Update on the Contemporary Collection

As many of you will have seen, there are some new exhibits on display in Gallery 3!

Behind the scenes, we have been working for several months to reach an arrangement with the London Science Museum to loan some exhibits which help us to tell the story of how music reproduction and synthesis continued to evolve beyond mechanical music.

One side of the new-look Gallery 3

The new exhibits were previously stored in Blythe House (one of the large collection warehouses of the London Museums group) and have not previously been on display to the public.

ARP 2500 Synthesizer

The ARP 2500 (c1970) was the first product of ARP Instruments, and used sliding connectors instead of the “rats nest” of patch cords seen on other modular synthesizers of the time. It has been used by artists such as The Who, David Bowie, Jean Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, and on Jeff Wayne's 1978 “War of the Worlds”. Although the 2500 was not commercially successful (only selling about 100 units), ARP went on to become the main competitor to Moog Music throughout the 1970s. The 2500 was used in film music such as “Logan’s Run” and was even seen on screen, in the 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. The ARP technician sent to install the unit (Phil Dodds) was cast as the musician who played the iconic note and light sequences to communicate with the alien mothership!

ARP Quadra (c1980) - One of the last synthesizers produced by ARP Instruments, helps us to illustrate progress towards digital music. The “brain” of the ARP Quadra is Intel’s first microcontroller which in today's world is significantly less intelligent than a washing machine. Despite the limitations, its distinctive sound was favoured by notable artists and bands including Genesis, New Order, and Pink Floyd.

Mellotron Model 300 (c1976) - Developed and built in Birmingham in 1963, the Mellotron was a revolutionary instrument, and a precursor to modern “sampling” keyboards. It generates sounds from individual strips of audio tape containing recordings of real instruments being played. When a key is pressed, the tape connected to it is drawn over a playback head. When the key is released, a spring pulls the tape back to its original position. Each set or “frame” of tapes contained various instruments which could be mixed together. Around 60 Model 300s were produced, and several thousand Mellotrons overall, though few survive due to their notorious unreliability. Celebrity adopters included Princess Margaret, and many rock and pop groups such as the Moody Blues (“Nights in White Satin”), the Strawbs, Radiohead and Oasis. The Beatles famously used a Mellotron on several tracks, notably the hit single "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Roland System 700 Modular Synthesizer

Our "star attraction" is a Roland System 700 (c1979) - Produced in the 1970s and directly competing with Moog, the System 700 was Roland's flagship product designed for professional musicians and recording studios. Sounds are generated as simple waveforms that can then be then shaped and filtered. The keyboard is “monophonic”, meaning only one note can be played at a time. A full System 700 as we have on display was very expensive, and only around 40 were ever made. Famous users include Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys, the Human League, Vangelis, Aphex Twin, Hans Zimmer and Depeche Mode.

These instruments are highly sought after due to their unique analogue sounds and limited production runs. Still used by modern bands and music producers, the System 700 is worth in excess of £100,000 today.

The Science Museum do not allow these instruments to be demonstrated, which does not help our approach to telling the story of music reproduction. However, there is a solution which has also introduced more interactive elements to the Museum.

#1 “Play the MeMOtron” – in front of the Mellotron exhibit is a brand new replica synthesizer, which is purpose-built to simulate the sound and controls of the original Mellotron. As this is a digital keyboard, there is limited risk of visitors breaking the device. The “museum information card” encourages our more musical visitors to replicate the iconic start to “Strawberry Fields Forever” using sampled copies of the original sounds. To help them (and for tour guides to illustrate the device), a small button plays, on demand, the first few bars of the song.

#2 “Play the Theramin” – in front of the Theramin is a “Theremini” – a new instrument, made by Moog Music (who produced the original commercial Theremin). A display card encourages visitors to interact with the Theremin, which is set to “mute” when no-one is nearby.

Volunteers should note that there are strict climate and security controls surrounding these new displays; as per the note circulated by Simon Hill, please do not open the cabinets or touch the new exhibits. We intend to prove to the Science Museum that we are able to take excellent and responsible care of these rare and important loan items - potentially providing the public with an opportunity to see them for years to come.

Further interactive exhibits are planned and in progress, including an information point.

The original contents of the cabinets are mostly still on display in the first cabinet, however some will have to wait for a financially viable solution for the cabinet at the end of G3 which Mike Wood is currently investigating.

Watch this space!

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