Museum-Quality Bowie

Memorabilia, Retrospective, and 9.1 Audio

With a long career trailing behind him and the future an open road, it may seem premature to consider David Bowie as a fitting subject for a retrospective exhibition. But Bowie’s been a public performer for 50 years and has generated a broad following as a singer/songwriter, actor and cultural icon; it’s appropriate that his work be taken seriously.


“David Bowie Is,” originally developed for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is currently on display at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and was scheduled through the end of the year. This exhibit is a must-see for Bowie fans. Reluctant admirers may also be fascinated by the extensive displays of costumes, videos and memorabilia that have been organized into a multiroom experience that walks the observer through Bowie’s career. The audio component of “David Bowie Is,” supplied by the Sennheiser Group, is outstanding.


“Space Oddity” was Bowie’s first major hit, and while some may have found the lyric—which tells the story of an astronaut who steps out of his ship into the black—a bit odd, Bowie’s quirky voice and dynamic personality illuminate the cut and the handful of other singles that kept him a player in the singles market for decades. Topping this list are “Changes” (1972) “Fame” (1975) and “Let’s Dance” (1983). In Chicago, they can be heard in 9.1.


At a press conference held at the CMA shortly before the exhibition opened, Gregor Zielinsky, Diplom Tonmeister and International Recording Applications Manager at Sennheiser gave a demonstration of the company’s yet-to-be-named 9.1 playback system, a multimonitor package with companion headphone system that visitors are given as they enter the exhibit.


During his presentation, Zielinsky stated that after experimenting with a variety of speaker array combinations, Sennheiser felt that a 9.1 system offered an ideal dispersion of audio. Listening to the tracks that Zielinsky himself remixed to suit the system made for a convincing argument. Separation, and the detail it provides, is to be expected when you move from mono to stereo to any surround speaker configuration, but the subtle enhancements were the most noticeable as Zielinsky played a wide variety of material, including an orchestral performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a Count Basie Band track, and remixes from an early Bowie session. The original stereo release of a Diane Krall track, for example, sounded quite good. When Zielinsky switched to the 9.1 mix, however, the listener could hear Krall’s throat in the process of articulating consonants in the quiet passages, a detail that was not present in the stereo recording.  

If Sennheiser has plans to market this technology, the company wasn’t letting the press in on its thinking. The system is used in the last room that visitors enter in “David Bowie Is.” The “3D immersive experience,” as Sennheiser describes it, is applied to remixes of live tracks from Bowie concerts, which accompany videos of the actual performances, and a “mash up” of Bowie tracks created by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime producer. Floor-to-ceiling video coupled with the 9.1 audio delivers a powerful package. The tracks sounded so good that I could almost forget that the audio was bouncing back and forth between parallel walls.


The headphone system that Sennheiser provided to the museum tracks an attendee’s path through the exhibit and matches audio to the station where he or she happens to be at any time. A part of Sennheiser’s guidePORT system, it has been used in other exhibits prior to “David Bowie Is.” Think of it as GPS for your ears. The transfer from one piece of audio to another is executed with gentle fades.


Geoffrey Marsh, Director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, told members of the press that during the preparatory phase, members of his team had unrestricted access to Bowie’s complete archival collection. Apparently Bowie has had an eye to preserving his legacy for quite some time. His collection of wardrobe pieces, lyric and music lead sheets, and memorabilia, all overseen by a full-time archivist, clocks in at about 70,000 pieces. Culling through this material has led to a fascinating retrospective on the career of an artist who had a significant impact on the direction of popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.


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