LOS ANGELES, CA—Paul Simon: Words & Music, a traveling exhibition organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, is currently making its only west coast stop at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, through September 3, 2017. The collection of images, artifacts and music spanning Simon’s six-decade career includes a presentation exclusive to the Skirball—a newly created interactive music lab developed in cooperation with Roland Corporation.
In the music lab, installed in a second gallery at the museum, “You can interact with Paul Simon’s original recordings,” said Robert Kirschner, Skirball Museum director. “We’re not typically a music museum, but we’ve learned a lot about presenting music here.” Previous exhibitions have included Bob Dylan and, more recently, impresario Bill Graham. The Skirball opened in 1996 “with the purpose of deepening appreciation of Jewish heritage and American democratic ideals,” Kirschner said.
The music lab presents stems from various original Paul Simon recordings, supplied by the artist and his management, at a series of Roland-designed and equipped stations where visitors can creatively interact with the tracks. “Few people ever have the opportunity to hear the components of the music as they exist in the elemental stages—the ingredients of a cake, all separated out before it’s baked—then hearing it as a finished product,” said Corey Fournier, market development manager, Roland Corporation.
One station, labeled Create Your Own Mix, presents eight stems, including separate drums and percussion, electric and acoustic guitars, lead and background vocals and other elements, laid out on the faders of a Roland MX-1 Mix Performer. At the station, visitors can deconstruct and remix songs including “You Can Call Me Al,” “The Boy in the Bubble” and a 2016 live recording of “Mrs. Robinson.” “When you realize how they’re put together, it really unveils the creative genius that is behind what happens in the recording studio, and how Paul uses the recording studio as an instrument,” said Fournier.
Another station, Mix and Match, presents the separate harmonic and rhythmic elements of four songs, including “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” randomly assigned to eight pads of an SP404-SX Sampling Pad. “The challenge is to listen to the components then combine them back together correctly,” said Fournier. “It’s also a remix opportunity; you can take the drums from one song and splice them with the vocals from another song.”
The new Boss VE-8 Acoustic Singer enables visitors to harmonize with vocal tracks on “50 Ways” and “Kodachrome.” Fournier explained, “There’s a harmonization button that allows you to add a single or double harmony a third and fifth above your voice, or a third above and a fifth below, or different variations. In ‘Kodachrome,’ you can add yourself into the choir at the end of the song and be the choir by adding the harmony function to your own voice.”
Simon’s most recent album release, an experimental project entitled Stranger to Stranger, incorporates custom-made instruments originally designed by Harry Partch, who developed a 43-tone scale of unequal intervals in the 1930s. Partch customized a reed organ, dubbed the Chromalodeon, to play the microtonal scale. “We’ve recreated that instrument on a Roland E-A7 keyboard,” said Fournier. “One of the songs from that album, ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby,’ that uses those Partch instruments, can be triggered.”
The focal point of the Roland music lab is a drum circle, which Simon has used as the genesis of songs such as “Cecilia” and “The Obvious Child,” said Fournier. The installation, in the center of the space, houses instruments including the Roland ELCajon EC-10 electronic layered cajón, Handsonic HPD-20 digital hand percussion and Octapad SPD-30 digital percussion pad.
“Each person can be a part of a drum circle not only interacting with Paul’s music but also each other,” said Fournier. “Since we were allowed to have the multitrack of these original songs, we were able to sample the sounds from the drumline in ‘Obvious Child;’ those are on the sampling drum pad.”
“Why am I so excited about this particular installation?” said Kirschner. “Because we understand it’s an exercise in musical democracy. We are about community at the Skirball; we are about building bridges between people. So we were thrilled when Corey came up with the idea. It allows people to meet each other through music.
“Why did we choose Paul Simon as an exhibition subject? Because we believe his music does the same—it reaches across to other cultures.”
Skirball Cultural Center