MIT's Immerse Magazine on Beatie Wolfe & the Art of Retro Innovation

Beatie Wolfe and the Art of Retro Innovation

The walls of the anechoic chamber at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, look as if they’re made of chunky cardboard. The floor is see-through and suspended several feet in the air. It is one of the quietest rooms in the world — and was never intended for a concert. Yet, in the middle of it stood Beatie Wolfe, a young Anglo-American musician, placing a needle on an old phonograph. People across the world could watch her singing in 360 AR or even full VR as strange landscapes swirled about her.

Wolfe’s 2017 Raw Space stream marked a major evolution in her quest to build a legacy not only as a musician but as an innovator who reinvented vinyl in the digital age. To date, she has made a musical jacket, an NFC-enabled deck of cards, and a 3D “vinyl” experience. She’s also the first to stream a song into space using Bell Labs’ Holmdel Horn.

Vice has called her a “visionary weirdo.”

“I take that as a compliment,” she says.

To her credit, plenty of people don’t think she’s weird at all. Google, Apple, NASA, and JPL have all invited her to speak. Nokia Bell Labs revived its Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) program, which once supported John Cage and Andy Warhol, specifically for her. And she is one of only three musicians to have a solo exhibition of album art at the V&A museum (the other two are David Bowie and Pink Floyd).

But seriously, what is she doing?

The winding path of innovation

To understand, you have to go back to when Wolfe was seven years old, sitting on her living room floor exploring her parents’ extensive record collection. There she fell in love with what she calls the “ceremony” of vinyl: opening albums, pulling out disks, and poring over the artwork and liner notes.

To Wolfe, ceremony is an essential part of a musical experience — and one that’s largely been lost in the streaming age. While she likes streaming for its accessibility, to her, a real musical experience involves something more: a set of repeated actions performed by the musician and listener. It might be the mosh pit at a punk show, the studious pose of a jazz fan, or the arrangement of players in a symphony.

“From the age I discovered vinyl, it was impossible to divorce music from the tangible component and its ability to further tell the story through artwork,” she says.

Growing up in London, Wolfe wrote her first song at 7 and was offered a recording contract at 15. Determined to keep control of her career, she went to college instead, where she wrote and published a thesis on the poetry of Leonard Cohen. She released her first EP in 2010. Her first album-and-innovation project, 8ight, came in 2013, followed by the more elaborate Montagu Square in 2015. Raw Space, with its jaw-dropping VR/360 AR experience, came in 2017.

Through all this, she’s also been remarkably consistent in her vision of merging vinyl and technology — though her ability to pull it off has changed a lot.

Beatie Wolfe’s V&A exhibition for LDF — 8ight’s PPT. Photo by Dexter Robinson.

The albums

To succeed, Wolfe’s projects need to accomplish two contradictory aims: they must be new and instantly intelligible. Part of her solution involves nostalgia: she uses familiar objects such as viewfinders, phonographs, and playing cards. That makes them not only easier to understand but also heightens the effect. If you slavishly follow an old format, she says, you create a tired copy. To regain the original magic, you have to reinvent it entirely. Everyone knew about Pokémon, but when it was reinvented as an AR experience, it became a worldwide sensation.

To see how it works, we can start with 8ight. As with most of her projects, it began with a live experience: a concert at the oldest bookshop in the world, Maggs. There, attendees could use their phones and the now-defunct Palm Top Theater to interact with a 3D holographic version of the album. While this may not seem revolutionary today, it was so unusual at the time that GQ sponsored and heavily covered the event. In addition, Wolfe added a regular app and a vinyl album to make the experience available to everyone.

“I love to create new ways for people to experience an album that provokes a sense of wonder,” she says of her innovative experiences, “but it’s also important that music is for everyone.”

Her next album, Montagu Square, traces its roots to 34 Montagu Square, an apartment owned by Mr. Fish, a fashion designer to rock stars. Over tea, Wolfe learned that the apartment had been owned by Ringo Starr, who let it out to Paul McCartney, who wrote “Eleanor Rigby” there; and Jimi Hendrix, who wrote “The Wind Cries Mary” there. It was also the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono first got naked for photographers.

“I literally felt chills running up my spine,” says Wolfe.

Wolfe decided on a new project. She would record a single at an exclusive live show in the apartment. Then, using technology from Beatwoven, she had the music turned into fabric, which she gave to Fish to create an NFC-enabled jacket. Tap a phone to it, and the music woven into it plays. Like 8ight,Montague Square also had less exclusive entry points, including a “deck of cards” that you could tap on an NFC-enabled phone to unlock songs and additional content (again creating a new kind of ceremony).

Her next project, Raw Space, is her most ambitious to date. Conceived as an “anti-stream,” it took place in the anechoic chamber at Bell Labs, with both an exclusive live concert and a week-long, VR/AR experience.

“It was the opposite of streaming. It wasn’t about playing whatever song you want whenever you want,” says Wolfe. “It was about offering this experience that people couldn’t speed up or slow down.”

Beatie Wolfe — 2017 Raw Space — in Bell Labs Anechoic Chamber. Photo by Theo Watson.

Raw Space also shows that innovation is not a gimmick for her but a central part of her process, with her work often a dialogue between technology and music. That’s because Wolfe is a natural songwriter with a large, unpublished catalog of music that she can curate to match her innovation ideas. The music then, in turn, influences the experience.

For example, she chose the song “Little Moth” for Raw Space because its lyrics make obvious sense for AR/VR. But the song itself is a tribute to musician Elliott Smith, who died tragically in 2003, and he inspired the Van Gogh-esque visuals that swirl around the chamber.

Raw Space has also evolved her work beyond album art. First, it inspired her to use Bell Labs’ Holmdel Horn to stream a song into space. That effort, after a complicated series of serendipities involving her grandfather and Andy Warhol, also led to The Space Chamber for her V&A showThis was a 3D album experience that featured familiar retro elements: a viewfinder and a mylar backdrop inspired by weather balloons.

Into the future

Where does Wolfe go from here? The answer is music. This fall, she is recording a new album with Hall of Fame songwriter and producer Linda Perry. And while she hasn’t promised that it will have a technology experience to go with it, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

“Everything I do on the technology and innovation side is to remind people of the magic of music,” she says. “Music is at the core of it all.”

Immerse is an initiative of the MIT Open DocLab and The Fledgling Fund, and it receives funding from Just Films | Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. IFP is our fiscal sponsor. Learn more here