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Black to the future for Rockheim

The newly-opened state-of-the-art Rockheim pop and rock experience in Trondheim Norway makes extensive use of Genelec monitors, finds Dave Robinson. Oh, and there's a chicken shed celebrating 'black metal' too.

The ‘Norwegian Rock and Pop Museum’. I know what you’re thinking: don’t be daft, there’s not enough rock and pop in the country to warrant such a thing. Wouldn’t a waxwork tableau of a-ha, a glass case laden with Röyksopp memorabilia and a picture-board naming and shaming the country’s appalling Eurovision entries (2009’s Alex Rybak excluded) do the trick?

Well, no, they wouldn’t. Like most countries, Norway has a rich and colourful history of pop and rock; it’s just that not much of it made it past the fjords. Norway also has a very dark legacy too: the despicable genre of Black Metal, which led to murders and church-burning and worldwide notoriety for the country in the early ’90s. But more on that jolly subject later.

Rockheim, then, is the fabulous new state-of-the-art museum that opened in Trondheim, Norway’s third-largest city, on 5 August. It’s a converted grain warehouse in the harbour, and offers visitors six floors of interactive experiences from 1950s pop to the digital present. The main exhibition space is contained in the newly constructed ‘lid’ (decorated with Norwegian album sleeve artwork), while the ‘black box’ at one end is a 400-capacity Nexo-rig equipped venue named the Salle. There’s no doubting Rockheim is quite the site when lit up at night.

PSNE is visiting Rockheim six weeks before it officially opens. “It’s probably the most sophisticated museum in Europe,” says creative director Stacey Spiegel, who is also the Canadian CEO of exhibition/experience design company Parallel World Labs. “Its main focus is user control – where other environments deliver content, here you have to do something to get it. You learn by interacting – it’s the concept of social constructivist learning in fact -and this is combined with ‘deep learning’ – a website, ‘Virtual Rockheim’ which backs up the experience.”

The museum’s budget was around £10 million (€12 million), project director (and former musician/producer) Arvid Esperø reveals to PSNE. This has enabled Spiegel to specify the latest technology throughout: projectors by Norway’s projection design, screens by California’s Stewart Filmscreen, and loudspeakers from Finland’s Genelec. There are over 120 monitors, mainly Genelec 8050s but with a few variations, plus subs, throughout the exhibition. The servers dishing up the audio are Core i7 Intel machines on a Cat6 network.

Entering Rockheim on the ground floor, the visitor emerges into the Main Atrium, featuring a six-storey-high interactive map of Norway, climbing the wall and snaking up on to the ceiling. Point a laser pen at a particular town or region on the map and beside it, rich content will appear in the form of pop videos, photos, artwork and more. It’s a taster of what to expect elsewhere in Rockheim.

“What we discovered in Norway was that geography was very much matched to music genres – so we used the metaphor of the map, not so much as a locator, but as a way to talk about different kinds of identities we are experiencing through music,” explains Spiegel.

The first ‘experience’ proper is the Tribute Hall/Wall. Choose one of six circles on the floor, from the ’50s to the ’00s. Stand in that circle and then move your arms to ‘virtually wipe’ the image from the screen in front of you – cameras above you track the motion. As the image clears, a song by the next act to appear starts to play (PSNE disposed of Bel Canto to reveal – yes! – a-ha). You can stop the playback by pressing the ‘virtual stop button’. Here’s the thing, though: when real visitors visit Rockheim, they will be competing with each other to clear their own section of wall and trigger their choice of track before their peers.

“You’ll see all of the exhibits have a high level of user control, and that’s the big difference between this place and anywhere else. In other places things are animated – you walk through some space and the world unfolds. Here you have to ask for what you want.” (Spiegel is wiping Morten Harket’s face off the screen as he says this…)

The tour proper continues with more traditional ideas about immersion. Suddenly we’re in a 1950s garage, with a panoramic view through the ‘windows’ (video screens). “It could be Per Elvis’ garage,” suggests Spiegel. You guessed it, Per ‘Elvis’ Granberg was a Norwegian Elvis-style rocker. “There are all kind of triggers are around the room. By touching different objects you trigger different content. You have to see which items trigger which content.”

Sure enough – wave your hand over the workbench and ’50s style posters turn into video screens. As for the replica jukebox in the corner – make a selection, say, Per Elvis – and the windows of the garage display images and information about the star, album and single covers, and rare footage from NRK (the state broadcaster). You can select English or Norwegian songs and info.

