Rockin' in the Northwest

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August, 2000


SEATTLE - Have you ever seen music? I mean seen with your eyes the lunging energy of rock? Or the wail of blues? Or the joyful syncopation of ragtime? Have you ever seen music actually take on visual shape and architectural form? I have. I saw music transformed into wild, swoopy, fantastical shapes and spaces at the Experience Music Project, the new rock music museum in Seattle, Washington. The building is music as architecture and an architecture that becomes singularly musical.

Because the trustees of the Japanese American National Museum come from across the nation, we move our board meetings around the country. This quarter, the meeting moved to Seattle. So, while we were in town, we had the opportunity to visit, alas, only too briefly, the museum that is the sensation of Seattle and of the museum world.


Situated right next to the landmark Space Needle and a children's play land, with an elevated people mover system gliding right through it, the Experience Music Project is a structure that seems to have swelled up organically around its fanciful setting. It is an architectural crescendo of bright colors, wild forms and pulsating rhythms. Frank Gehry, the architect of the much-lauded Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is the master-builder whose imagination produced this fantastical composition in ripples, swoons and hard rock riffs.

The inner workings of this singular structure are as futuristic as its architecture, dare I say, as high tech as the starship Enterprise. Everything runs on fiber optic sensitivity. On entering, I was fitted with what can only be called a Star Fleet tricorder, a set of earphones and handed a device like a TV remote control. You point the remote to a number on an exhibit and you hear either music or narrative. For me, all this advanced technology became simply a nostalgic transporter that took me back in time to my teen-age days of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and, later, the Beatles and Ramsey Lewis. Cutting edge technology was my vehicle for a sentimental journey back to music that defined a time, a mood and sentiments that no longer exist today.

Another part of the museum, however, is hands on immediacy. I became the drummer in a virtual rock band performing in a huge virtual concert hall.

Members of my band were made up of -- would you believe -- the trustees of the Japanese American National Museum! Our lead singer was Dr. Margaret Oda, a professor of education and an elegant lady. The virtual curtain parted to the deafening roar of a raucously expectant rock crowd. The music started and it was as deafening as the cheering from the virtual audience. I began drumming away wildly. Dr. Oda wailed out "wild thing�" like a rock legend. In the frenzy of my drumming, I lost my grip and my drumstick went flying off into the darkness. Dr. Oda continued wailing "wild thing." The music came down to a crashing crescendo. The sound of the wildly cheering crowd turned riotous. And the virtual curtain came down. Our concert was over. As we stepped out of the chamber, we were each handed a copy of the poster of our rock band taken as we were performing. It was rockin' good fun. The Board of Trustees meeting that followed seemed more energized than usual.

After our two-day board meeting, on my way back to Los Angeles, I stopped off in Portland, Oregon, for another wonderful event. It touched on three concerns that are important to me -- historic preservation, medical research and, inevitably, Star Trek.

The Friends of the Parkinson's Center of Oregon is an organization dedicated to research in finding a preventative and cure for Parkinson's disease. The organization's mission is to find creative ways to raise funds to support this important research. They knew the combination of baits to attract me. They combined their efforts with another dedicated group known as the Oregon Film and Video Foundation. This group of passionate people is committed to the revitalization of an historic movie palace. Built in 1925, the Hollywood Theater has a richly Byzantine exterior with an ornate rococo tower. In 1983, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With so many of these unique palaces of entertainment having been lost throughout the nation, the Oregon Film and Video Foundation's effort to restore and bring new life to this beautiful movie house was something not only to be applauded but actively supported.

For the combined fund-raiser, the two organizations had decided to screen my favorite Star Trek movie, "Star Trek VI, The Undiscovered Country." It was an irresistible package. And the evening turned out to be an enchanting success. Yes, it was a kind of Star Trek convention. The Klingon nation, as well as the Federation, was well represented. There were the expected photo ops. There was the usual and unending autograph line. I signed until past 11:30 p.m. But this was a different kind of Star Trek convention. The proceeds went to support the revitalization of a beautiful historic legacy and the fueling of research to cure a dreaded disease. May the good spirit of philanthropy live long and prosper in Portland, Oregon.

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