Sunday, August 28, 2022

New Museum of Sound in Seoul


Before I went full lockdown, unabomber-grade hermit due to the COVID madness, my most fun and important outing every year was participating in Silbatone's Annual Western Electric theater speaker exhibition at the Munich HighEnd show.  I routinely joked that where every manufacturer was out hyping the latest thing, we contended to have the oldest things at the show...and we usually won, possibly because we never had any competition...

Although an upmarket gearmaker of the first order, Silbatone is a tube audio think tank slash traveling Western Electric museum above all else. We don't take price lists or business cards to pimp gear and hardly talk about the Silbatone gear powering the ancient speakers at the center of attention in our show rooms. We bring beer and play good music on rare and excellent ancestral gear, for the enjoyment and edification of 1000s of visitors and who knows how many YouTube scholars around the globe who study the videos of the event.

I won't say all contemporary high end gear is total junk but I personally haven't heard much that could stand up to a full 1930s Western Electric theater system for vivid, impactful, sophisticated, and emotional musical communication. Certainly, the audio specialist public couldn't be more positive...if and when they get the rare opportunity to experience this genre of music system. We have a packed crowd of people hanging out with us year after year and we dominate the international show reports, not bad for a pile of 80 to 100+ year old technology! Age ain't nothing but a number when Led Zeppelin sings out on a WE horn setup!

Plans are to continue this valuable mobile outreach work when the audio show situation returns to normalcy,. meanwhile the Silbatone vintage museum project has finally found a forever home!. The road show is settling in for permanent exhibition in a most impressive setting.

.Parked on the outskirts of Gangnam in Seoul, Korea, this Museum of Sound will be a celebration of audio history far beyond anything imagined before. The innovative structure is the work of the famed Japanese architect Kenzo Kuma of Tokyo Olympic Stadium fame and it will be an architectural standout. Purpose designed for serious audio listening, several floors with high auditorium-like ceilings will provide an ideal venue for glorious big system theater sound experiences. There will be a cafe equipped with a full Mirrophonic horn system and all of the great WE horn systems in full factory configurations, from the first Vitavox 12A & 13A system of 1928 to the 1948 757A in six floors of exhibits.

The museum will draw in an unparalleled collection of vintage home and professional audio gear, including the world's preeminent Western Electric collection, Altec, Lansing, German theater gear, phono apparatus, cutting lathes, rare tubes, electronics, and speakers. Far too much to list. Many rare and unique items will be found here and nowhere else.  !00,000+ LPs will be on hand for source material. It will be Ground Zero for the serious enthusiast and student of vintage audio technology.

I must confess that, even as a certified vintage gear lunatic, I sometimes wonder how to justify such a sumptuous and elaborate public presentation for such a hyper-specialized and little known subject. Certainly, vintage gearheads and audiophiles will marvel at the sound and the vastness of the collection and Seoul is one of the great world centers of audiomania so plenty of super hardcore audiofreaks around. Some of us will think we died and went to heaven. But what about the general public?

The answer lies in aspects of South Korean culture and the local audience. Korean people love music and there one finds a great popular appreciation for classical music particularly, featured in school curricula for decades by law. I hear "good" music --classics, jazz, vocals-- playing in the background of life in Seoul in many places and at unexpected times. At the supermarket in Philly or DC, you're lucky to hear something as upscale as Wild Cherry's magnum opus,  "Play that Funky Music, White Boy."

Aside from a high level of music appreciation, middle class Koreans seem more interested in audio gear than the average American these days. It is one of the best retail markets on the globe, lots of audio stores and elaborate systems. I remember working at the Seoul Audio Show some years back. for one thing, a much younger crowd than one would find at a US or Euro show, which was good to see. Amazingly, the weekend crowd included groups of middle-aged women who stopped by after brunch just to listen to music. They usually stay for the whole piece.  We even entertained a gang of NUNS enjoying some nice classical sides! That would never happen at an American show. It was inspiring and didn't feel like it should be surprising at all in context. These ladies made it about music not audio.

Maybe then, Seoul is exactly the right venue for a Smithsonian-level audio museum/listening center! The mission statement of the Seojeon Foundation behind the project is to create social benefits through a venue where people can learn about sound, enjoy music, and listen together. This is a beautiful vision and the more I dream about it, the more I think it has to work. So grandiose yet so simple. Technical and specialized and nerdy as hell, yet so human!

The Museum's construction is well underway, currently slated for a 2023 opening date. More details to follow.