Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab

Bringing the history of Jazz back to life

The Montreux Jazz Festival and EPFL have launched a major project to digitize the most important audiovisual heritage of jazz, blues and rock concerts from the last 45 years. The Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab explores the potential of these digital archives: it offers an immersive experience which revitalizes our bond to such heritage. The first module was presented to the media in June 2012.
The dark structure lets slip beams of light and fragments of images. The prevailing intensity is unmistakable. The side wall opens, letting in new users. The light wood interior is adorned with a low table and an interactive display of a unique geometry. Four users can take place to be isolated from all external noise influences. Two of them can simultaneously explore the contents on the table. There is a lounge ambience and the forward position of the bodies encourages dialogue and sharing so as to evoke memories and discoveries. When starting to watch a concert, positions change: eyes turn to the large curved screen, bodies press against the back of the chairs, images and sounds carry the spirits along into the concert of choice. This original experience thus breaks sharply with the traditional solitary and static archive consultation facing a flat screen. Digital heritage has now become a living space filled with movement and interaction.
The Montreux Jazz Digital Project is the force behind such accomplishment. It aims to digitize the archives of the Festival since 1967: over 5000 hours of concerts recorded with a pioneering spirit by using the best technical resources of the time, as evidenced by the high definition videos taken from 1991 onwards. This work integrates technologies developed at EPFL laboratories in order to enrich and enhance this legacy. It is thus a continuation of the festival historical pioneering work.
The EPFL + ECAL Lab was tasked to explore a way of transforming this heritage into an immersive experience for the user. Research was conducted in close collaboration with the Space Conception Workshop (ALICE ‐ EPFL), in charge of working on the physical dimension of the experience. Several other laboratories also contributed to this project with their expertise, especially in the fields of acoustics (LEMA), signal processing (LTS2) and audiovisual communication (LCAV).

Journey into heritage

The result achieved veritably redefines the applications of digital content. It does not aim to recreate the concert: the real presence of musicians cannot be replaced, nor the collective emotion of a 3000 people crowd, nor the unique atmosphere of an evening at the Festival. On the other hand, it does open new horizons by setting up a way in which digital formats allow you to travel amidst an almost infinite heritage, to cross decades, to evoke the ties between musicians and concerts and to access much more information. It also offers a novel approach: the acoustic insulation reveals the details of a particular sound, takes diverse perspectives and close‐up cameras into account and allows associating different songs and concerts during a more attentive second listening. By combining architecture, interaction design and new technologies, the Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab showcases the power, richness and uniqueness of this particular digital content. This comprehensive work even takes into account its relationship with the exterior by irradiating a portion of the image outside of the module and by also being able to operate in an open configuration, which offers the opportunity for a wider audience to witness this interaction.
The Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab shows the way culture, technology research, design and architecture can work together to infuse our heritage with new life and to make our relationship with digital formats evolve.

When design makes new technologies come to life

The EPFL + ECAL Lab, responsible for the overall design of the Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab and the creation of its digital interfaces, continues the mission that made it win the price of the international design festival in Berlin in 2010. This EPFL unit uses design to explore the potential of emerging technologies: what novel uses can they have? How can these technologies be integrated in the cultural and social context of our lives? How can a language be defined to implement these proposals? Their research was conducted in partnership with ALICE, the Space Conception Workshop at EPFL, in charge of defining a physical reality to this project. This is an essential dimension, bearing in mind that digital content does not change the reality of our physical body and of the space in which we live: even within the module, we interact with others. Conceived by Cem Sever, interaction designer, and Daniel Tamburrino, engineer, the interface effectively fits into the overall physical experience of its location, its interaction scenarios and its visual representations.
The user can thus be guided by a “discovery” mode proposed by the system. She/he can also search for concerts and artists. Furthermore, users can benefit from recommendations based on musical content. This navigation system opens up prospects for discoveries that by far exceed the criterion of the groups’ fame. By allowing two users to simultaneously search and compose together a broadcasting list on a large touch‐sensitive surface, the interface encourages them to interact. It is then time for musical and historical evocations, for personal memories: a digital environment, with controlled acoustics, allows enriching the experience with each participant’s contribution. The work done on the gestural interface, which enables “sending” a concert to the screen with a movement, provides intuitive and fun transitions. The change in position while listening, places the user in a wholly submerged environment, unlike what happens with a search or zapping mode. Content takes power.

A spatial reality

The Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab reflects not only architectural, but also constructive virtuosity. The 7x8m module has been completely designed and produced by the Space Conception Workshop (ALICE‐EPFL). Created as a removable structure with a unique assembly system, it required the drawing and cutting of around 1300 pieces of wood, covering the equivalent area of a basketball court. This work was done by the workshop team and coordinated by Tibo Smith. Also, this impressive unit is the result of a long and intense phase of research conducted by the workshop under the direction of Dieter Dietz and Olivier Ottevaere. Their research led to approaching key issues such as: what should be our relationship to the screen? Can we stop facing a wall? How can the whole of the heritage be fairly appreciated, including older formats and technical standards recordings? This research also highlighted the importance of the relationship between the inside and the outside of the module, the transition between the real world and the virtual one, the influence of space on the relationship with such heritage and the possibility of enriching it with the participants’ experiences and memories sharing. Deep‐rooted on a principle of interaction, this work is quite beyond the will of an architectural deed: it deals with the impact of space, light and human relations on the perception of content.
ALICE’s task was to translate this conceptual approach into a constructive reality. Work around the screen was one of the main lines of development, exploring the spatiality of the visitor’ sound perception and the potential of incorporating her/his vision when exposed to the archives’ content. The final shape of the projection surface, curved in an innovative way, is inspired by trompe l’oeil techniques, so deeply mastered during the Baroque period. It also uses pictorial and architectural heritage to represent other archives. Collaboration from the earliest sketches with the Laboratory of Electromagnetics and Acoustics influenced the overall geometry of the project, the materials used, as well as many other features. The micro‐perforated screen offers an acoustic transparency that allows concealing the speakers and letting a part of the image radiate through acoustic glasses from Glastroesch.