When I got invited to Custom Melodies by Eternal Lips, I was sceptical. It sounded like another painfully self-aware ode to irony, the kind of art that can't see straight for its own winking. Perhaps it is. But it was also one of the most genuinely sweet experiences I've had in NYC.
Mmuseumm is likely the smallest museum in New York City, and maybe even anywhere: built in an abandoned freight elevator shaft off a narrow Tribeca alley, the space takes up probably less than 40 square feet. In years past, visitors could step inside the museum to view the items on the shelves that line its three walls.
This year, during certain hours for the next 10 days, a service counter will block their way. Behind it is a man called Eternal Lips who, given a few snippets of information, will write you a song on the spot. A Custom Melody.
On one pleasant sunny evening this week, I turned onto Cortlandt Alley, a few minutes early for my 8pm appointment for my custom melody. I saw no museum — only a somewhat out-of-place looking reception table staffed by the very efficient Laura. She handed me a clipboard with carbon-copy paperwork to fill out. It felt like an al fresco doctor's office.
The two-page form asked me for some standard information: first name, preferred nickname, date of birth. Then it veered off. One boxed asked for the number of Facebook friends I have. Another asked me to check the boxes next to music genres I'm allergic to (Muzak, country, and children's). I was asked to doodle a hairdo on a faceless head, draw the hands on a clock, describe a recurring or recent dream.
I handed the paperwork back to Laura and sat on a doorstep awaiting my turn. At the end of the alley, a shirtless, disheveled fella reclined and talked about Catholicism to nobody in particular. The sun dipped down, the streetlights kicked on. The appointment ahead of me left ("dude, that was seriously amazing," he told Laura as he walked away), and after a few minutes I was asked to approach the booth.
The museum's double steel doors shield it like blinders. Until you face it square-on, you're unaware of this tiny pocket of bright light and vibrant colour punched into an otherwise drab, graffiti-smudged wall.
I stepped up to the counter and slid my forms through a slot in the plexiglass divider. "OK Bob, I see you're allergic to Muzak, country, and children's music," the musician, Eternal Lips, confirmed. That doctor's office feeling swept over me again. I suddenly had a craving for bubblegum-flavored amoxicillin.
Eternal Lips honed in on two things on my paperwork. One asked me to draw a line representing the course of my life. The details aren't for Gizmodo, but mine rises, then dips pretty dramatically, then rises again, marking the ill pursuit of a career I wasn't quite cut out for. The other was a yes/no box asking if I like the sound of my own voice. Yes.
Armed with this, Eternal Lips had me talk into a microphone, narrating the rise, dip, and rise of my lifescribble in three sentences. As I talked, he fooled around with a drum machine, a myriad of tiny synthesizers, and a reverb-heavy guitar.
After some further chatting, a few flurries of knob-twiddling and sound tweaking (by Eternal Lips) and some photo-snapping (by me), the good doctor was satisfied that he had a complete song. He hit "record," asked me to introduce my Custom Melody, then performed it in one take. (Click the speaker icon in the top-left corner of that Vine to hear a sneak peek). And this is probably my big dumb ego speaking, but what Eternal Lips came up with was really touching. He looped, chopped, faded and tweaked my spoken-word narrative over a novel melody that somehow managed to evoke some of the sounds and styles that I always focus on in my favourite songs. He did this with zero musical guidance from me — only the answers I scribbled on the paperwork.
With that, it was done. Recording session over, appointment complete. Eternal Lips handed back the yellow carbon copies of my paperwork and thanked me for my time. I halfway expected him to tell me to stop at reception to make my annual appointment for next year.
Starting today, and going until June 29th, Mmuseumm is filling appointments to make custom melodies for 100 customers. At the end of the project, all the bespoke creations will be posted for public listening on Mmuseumm's website. Or you can just stop by during regular museum hours and take a peek. Either way, Mmuseumm's installation is a compellingly bizarre, genuinely charming experience. If you're in NYC and looking for something to do, I really suggest you check it out.
I said goodbye to Eternal Lips and he began putting away his equipment. The sun had just dipped below the horizon. I gathered my papers, said goodbye to Laura at the reception table, and headed back down the alley.
By the time I'd reached the corner, the museum had disappeared from view, like a deep but distant memory.