The Met Is Finally Doing Something With Its Whitney Hand-Me-Down, the Breuer Building

Photo: Ed Lederman

If you’re wondering what’s going on with the Brutalist hulk of the empty Marcel Breuer building on 75th Street now that the Whitney is firmly established downtown, wonder no longer. The Metropolitan has already started its programming for the new satellite space — but the structure itself is still going to be empty for a while.

New York City is as much a soundscape as it is a landscape. There are the traditional noises of the city: sirens, taxis, a halal cart being dragged across a crosswalk. But then there are less expected sounds: the songs of rare birds passing through Central Park, the waves at Rockaway, or an actually tuneful street-side busker. Before it expands to the Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum is inviting visitors to explore the sonic environment between the two spaces in the outdoor space of the city.

Soundwalk 9:09, a project by composer John Luther Adams, will ask NYC wanderers to email field recordings from the blocks separating what Adams calls the “Big Met” and the new building. When the collection period ends on July 31, Adams will begin molding the recordings into a piece that will last exactly as long as its title, nine minutes and nine seconds. “I find the breath of the city itself, that roar, really beautiful, like the roar of the sea,” Adams says. The piece will be unveiled through the Met’s smartphone app as well as on Q2 Music, WQXR’s online radio station devoted to contemporary classical composition, when the Breuer building reopens on March 10, 2016.

The specific duration comes from the time it took for Adams and the Met’s general manager of concerts and lectures, Limor Tomer, to walk from one building to the other one day while they discussed the possibility of creating a work for the new space. “I started to think about the experience of the relationship between the two buildings,” Tomer says. “What would it be like to actually program the space in between them?”

Hence a living concert that is both derived from and reflects on the context it’s presented in: Manhattan’s Upper East Side of quiet residential blocks abutting retail stores and the edges of Central Park. “I taped it on my iPhone,” Tomer says. “The minute you do that, an awareness comes into the picture; you start to hear your own footsteps, all the sounds layered on top of it. There was a shocking amount of animal noise, birds, dogs, horses clippity-clopping.”

Soundwalk 9:09 will encourage a kind of deep listening that’s new even for Adams, who only recently moved to the city — southwest Harlem, to be exact. “I’m a new New Yorker. I’m still learning how to hear and how to listen in this place,” he says. “We have a tiny little terrace; when I sit out there, I’m beginning to hear distinct signals within the noise. We’ve got mourning doves. When the air’s right, you can hear the shards of a church bell, maybe the smaller bell of St. John’s.”

Embracing the found sound of the environment isn’t a new strategy for Adams, whose previous home of Alaska provided natural fodder for his compositions. But he has never before used crowd-sourcing, a particularly relevant technique in the age of the iPhone, when everyone carries around a high-definition microphone in their pocket. “I’m still a control freak — I’m a composer — but I’m finding that I’m more and more curious about what other people hear,” Adams says.

By the time Adams’s piece debuts, however, the Breuer location might start to sound a little more like its downtown Whitney cousin. We could be recording the ambient noise of High Line–style construction as real-estate brokers hustle the new condos being developed out of property the Whitney Museum sold before it finalized its move south. An art-museum view is the new Central Park vista, after all.

Met Announces a Project for the Breuer Building