The evolution of electronic music

As the Design Museum opens its new show Electronic, we speak to curator Gemma Curtin and The Chemical Brothers collaborators Smith & Lyall about the genre’s wider impact on creativity and culture, and how the music industry could look post-pandemic

It’s a surreal experience stepping foot inside the Design Museum’s new exhibition about electronic music in the midst of a pandemic. When I visit the show in late July, the UK is well into its fourth month of a nationwide lockdown, and it’s been what feels like an eternity since I interacted with real-life people outside of a Zoom call, let alone feel the crush of other human bodies in a crowded nightclub or music festival.

As I walk around the darkened exhibition space, I’m bombarded with sensory experiences – flashing strobe lights, a thumping soundtrack and electrifying footage from the bygone days of live shows – all designed to transport you back to the dancefloor. But as I step inside the final exhibit, an immersive installation created by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, longtime collaborators of The Chemical Brothers, which recreates one of the band’s live shows, the thing that instinctively hits me is just how familiar it smells.

A photo of one of Kraftwerk’s live performances, taken by German music photographer Peter Boettcher

When I catch up Smith and Lyall after the show and question them about the distinctive scent that I can’t quite put my finger on, I’m informed that it’s just the smell of the smoke machine. “It’s like freshly mown grass for ravers, isn’t it?,” says Lyall. In putting on Electronic, the Design Museum is attempting to recreate that intangible feeling of electronic music – albeit in a different setting – while also exploring the genre’s wider social and cultural influence.