Beatie Wolfe: Rethinking the album format

A new exhibition at the V&A ponders the future of the album with a look at a series of innovative projects from musician Beatie Wolfe

Beatie Wolfe has beamed an album into space and had her music woven into a silk jacket cut by Jimi Hendrix’s tailor. In 2017, she launched her record Raw Space with a live stream broadcast from inside the Nokia Bell Lab’s anechoic chamber: for 7 days, viewers could log onto YouTube and watch the album playing within the echoless room as AR visuals were generated in real time in response to the music. A collaboration with Design I/O, who created the AR animations, and Nokia Bell Lab, which has worked on projects with artists from John Cage to Robert Rauschenberg, the project was conceived as an alternative streaming experience: “The whole idea of the record was thinking, what are we currently missing [with digital streaming]? It’s the lyrics, the artwork, a feeling of ceremony – a sense of the record as a story,” Wolfe tells CR.

As part of this year’s London Design Festival, Wolfe’s creative experiments have been brought together in an exhibition at the V&A Museum. Beatie Wolfe: The Art of Music in a Digital Age looks at her desire to reimagine the album format through creating tangible objects and offering new ways to experience music.

The exhibition begins with a look at Wolfe’s debut album, 8ight. The album could be experienced in 3D through an app and a Palm Top Theater device, which turns 2D visuals into 3D scenes when clipped on to a smartphone.

Beatie Wolfe’s album 8ight, viewed on a Palm Top Theater device

Also on show is the musical jacket created for the release of her album Montagu Square. The project was inspired by the Marylebone flat where the album was recorded – a building that, in the 1960s, was home to some of the world’s most influential musicians. (John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived there, as well as Ringo Starr and Jimi Hendrix.)

The flat is now owned by David Mason, who owns the rights to Mr Fish (the fashion brand that created stage costumes for Hendrix, Mick Jagger and David Bowie in the 1960s and 70s). Wolfe wanted to tell the story of the building’s history after recording the album there, and asked Mason and his tailors to weave a visual representation of the album’s music into a jacket, which was unveiled at a gig in the space. The jacket was created using NFC technology, meaning people could tap their phones on the garment to pull up a website containing the album and related content, and was recently showcased in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show. In a follow-up project, Wolfe worked with MOO to present the album as an NFC powered deck of cards, which each linked to a different track.

The album jacket created for the release of Wolfe’s album Montagu Square, on display at the V&A

Other projects featured in the exhibition include the AR live stream of Raw Space, and the Raw Space Broadcast: a collaboration with Nobel Prize winning scientist Robert Wilson. Using the Nokia Bell Labs Holmdel Horn Antenna (which was used as a satellite communications antenna and radio telescope in the 1960s, and helped prove the scientific theory of the big bang), Wolfe worked with Wilson to beam a raw, unedited version of the album into the atmosphere – a response to the increasingly polished and edited nature of music today.

The centrepiece of the show is a new installation inspired by Wolfe’s previous collaborations with Wilson and the Nokia Bell Labs broadcast. The Raw Space Chamber is an all-gold room  kitted out with a vintage viewfinder and a record player. (The walls are lined inside and out with Mylar fabric, which is used to insulate the Hubble Space Telescope). Visitors can step inside to listen to Raw Space while watching AR visuals generate in real-time through the viewfinder – offering a more intimate take on the live AR stream from 2017.

Beatie Wolfe’s Raw Space Chamber at the V&A. Image: Ivalyo Getov

Wolfe’s experiments with music might sound a little out there, but each one demonstrates an innovative use of analogue and digital tech, and a desire to engage with audiences in new and surprising ways.

Wolfe, who started songwriting at the age of eight, says her work is inspired by her love of vinyl records. She remembers discovering her parents’ record collection as a child and seeing albums as a kind of “musical book that you could open up and read like a story”.

“I found that records provided this sort of gateway to the world of the album and the world of the artist, and from that point … I was imagining, what kind of worlds could I create with my albums? How could I take people to these imaginative spaces with physical objects and artwork?” By the time she recorded 8ight, the physical formats she had grown up with – vinyl, tapes and CDs – had fallen out of favour, but the London musician was determine that her first album “wouldn’t just be a digital download”. With each new album since, she has used a different medium to tell the story of her music through words, visuals and tactile objects.

Beatie Wolfe: The Art of Music in a Digital Age at the V&A

Her creative collaborations have seen her experiment with a range of emerging technologies, but Wolfe’s ideas are rooted in her love of vinyl – and a desire to recreate an experience she feels has been lost in the age of Spotify and iTunes.

“Since I was eight … I’ve been thinking about albums non-stop and how you can present music in a way that will make people stop in their tracks and be reminded of why they love music. That experience of sitting down with something and really going into it in a deep way [in the way that people once did with vinyl records] imprints on you forever … so I think I’ve always had a very clear intention: how do you recreate the vinyl experience for today?”

“With every album, it’s [thinking], ‘how do you tell that story? And how do you extend the world of the album beyond this very limited remit which is an MP3 or a screen and turn it into something that has this entire world – and this sort of physicality to it?’ And it’s different every time because every album is different,” she adds.

Visitors to the V&A can listen to an unedited version of Wolfe’s album Raw Space, which was broadcast into space

“None of this was done with the technology leading, or me thinking, ‘I’ve got to put a new album out – what can I do now?’… Everything is built from the inside out. With Raw Space it was [the idea that], ‘streaming is currently like this, but imagine if all the record execs in the world could put their heads together and figure out how amazing streaming could be – what would that look like?’”

This is an unusual approach at a time when most of us consume music through streaming apps such as iTunes and Spotify. Album launches have become more experimental of late – both Beyonce and Frank Ocean have released almost feature-length visual albums, while Rihanna recently partnered with Samsung to launch an interactive experience promoting the release of her album Ante – but Wolfe has gone one step further by drawing on a range of digital and analogue media (and a giant space horn).

As an independent musician, she has more freedom than most when it comes to releasing her music: the budgets for most album releases have shrunk considerably in the past decade, and most labels would be reluctant to invest in ambitious and complex projects like Wolfe’s – especially if they might only be experienced by a small audience.

The Nokia Bell Labs Holmdel Horn Antenna, used to beam Wolfe’s album into space

But, through her collaborations with designers, scientists, technologists and tailors, she has shown how a creative approach to the album format can encourage a more active listening experience – something that has become a rarity in a world where we have access to more music than ever before but seem to devote less attention to it.

“Music has become something that’s on 24-7, but in this pretty shallow, superficial way. That’s fine – but we also have to be reminded of the important part it plays in our lives because I think music goes much deeper than entertainment,” she adds.

The Raw Space Anti-stream. Image: Beatie Wolfe

Beatie Wolfe: The Art of Music in a Digital Age is on at the V&A Museum until September 23; vam.ac.uk

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