Apr 29, 2015

A Design for Viewing - MoMA's 'Making Music Modern' Misuses Movies

'Making Music Modern', with William Dixon's kinetophone film greeting visitors on entry

The design wing of MoMA. It's on the third floor. If you've been to MoMA more than once, you've definitely been in there. It's one of the museum's most overlooked spaces, rarely hosting major exhibitions, sandwiched between the major exhibition spaces on the second floor and the permanent collection on the fourth and fifth floors. You're excused if you've walked by it. But it's always worth a look. Unfortunately right now it's not quite worth a listen.

'Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye' runs until November 1, 2015. As an exhibit, it demonstrates how popular music since the late 1800s has influenced designers and artists, who created imagery around it, or devices with which to listen to it. There's an iPod shaped like a crucifix, a number of posters and album covers of major 20th century musicians, 1960s inflatable furniture which "embodies the revolutionary spirit of its time",[1] musical instruments and mixing equipment, and even a phonograph, a creation of Thomas Edison's, the first device to be able to both record and play back music.

"Music is this invisible, intangible medium, but we couldn't hear or relate to it other than through design and architecture," curator Juliet Kinchin told The New York Times,[2] and a part of this is how music relates both to the moving image and its display. Indeed, in a small gallery space, it is hardly possible to use several audio tracks, even when the topic is music; the audio bleed would be abysmal. And since you can't really show moving images that relate to music without actually playing that audio, all of the audio in 'Making Music Modern' is attached to the three moving image screens spread through the gallery. And, to be blunt, it's a bit of a disaster.

The first A/V work, hanging from a screen directly to your left as you enter the gallery, is motion picture pioneer William Kennedy Dixon's kinetophone sound project (1894-95). It is a hugely important work, the first known attempt at the synchronisation of moving image and sound. The short film, barely 20 seconds long, features a man playing a violin into a photograph cone, while two men waltz clumsily in a circle to his music. Dixon's experiment was somewhat of a failure - he was unable to sync the wax cylinder recording with the film. But both survived, and in 1998 Library of Congress curator Patrick Loughney was able to repair damage to the cylinder and finally sync the works.

Since they have only ever existed together in sync in the digital realm, it is perfectly reasonable for this work to be digitally projected. The problem with the presentation of it in this gallery stems from the film's length. Repeated on an endless loop every 20 seconds, the scratchy violin sound floods the entire gallery with ear-worming ferocity, drowning out other A/V works, conversation, and at times thought. Watch it thrice below, and imagine listening that for an hour touring the whole gallery. There is nowhere in the space you can't hear it. It's been weeks now, and I feel like I can still hear it myself...

The second A/V work in the gallery is a Scopitone. Best described as a 16mm jukebox, these bright boxes contained up 36 short music films, all precursors to the modern music video, that could be selected from a list and would then be projected automatically on the external screen via a series of internal mirrors. They were popular in bars and diners in the 1950s and '60s, especially in France. The films tended to feature "the singer in luxurious locales and/or surrounded by scantily clad dancers",[3] which the films on display in 'Making Music Modern' aptly demonstrate.

The Scopitone, behind and to the right a video of Scopitone films

However, the Scopitone at MoMA is not actually running. Indeed, it would only damage the mechanics of the machine, and risk damage to the films themselves, if it were in operation, and usable by the public. Because it is in the design gallery, the curators have opted to focus on the design of the Scopitone itself, 5 feet tall in mirrored metal and fire hydrant red. A text panel in front of it explains in clear detail what the machine did and its history, while a small video screen next to this demonstrates the internal mechanics of the Scopitone in action and how it loaded individual films. A number of advertisements for Scopitones are found on text panels and the walls around it, but perhaps the key draw (although certainly without pride of place) is a large flat screen monitor on the wall behind and to the right of the Scopitone playing digitized copies of a number of Scopitone films. 

The films themselves have plenty to say to audiences today, demonstrating fashions and sensibilities from a bygone era. However, there are a number of concerns with this presentation. Firstly, the music is not played at a sufficient audio level, so the full effect of these music films cannot be demonstrated – in addition, the scratchy violin of William Dixon can still be heard lightly from across the room. Secondly, despite the in-depth and informative writing on the Scopitone, nowhere is there an information card telling visitors what Scopitone films are being played, what the songs are or who is performing. This is a huge oversight on behalf of the curators. Also, in one of the strangest attempts to stay faithful to the "original presentation" that I have ever witnessed, the digitized Scopitone films are flanked on the left by a digital image of a Scopitone's speaker, which sits similarly to the left of the monitor on the actual machine.

