Bringing Back the Dead

Museums are where dead things, whose predominate makers are themselves dead, go, to be admired by the living. Museums collect dead things and display them that’s the point of a museum, which is akin to a library of objects. But where the objects in a library are given new life each time a borrower reads them, the objects in a museum are strictly not to be touched or handled, much less brought home or carried around on the subway for a period of time. They sit there, hang there, lay there like corpses at a viewing, props — often extraordinarily beautiful ones — representing what was left behind by a spirit of thought and imagination and humanity that has now gone out.

Because of this, museums are strange places to hear music. Many of them have fine concert halls where music originally created by people themselves now long dead is the mainstay, but where a painting is made once, then regarded, music is made and then made new, recreated, each time it’s performed. It is an art that exists only in time, and it is not only alive during the time of a performance but it cannot be captured by any means that would turn it into an object (vinyl records, tapes and CDs are containers, not the music itself, and digital music is even less solid). A concert in a museum is like a seance of the living in a mausoleum.

Still, all art aspires to the condition of music, as the man said. Curatorial jargon in the aftermath of the notable Marina Abramovic retrospective — full of live human beings asked to take on the guise and state of inanimate objects — featured the terms time-based and instruction-based art, by which they where referring to those same inanimate people, asked to hold their place for a period of time, and the commands of the artist that they do so. The terms are embarrassing, ignoring not only actual instruction-based fine arts such as the brilliant and spectacular wall paintings and drawings from Sol Lewitt, but the actual and original time- and instruction- based art: music.

The general point of music in museums is to maintain the air of high culture, like in the chamber music programmed at the Frick Collection, or to enhance a current exhibition with music that adds cultural and historical context. The most notable example of that was last year’s series of Kraftwerk concerts in the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art, which really didn’t have much to do with the museum itself, except as an ultra-cool and desirable ticket for music consumers, a social and material adjunct to MoMA’s current de facto purpose, serving as the Bloomingdale’s of art. The Guggenheim hosts experimental spectacles inside the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral, but except for the architecture and the decor, these things could happen anywhere, and compared to Make Music New York’s civic-minded, site- and space-specific productions that grace us every summer solstice, these are shallow and pretentious baubles that give patrons a delectable whiff of the avant-garde without having to wash off any scent of it when they get home.

Then there’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the socio-economic cognate of the Metropolitan Opera, the temple of the highest and most stolid idea of culture. Everything there is quality, and of the quality, their music series included. Recent years have featured the Pacifica String Quartet as the artist in residence, performing the entirety of the Shostakovich and Beethoven quartets in exemplary concerts that had nothing to do with the museum. More germane have been concerts celebrating the Islamic and American galleries, with Jordi Savall and Thomas Hampson performing, the press preview for the reopened gallery of musical instruments, where musicians played a fortepiano and violin in the collection, and the Guitar Heroes show of modern and contemporary luthiers. That had a full complement of guitarists playing the instruments of these craftsmen in concert, and spawned new music from Anthony Wilson, caught on an enjoyable concert CD that has a companion documentary on the exhibit and the musical project. Hampson’s appearance was in the grand open space of the American Wing itself, a hint of thinking that Limor Tomer, the new General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, has brought to the Met. Talk is cheap, so arts organizations talk a lot about cultivating new ideas and ways of thinking, but money is dear, so hardly any of them actually do new things.Tomer is doing new things.

Some of these things would seem obvious, except they’re in a museum, so they’re revelatory. Last fall’s Regarding Warhol show had a concert from Patti Smith (streamed online) and new music made to accompany some of Warhol’s Screen Tests — although this also revealed the glaring lack of any musical context (Tin Pan Alley, anyone?) for the welcome and solid George Bellows exhibit. JACK Quartet played a Christmas concert of Medieval music in the Medieval gallery, and Daniel Hope, Karen Gomyo and the Salome Chamber Orchestra played Baroque favorites on stringed instruments from the collection, something that should actually happen all the time, since instruments are objects that only matter when musicians make sound with them. The use of spaces outside the concert hall is enormously exciting, full of abstract and concrete possibilities. My composer’s imagination runs away with me when I contemplate the idea of adding sound to the Gubbio Studiolo, or of bouncing sound waves off the sculptures in the Greek and Roman gallery. The notion turns the reality of the museum as a storehouse of the past inside-out, opening up the building as an experimental play space.

