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Museum Music: Ryoji Ikeda's "superposition" at the Met Museum; Sound/Source at MoMA PS1

Metropolitan museum
Are art museums the new concert halls?

Not exactly, but, there is a long and storied tradition of presenting live music in art galleries and museums. Particularly in the realm of new music: early shows by Steve Reich and Philip Glass were held at SoHo's Paula Cooper Gallery, and the first Bang on a Can Marathon took place at Exit Art. (The BOAC Summer Marathon still takes place each July at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA.)

But, the connection between music and art goes back much further. Indeed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts the oldest continuous major concert series in NYC (who knew?) Historically, the Met's offerings have leaned heavily towards the baroque and classical, usually performed in the somewhat-fusty Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, which looks like it hasn't been renovated since it opened in 1954. 

In 2011, the Met hired Limor Tomer as the new General Manager for Concerts and Lectures. Tomer, who previously had been a producer at both WQXR and the Whitney Museum, quickly moved to shake things up at the Met, rebranding the series Met Museum Presents and expanding the offerings to New, World, and Experimental music. Recent highlights include the NY Phil's CONTACT! and Biennial, world premieres from Lembit Beecher and Kate Soperan all-day John Zorn 60th birthday fest in the galleries, and presentations by Wordless Music at the Temple of Dendur.

SUPERPOSITION_BER_7047Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Taking things to a whole other level, the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium was packed to overflow Friday night for the U.S. premiere of Japanese electronic composer/visual artist Ryoji Ikeda's superposition. Anyone who had the chance to see Ikeda's The Transfinite at the Park Avenue Armory in 2011 knows that he creates immersive sensory experiences that attempt to translate complex data sets into sound and visuals. (Ikeda's Test Patterns (2008) is being shown each night in October at 11:57pm on the screens above Times Square; details here.)

It would be difficult to explain what superposition was trying to convey without a PhD in quantum mechanics, but at a very basic level, Ikeda seeks to give some sense of the awesome scope of nature: from the smallest subatomic particles, to the vastness of the Universe. As such, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the blur of blinding visuals and precise, pixellated music. Not to mention the volume: earplugs were distributed to the audience at the entrance.

The hour-long work - which, for the first time in Ikeda's output, featured live performers (Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould) - felt, at various points, like a collective reprogramming or communal worship, both coldly scientific and ecstatically beautiful. In the end, superposition doesn't quite succeed in its quixotic mission to "capture the truth of nature" - which is precisely Ikeda's point. The only thing I can compare it to is the psychedelic scene towards the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Bowman is transported through a worm hole, accompanied by the disturbing music of Ligeti's Requiem. The below video gives some sense of what it was, but unfortunately doesn't come close to the experience of witnessing it live.

MoMA PS1 has also had a long connection with music, most notably with the summer Warm Up series, which hosts DJs and live acts from June to September. In recent years, PS1 has also added the year-round Sunday Sessions, housed in a white-clad geodesic dome in the main courtyard, which is outfitted with omnidirectional speakers for a fully immersive sound experience. 

This past Sunday, the intrepid New Amsterdam Records hosted a day-long festival at PS1 called Sound/Sourcefeaturing both new and classic works of electroacoustic music, exploring the interplay between man-made and electronic sounds. When I arrived, Olga Bell was performing Alvin Lucier's landmark 1969 work I am sitting in a room, in which a spoken text is recorded and played back over itself multiple times until the words become indecipherable, interacting with the resonance of the dome. 

MoMA PS1 Sound/Source

Inside the museum, there were sound and video installations by Nate Boyce and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) in the basement Boiler Room, and Lilly Morris and Lilly Fang in the rooftop Richard Serra Room. On the way up in the elevator, Lucky Dragons' cheerful electro-minimalist musings played on a continuous loop. 

Later on, members of Roomful of Teeth - who perform tonight at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival - performed a live arrangement of Paul Lansky's Idle Chatter and Notjustmoreidlechatter, both pioneering works from the 80's that combined electronics with polyphonic singing and silly chipmunk-like voices. Surrounding them were Lansky's 2001 electronic work Pattern's Patterns and Holly Herndon's newly composed response to Lansky's Idle Chatter, mixing her own voice and recorded telephone conversations with wild, crashing electronics. 

Outside, Lesley Flanigan, MV Carbon and Maria Chavez played with electronics and feedback in an extended improvisation on the terrace near the entrance. Towards sunset, Olga Bell and ROT's Caroline Shaw collaborated with Daniel Wohl on a new work for voice and electronics in the Serra Room. Back down in the dome, Tyondai Braxton, best known as a guitarist and occasional orchestra composer, mixed electronics live on a circuit board. 

Vicky Chow, Surface Image
But, of all the sets during Sound/Source, the one which is seared in my memory was Vicky Chow's extraordinary performance of Tristan Perich's Surface Image, which will be released on New Amsterdam next week. This wasn't my first encounter with Surface Image - I heard the premiere at Roulette last year, then again this summer at Caramoor - but with the dome's surround sound setup, I felt like I was truly hearing it for the first time. 

Surface Image is essentially an hour-long concerto for piano and electronics, with the "orchestra" made up of 40 individual speakers, each of which transmit a series of 1-bit sounds created by pulses of electricity. But, while some of Tristan's other 1-bit works sound like a Nintendo video game, Surface Image is a masterpiece of (Post)Romantic proportions: an epic struggle between man and machine, pushing the piano beyond the limits of playability. There are moments of breakneck virtuosity and profound lyricism, beauty and menace. It is both an alien landscape and one that's eerily familiar. I was completely riveted for the entire hour, in much the same way I was the first time I heard Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur or, bettter, Des Canyons Aux Étoiles.

Chow told me afterwards that when she first performed Surface Image, she was frustrated by her inability to keep up with the 1-bit speakers' frenetic pace, but later realized that there was something beautiful about her failure, something reassuringly human. As with Ikeda's superposition, it was a welcome reminder that despite our ever-increasing ability to harness the mysteries of math and science, nothing can ever supplant the capacity of the human spirit, flaws and all. (You can read more about Surface Image and listen to a stream of the recording on WQXR's website.)

Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich

More pics from Ryoji Ikeda's superposition here. More pics from Sound/Source here