellectualism. The sound qualities of their
tracks — sometimes soul-inspired, sometimes clashing and degraded, occasionally harsh — set them apart from 4AD label mates like Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil.
The band had considerable success in the independent charts but did not cross over into the mainstream until 1987, when they embarked on a collaboration with A.R. Kane under the name of M.A.R.R.S. and released the single Pump up the Volume, which went on to become an international no.1 hit. Almost entirely composed of unlicensed samples of music and sound pieces by other artists, the song triggered long-drawn legal battles and court actions that led Colourbox to stop recording; they never released music again.