The dramatic example of this so far has been Tan Dun’s abbreviated version of the Peony Pavilion staged in the Astor Court. This was a true experiment, where the results where more interesting than the event itself. Dun’s piece is easy to admire and hard to enjoy: it’s about ninety minutes, rather than several days, and in the hands of his collaborator Zhang Jun is incredibly stylish. But the dramatic and vocal manners are truly alien to most Western listeners, and their cultural meanings are impossible to discern, much like some of the landscape scrolls in the Asian galleries, beautiful as a whole but full of small figures representing narratives we’ve never heard. The fascinating part was what the music did to the museum — the Astor Court is a place for rest and contemplation, a seemingly natural space, but to have human performers moving through it and making music revealed how it is entirely artificial. We know this, of course, but when we are sitting in there, nursing our museum feet, we don’t see that.

Even more interesting and entirely more promising is Tomer’s appointment of Paul D. Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, as artist in residence for the current season. Miller is arguably the leading embodiment of ‘new media,’ in theory and practice, on the planet: DJ/electronic musician, digital artist, writer, editor, app developer, peripatetic and involved (as a solo artist and collaborator) in the extreme. New media is a vague marketing concept that means nothing at all to all people, especially when someone’s trying to sell something to someone else, but Miller’s praxis and production define it, by example, in concrete terms. His thinking, as expressed in his books and recordings, emphasizes digital borrowing, recontextualization, transformation. He’s sort of a futurist, envisioning a new concept of culture, one that is free of the atavistic features of geography, blood, language, religion, and in no small part he’s responsible for creating it.

What he’s doing at the Met is using the museum as a resource of cultural history and objects, something to rummage through, borrow from and transform. This is an extremely exciting idea, one that seems both so new and so necessary that the actual quality and experience of the output could fairly be considered irrelevant: that he’s taking what is a warehouse of cultural bric-a-brac (as stunning as the objects themselves can be) and reviving it is culturally invaluable. This is not residency as the ultimate artist’s retreat, a place to ruminate among the world’s cultural heritage in search of the chimera of inspiration: Miller is using the materials and resources of the Met to make music.

He is, of course, ruminating in a way, as anyone in his position should. The entire collection, including archives, is open to him, and he’s exploring it and responding to it, then turning information about what he finds, via measurements, into sound: height, width and depth can be turned into pitch, volume and duration, and so this:


Can be represented by this 3D volumetric scan:

Courtesy Paul D. Miller

Courtesy Paul D. Miller

and then heard through the sonification of data. This is what Miller is doing for The Nauru Elegies, his first production using the Met’s resources (he brought showing of the Korean film Madame Freedom in the fall, with his new score, but that was a previous work), showing this Friday, January 18, 7:00pm at the Met and streaming online. Data — measurements of objects, GPS coordinates, data streams — become sounds and pitches and rhythms, “beats meet strings, electronic sounds generated by data ” Miller will be sampling and looping the material that his ensemble will be playing, treating the performance, itself generated from data, as more information to be transformed and re-presented.

That is what is so profoundly simple about this residency (which will also include a talk from him in the Oceanic Gallery, a concert work based on water and ice in March, a conversation on climate change with Bill McKibben and performances based on old technology — Civil War photography — and new — the iPad). Art is information and a large part of culture, which is also information. Ideas about tradition and heritage are ideas about information, instructions and guidelines passed down and around to be followed, altered and rejected. Museums are enormous and dense repositories of information, but the curatorial profession guards that information jealously, presents it grudgingly and assumes that the information is both relevant and admirable while doing little to engage with the fundamental idea that culture is about spreading that information, while shutting it away is the first step in stifling culture. However The Nauru Elegies sounds to the ears and looks to the eyes, however satisfying or disappointing the experience of it might be, the Met Museum, with considerable help from Tomer and Miller, appears to be becoming an actual cultural institution.

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