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‘Art of Noise’ at SFMOMA Celebrates the Weird Ways We Listen to Music

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Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni, RR126 Stereo System, manufactured by Brionvega, 1965. (Don Ross)

For what’s essentially a bunch of wiggly air, music plays a fascinating and outsized role in civilization. The methods humans have devised to deliver sound waves to our ears are as varied as they are ubiquitous, from AirPods vibrating to Tommy Richman to that tinny P.A. speaker at the DMV bleating out “A43, Window 8.”

Some of these innovations, like the Sony Walkman, changed the world. Many more were flops. Still others benefitted from being conceived as works of art.

The more fascinating of these wiggly-air delivery systems (or “weird stereos,” as one overheard visitor put it) make up the most compelling portion of Art of Noise, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 4–Aug. 16. The show, taking up the entire seventh floor of the museum, also includes two listening rooms, interactive displays, and collections of the artistic two-dimensional ways that music has been marketed and sold over the past 75 years.

Mathieu Lehanneur, ‘Power of Love,’ 2009. (Don Ross)

The show’s main flaw is also its saving grace. Art of Noise is a hodgepodge collection of stuff related to music, with no connecting thread or narrative, and little context. And yet, because it contains over 800 pieces on display, the visitor is sure to stumble on something interesting, nostalgic or even profound.

The bulk of those pieces are Fillmore-style posters, which greet visitors at the show’s entrance: colorful 11-by-17-inch posters for the Fillmore Ballroom, the Avalon Ballroom, the Matrix, the Scottish Rite Temple and other late-1960s venues that hosted bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead.


For those who grew up in the the shadow of the Bay Area’s hippie generation and its adroit marketing of its own importance, this might warrant a shrug. But the design has obviously captured the contemporary imagination, as evidenced by an opposing corner of the exhibition with similar-looking posters, bubbly writing and all, for more recent bands like Comets on Fire, the Coachwhips and Panty Raid.

Bonnie MacLean, The Yardbirds and The Doors at the Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, July 25–30, 1967.

The posters come from a large collection donated to SFMOMA in the 1990s, and curators Joseph Becker with Divya Saraf seem to have thought it best to display as many as possible — satisfying for the completist, but to the detriment of context or visibility. Hung in a static grid, floor to tall ceiling, they simultaneously overwhelm and bleed together.

(Side note: the sanctioned decimation of the Fillmore’s Black community is well-known, and it would be nice to see posters from the earlier years of the Fillmore Auditorium — which hosted artists like Duke Ellington, Ike & Tina Turner and the Temptations — before Bill Graham took over the venue’s dance permit.)

Joy Division, ‘Unknown Pleasures.’ Poster. 1979. Designed by Factory Records after Peter Saville. (Tenari Tuatagaloa)

On another wall, various posters and flyers run chronologically from 1955 to 2015, with a number of dorm room standbys: posters for Woodstock, Bob Dylan as imagined by Milton Glaser, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Early computer-designed rave flyers and photocopied punk flyers, plus block-lettered cardstock posters for ’80s and ’90s hip-hop shows, are a welcome addition.

Meanwhile, posters of Apple’s silhouette and neon 2003 iPod campaign feel off somehow; not that they’re too recent, but perhaps too tied to a product instead of more directly to music. For that, you can pivot to a nearby wall of aesthetically designed LP covers — some original issues, some modern reprints — from labels like Blue Note, Verve and Columbia.

Devon Turnbull, ‘HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 1,’ 2022. (Michael Lavorgna)

A small listening room offers the strange experience of hearing eight wooden sculptures sing songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” in oddly disembodied voices reminiscent of the IBM 7094 singing “Daisy Bell” in 1961. Another side room contains a sound system designed by Devon Turnbull, programmed live throughout the exhibition by Turnbull himself and a rotating schedule of guest DJs.

On to the large room of weird stereos, where the music of New Order, Kraftwerk, Santana, Miles Davis and Grandmaster Flash softly emanates in an ambient din. Here’s where my imagination ran free, thinking of the vision necessary to design a turntable that looks like it was salvaged from the Starship Enterprise, or embedded in demolished concrete rubble, or meant to double as a waffle maker.

Thilo Oerke and Rosita Tonmöbel, ‘Rosita Vision 2000,’ 1971. (Don Ross)

The big hits are here: Bang & Olufsen’s sleek stereo components, Dieter Ram’s marvelous midcentury designs for Braun. An early Edison wax cylinder player sits near one of the first-ever widely marketed Rock-ola jukeboxes. 1980s boomboxes, 1990s CD players and various MP3 gizmos trip through time; there’s even a My First Sony.

But the really marvelous additions are aggressively unfamiliar, such as Mathieu Lehanneur’s Power of Love music player, or Hugh Spencer’s Project G. In a utilitarian world, these reimagine everyday objects as transporters for the divine.

Why do we want to make a music player that looks like gilded flame? Or that resembles a space helmet? Perhaps, in designing its vessel, we want to create something as beautiful as music itself.

Not too shabby for a bunch of wiggly air.

Art of Noise’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 4–Aug. 16, 2024.

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