When art museums first became a thing, in the 19th century, they were the aristocracy's idea of intellectual charity: A chance for the hoi polloi to catch a thin whiff of true civilization. They couldn't have imagined a fine art museum spending $2 million on a show about a pop star who grew up in a completely average London suburb—and if they had, they would have hated it.
That's only part of what makes David Bowie Is... great. The retrospective, which opens tomorrow in Chicago for the only U.S. stop on its multi-city tour that began at the V&A in London, is reportedly the most expensive show Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art has ever put on. It brings together everything from Alexander McQueen-designed costumes to handwritten lyrics to paintings to dozens of videos and other ephemera from Bowie's 50-odd-year career, ultimately including more than 300 items from Bowie's archive (which has its own devoted staff).
It's also one of the most technically interesting museum experiences out there, thanks to Sennheiser, which designed, remixed, and engineered the audio in the show. The same twist of fate that brought one of the 20th century's most controversial pop stars into the great art museums of the world brought along this German audio giant, known for its high-end components—and the result is a show that's as much about listening as it is looking.
"Historically, sound in museums is pretty terrible," said V&A curator Geoffrey Marsh at a preview of the exhibit last week. Museums might spend millions to get the lighting on a painting just right, but sound is usually relegated to fusty, scratchy audio guides that require the visitor to punch in numbers as they move around the galleries. "What we were trying to do is treat sound like a painting or any other exhibit," Marsh explained. "It sounds simple, but it's not."
Instead, they called in Sennheiser to build an aural landscape that paralleled the visual experience of the show, and in some cases, upstages it. When you enter into the exhibit, you're given a Guide Port transmitter and a set of Sennheiser earphones. The device links up to radio transmitters set up around the galleries and downloads audio to create invisible "bubbles" of sound around the space—walk up to one wall of outfits and you might hear Bowie talking about his early years, walk up to a Japanese poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey and your headphones will fill with the strains of Space Oddity.
The idea was to knit a seamless aural quilt that lays on top of the gallery experience itself. Inside the darkened rooms, as you glance from one image to another and shift your weight, you might suddenly edge onto another "bubble" you had missed before—new stories emerge as you wander the space. Soon, you're thinking a lot less about inspecting what's on the walls, and a lot more about finding the adjacent "moments" hidden around the room for your listening pleasure.
The headphones are practically blown off your head at the final climax of the show: a huge, open-air space that's been blanketed in screens showing performances from five decades of Bowie's career. There, Sennheiser has installed dozens of Neumann and Klein+Hummel speakers, all carefully calibrated by height in a system the company calls 3D Audio. "In the past, many hi-fi gurus didn't think you needed more than six surround channels to create a surround sound effect," said Gregor Zielinsky, the engineer responsible for the audio, in a statement when the show opened in Berlin. "That's the secret behind our ability to create a third dimension of sound."
Sennheiser's sound engineers carefully remixed many of Bowie's original mono recordings using a new algorithm that allows mono tracks to be upmixed into 3D sound, pulling particular elements out of each recording and rearranging them around the room so the sound "feels" live. It's true: A comparison between a standard recording and Sennheiser's souped up version was incredible.
Do you need to hear a carefully recalibrated version of The Jean Genie—a song that you could argue is best heard in gritty, fuzzy, mono—to truly experience the majesty of Bowie? Probably not. But it's all in the name of bringing the aural elements of the show to life—and whether or not it's true to the spirit of the man, it's definitely fun. You can check out David Bowie Is... starting tomorrow and running through January of 2015.