All the audio is delivered by Genelec 8050s, hung just out of reach above the visitor. “From a speaker point of view, our goal was to use Genelecs: low levels of sound but at high quality,” explains Spiegel. “Other exhibits are trying to get bombastic or theatrical sound, but I’m more interested in lower level, higher quality audio, because of our limited space here.”

So it continues: a typical ’60s Norwegian living room where the ‘walls’ are multi-panel screens displaying bands such as The Sharks, The Zodiacs, the Ice Beats, names that could have easily been dreamt up in the UK. And, look, Cliff Richard is on the bill on one poster!

There’s an Artefact Wall where your laser pen will trigger info about musical instruments, be it guitar, bass, drums or synths. Then there’s a very cool ‘tour bus’ experience where the lush Norwegian scenery speeding past becomes artwork or archive NRK material, depending on which part of the ‘virtual music newspaper’ you touch on the desktop in front of your bus seat.

The ’80s room is designed like Trondheim’s now defunct Nidaros recording. Now the sliders on the customised 48-channel SSL desk trigger content related to the artists – images, video, text about that 80s artist. There’s an old Studer 24-track machine here, and a sofa for the producer to sit on. The ’90s set is a Tromsø cappuccino bar: a scene of snow falling on the city transforms to video footage as you touch the virtual table tops.

And finally we’re here, the place PSNE has been waiting for: the nasty part.

“So we actually made a copy of the rehearsal room of the Norwegian black metal band, Mayhem,” says Spiegel. “It’s a chicken shed.” You can see it in the picture above.

Norway’s dark years, at the beginning of the ’90s: when band rivalry and obsession with the occult, death, violence, nature and ancient gods lead to suicide, murder and arson attacks. Count Grishnackh, Euronymous, Hellhammer, Blasphemer, Dead. Nice sounding bunch of guys.

But for all that, their legacy has not been ignored by Norway. “Today they are kind of accepted,” remarks Arvid Espero. And at Rockheim, it is celebrated almost. Here’s the original couch from the shed, and the original fridge: decorated with black metal band stickers put there by Jørn Stubberud AKA Mayhem’s Necrobutcher, who came to endorse the exhibit.

“We worked with Jørn to get a sense of what the black metal culture is all about,” says Spiegel. “The sensibility we’re trying to create is quite raw and intense. As you walk around, red lights will point to different areas; stand in the light and you trigger the content.” A much larger 1037 speaker and a big Genelec sub give depth in this room you don’t’ find elsewhere in Rockheim.

“They go deep those subs!” says Espero.

The tour ends with a cube room for the 21st Century: all mirrors and wall panels, and videos triggered by laser pen. Despite several attempts, PSNE couldn’t locate a Royksopp video.

“…So we go from the kind of Norwegian expression of music as cultural identity, to the individual users being able to make their own music based on Norwegian pop and rock,” says Spiegel, leading us to the floor below. Here visitors can make hip-hop from pre-determined loops and phrases; attempt to play a Gibson guitar like TNT cult guitarist Ronnie Le Tekrø; even be a rock star in a band as a 24-camera motion control environment scans your movements and maps it to avatars on a giant screen. It’s all very cool.

Spiegel leaves us to continue to prep the museum, so PSNE is left with Esperø. He explains how Rockheim had to develop its own content management system to deliver the video, audio, and other rich media throughout the building; how Pilchner and Schoustal of Toronto helped design the acoustics; how there are 210,000 song files with metadata stored on the servers, “close to everything that has been produced in Norway since the 1950s”.

And he’s particularly happy with his choice of loudspeakers. “Genelec, I was very familiar with, you find them everywhere in this country,” he says. “So when we were going to choose which system to use, the Genelecs were one of the choices. It takes care of one big problem and that is: the amplifier is in the speaker. And the quality of the sound. You can play them loud without your subconscious knowing that it’s loud [because of the low distortion].

“I thought they were out of the scope for us because they are high-end professional units, and that we’d never be able to afford them. We had this [tender] that I thought was too much money. But then my old profession as a producer kicked in, and I thought there are a few things where we should buy the best that the market can give us, and one of them is the sound system.

“And so I’m very happy – very happy because it does all I hoped for and more. It lifts the project, it lifts the total experience for the public. When my old friends from the band came up and saw the Genelecs, they said OK! For people who know, they know we are thinking quality.”

As we leave, Esperø tells us the local Hells Angels chapter has been invited at 6pm to trial the exhibition. He’s not fazed by this. But If you’ve lived through the black metal years, you’re ready for anything.