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Back to the sounding board

A customized musical score modernizes the Natural History Museum's vibe.

February 02, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The rock band Autolux took on the room devoted to American machinery of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from farmers' reapers to a 1902 Oldsmobile to a strange, horned, table-top device known as a phonograph. The track begins with a lurching mechanic sequence, a melody gradually developing inside the machine rhythm amid throbbing pulses and high warbles suggestive of a short-wave radio.

Nels Cline, a guitarist who joined the rock band Wilco in 2004, took on one of the dinosaur rooms with a piece that builds to an oozing, clanging, extinction-suggesting climax. The atmospheric rock quartet Languis took on a dinosaur room and, having heard of the Arkestra's on-site performance, grabbed the chance to record there. Other contributors included David J and Stephen Hartke in the gem and mineral rooms.

VITALI and Rogers said they arranged this effort as a follow-up to last year's show "Conversations," in which the museum invited half a dozen visual artists to make works based on items in its collection.

For the museum, despite the unorthodox nature of the project and the rock-star credentials of some participants, going musical proved more affordable than most homegrown museum shows. Vitali said the project cost less than $250,000, and with the sale of CDs and iTunes downloads will bring some revenue beyond ticket sales. And then there's the prospect of luring in a different audience than the museum normally pulls.

Many art museums have invited visual artists to respond to items in their collections -- in fact, the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have undertaken such projects in the last six years -- but sound projects have been less common.

The most similar may be "Shhh ... Sounds in Spaces," a 2004 project of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which specializes in decorative arts. The V&A commissioned 10 composers and other artists to respond sonically to collections and spaces within the institution -- including David Byrne, whose contribution included the sound of a toilet flushing in one of the museum bathrooms.

Though nobody at the Natural History Museum went that route, the institution's building itself did play a role in the music that emerged.

"We really took advantage of the natural echoes of the hall," said Languis keyboard player Alejandro Cohen.

"We took a couple of visits," said John Girgus, who played guitar and electronic effects on the Languis track. "Then once we chose the space, we decided what we'd do, which was basically 'dark, psychedelic dinosaurs.' It was one of those rare instances where the plan worked."


'Sonic Scenery'

Opening party

What: "Sonic Scenery" opening night party, as an installment of the Natural History Museum's monthly First Fridays series

Where: 900 Exposition Blvd., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Friday; "silent sets" (performances that can be heard by plugging your headphones into a listening station) by Matmos, Languis, Tommy D, Daedelus, Tom Recchion and others begin at 9 p.m. DJ set by Reef Project in the foyer.

Admission: Attendees need to download "Sonic Scenery" from iTunes (cost: $9.99). There is no admission fee if you bring the music and guide. For download instructions, visit

Info: (213) 763-DINO or


Exhibition information

Regular hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends.

Price: Admission is $9 for adults; $6.50 for seniors, students and children 13 and older; $2 for children 5 to 12; free for children 4 and younger. A limited quantity of listening devices are available to rent for $3.

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