The additional benefit of this for display purposes is that that Scopitone films plus the speaker image now fill the entirety of the 16:9 ratio of the television monitor, rather than requiring letterboxing as most 16mm films do on contemporary screens. However, if indeed fidelity is the reason for screening these films with the speaker image attached, it is tremendously disappointing that the films shown are in such poor condition, most of them dramatically colour-faded with the image almost completely pink-shaded. Since there is clearly no easy way to show these films "as they were", given the condition of the originals, the digital image of the speaker seems all the more superfluous. 

Colour-faded Scopitone film. Digitised image of speaker almost visible on left.

The Scopitone is a well described and explained museum piece, it is a poorly presented one. So whereas an ideal of what the Dixon's kinetophone project could have been is represented at 'Making Music Modern', neither the real effect of the visuals nor the actual quality of the sound of the Scoptitone is being demonstrated. It all feels terribly redundant.

The final moving image work in 'Making Music Modern', and by far the largest, is projected on a screen at the southwest corner of the gallery space. It is a series of three short animated films that attempt to demonstrate the relationship between animation and music. There are two major problems. Firstly, one of the films on display has no music accompanying it, only dialogue and sound effects (it's not entirely out of place, given the emphasis on sound capture, but the theme is making music modern, after all). Secondly, you cannot hear any of it, as the speaker on the projector is too low and Dixon's violin is so audible in this space that it wasn't until the first film in this series I caught ended and the repetitive music kept going that I realised this was not its actual soundtrack.

Despite this disastrous presentation, the work themselves are very cannily selected, with matching wit and complementary animation styles. The first film it features is Tarantella (Mary Ellen Bute, 1940), a five-minute avant-garde animation, which is on the National Film Registry. The second is a television commercial for Midland Bank, labeled as 'Money Talks' (Robert Brownjohn, 1965). The third, and longest work at 10 minutes, is the charming pioneering animated short Adventures of an * (John Hubley and Faith Hubley, 1957) – Hubley was a former Disney animator but is more famous for his character Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, although the fact he worked on Fantasia (various, 1940) is perhaps more pivotal here.

The three are projected onto a screen about eight feet wide, on a digital loop. As a trio of films they mesh well together; each has an intentionally limited colour palette, using non-traditional animation and displaying a self-aware wit. However, while Tarantella has noteworthy music, a lively piano score by Edwin Gerschefski, and Adventures of an * has a playful jazz accompaniment by Benny Carter, 'Money Talks' feels out of place.

More embarrassing is the fact that the Midland Bank ad isn't Money Talks at all. It is a different commercial made by Brownjohn the same year, also for Midland Bank, called The Winner.[4] That curators at MoMA could confuse these works is understandable, but it is still deeply unfortunate and disappointing. The actual Money Talks can be seen in the video below. Although like The Winner, its lack of music also makes it a curious selection for this exhibit.

The fact that the audio tracks cannot be heard at all does rob these works of much of their power (and indeed limits their suitability for this exhibit. Adventures of an * can be deemed to work silently, since its story of growing old and forgetting how to imagine and play is carried across through onscreen text and character gestures, but the music was designed for it, and to allow Dixon's violin to drown that out seems disrespectful to the work. Tarantella comes off far worse in this instance -  without its piano accompaniment the film is just a series of flashing coloured shapes, robbing it of its impact as a work of avant garde cinema, bereft of the effect of "[Bute's syncopated spirals, shards, lines and squiggles danc[ing] exuberantly to Gershefsky's modern beat".[5]

Background animations for Adventures of an * are a welcome addition in the gallery space
What seems the biggest shame of all is how well the exhibit is curated as a whole. Some 130 years of history are beautifully painted in posters, and sculpted in technological design. The failure of the curator to truly understand the demonstration of moving images in a gallery space is one thing, but since these carry the only audio tracks to be heard throughout the space, it seems an unfortunate task to have engaged so lightly.

Three museum visitors sit on the bench in front of the three animated films, all of them with their backs to the works.

If music be the food of love, I'm full.

[1] 'Making Music Modern press notes', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 21

[2] Ben Sisario, 'Music and Design Nod at Each Other', The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/arts/artsspecial/moma-exhibit-is-devoted-to-sound-art.html 

[3] Noel Murray, Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, 'Let's all watch the Scopitone!', The AV Club, Jun. 6, 2011, http://www.avclub.com/article/lets-all-watch-the-scopitone-15-never-too-popular--57012

[4] Emily King, Robert Brownjohn: Sex and Typography, London, 2005, p. 158

[5] 'News from the Library of Congress', December 28, 2010, http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2010/10-273.html

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