In a pitch-black exhibit space in the back of alternative nonprofit radio station KEXP’s new Seattle Center digs, Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir glides backward into a nearly invisible net, arms splayed as if falling back into a wave. As the net catches her body, pink lights illuminate her from above, and the ethereal music coming from the speaker behind her crescendos. She bounces back and does a little dance. The sound returns to normal. It’s particularly exciting because the song that’s playing is by her band, Samaris.
It’s like a “physical remix,” Magnúsdóttir, a clarinetist, said. “You get kind of childish in there.”
The Icelandic trio was one of four artists picked by Kevin Cole, KEXP DJ and chief content officer, who curated the installation. Samaris’ song plays in a loop with trippy tracks by alt-J, Olafur Arnalds and Floating Points.
“It’s totally cool,” Cole said in the neon-tinted darkness. “I felt like, coming from the outside, I’ve entered this weird, warm cocoon of music that was washing over me. After going through the whole cycle I felt like I was transformed or transported into a whole different experience. My day had shifted.”
It’s exactly the kind of thing Cole hopes the new space can offer listeners.
“It’s important to use the physical space as a means for people to have these new forms of experiences,” he said.
“This is just an incredible example and experiment of what we might be able to do. Our listeners want to hear new music and new sounds, and they want to have new experiences. Walking through here is like an experience they’ve never had before.”
Microsoft has partnered with KEXP over the years through its nonprofit software and grant program, and Inside the Music is the latest manifestation of their innovative relationship.
“We’ve been increasingly working with artists and other music-oriented organizations to push the boundaries of how music and technology come together,” said Jeff Hansen, general manager of brand strategy for Microsoft. “KEXP talks about ‘on air, online, and on the streets,’ and this has really been a manifestation of ‘on the streets.’”
Microsoft and KEXP created the space in a yet-unused portion of KEXP’s new studio — about 4,000 square feet that will eventually be converted into somewhat less inspiring office space. Inside the Music uses Kinect sensors to read visitors’ interactions with the net, creating an intuitive and eternally changing musical exhibit. It’s like musical acupuncture, with each pressure point eliciting a new reaction from a body of sound. After the initial wonder and timidity wear off, the experience can be therapeutic – a place where visitors seem to forget about dichotomies of the senses and become one with the experience. At one point I found my own head undulating into the net, with each pulse drawing out a delightful percussion pop, and I could have gone on like that for much longer if no one was giving me strange looks.
“We wanted to create an experience for people to go inside of music,” Steve Milton, the project’s creative director from Listen, explained. “The whole idea was to break down the division between performer and audience and explore, as technology is allowing both consumers and creators to love music, to experience it in new ways. This was a way to explore that in a kind of physical space.”
For many, watching Samaris interact with the exhibit was the most powerful part of the day.
“It was excitement, a rush in a way,” said Jófríður Ákadóttir, Samaris’ lead singer. “I know the piece very well, and I’m used to interacting with it while singing, but this is entirely different. It was thrilling in a weird way, something I’ve never experienced before.”
Like her band mate, Ákadóttir had no idea what to expect, and she’s excited for the future of music and technology.
“It’s positive to see things like this. The possibilities are endless, and it’s strange that we’re just stuck in this — just a laptop, and if you want to do something extravagant, you use lights. And that’s where it ends, pretty much.”
She wondered out loud about what’s next. Could technology like this be made smaller, into an app, or brought on stage?
“This is super inspiring to see,” Ákadóttir said.
“You’re pushing it, and you’re making it physical, and you’re making it kind of alive. You’re interacting with the music, which I think is beautiful.”