classical music

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Building Gets New Music

When it opens as the Met Breuer, there’ll be music with the art. Photo: Gryffindor/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is feeling restless. Long confined to its 2 million–square-foot palace on Fifth Avenue and its country place at the Cloisters, the museum will finally get some breathing room when it spreads out into Met Breuer a few blocks down. The physical growth comes with an expansive new soundtrack, leading visitors by the ear across a decentralized campus.

Starting March 1, you can, for example, walk from the Met to Met Breuer without an art-free moment, thanks to the composer John Luther Adams’s downloadable new piece, Soundwalk 9:09. (The title comes from the length of the journey, going by Adams’s extra-long stride.) Adams, who spent much of his life in the resonant landscape of Alaska, only recently became a New Yorker but has already left his sonic mark on the city. In 2014, when he wrote the outdoor work Sila to be performed at Lincoln Center, he remarked that he had not yet “reached the plane of consciousness” needed to thread the haphazard music of the streets through a piece of his own. Now he has. Soundwalk 9:09 knits together sounds recorded along the way between the two museums and manipulated into a mutable hum. Car horns and exhaling buses amalgamate into a gentle choir.

Many of these sonic artifacts have been distended beyond recognition into a spacey blur, but every now and then you can catch a birdcall or a bit of chatter. Unless that’s the real temporal world you’re hearing, infiltrating Adams’s soundscape. The confusion is intentional. “I’ve listened to it in my studio. It works,” the composer writes in an email. “But without the full mix, including the ‘live’ sounds of the street, the piece is not complete.”

There’ll be more music waiting at Met Breuer. For most of March, the jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer will hold court in the lobby-level gallery, playing concerts — sometimes as many as six sets a day — with a rotating crew of guests. Iyer, the Met’s workaholic artist-in-residence, even provided music for the pauses, in the form of a sound installation and short films he scored. At the end of the month, he moves upstairs for a pair of ticketed concerts with the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The new work, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke was inspired by the subject of the museum’s first solo show, the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Iyer connected with the spare rigor of Mohamedi’s pencil-drawn patterns, the silence between her delicate lines. “Those drawings do something to me at the synaptic level,” he says. “They make my brain buzz. And we wanted to bring that out.”

Stitching together a geographically dispersed institution is a new mandate, but the musical component emerges naturally from the work of Limor Tomer, who runs the museum’s concerts and lectures department. For years before her arrival in 2011, the Met’s performance program was a genteel and slightly sleepy operation, presenting scholars and string quartets in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium for an audience of aging loyalists. (Paul Newman was a regular.) Tomer raised the buzz quotient, hiring resident artists (like DJ Spooky and the ETHEL quartet) with both populist and intellectual credentials. She also, sometimes cumbersomely, presented performances throughout the galleries. In 2014, the now-defunct Gotham Chamber Opera staged Monteverdi’s martial one-act opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in the arms and armor hall, then moved to a stage built among the medieval sculptures for a new opera by Lembit Beecher. “The Met is a repository of ideas, not of objects,” says Tomer. “When you think of it that way, the physical building becomes an opportunity as opposed to a box.”

To celebrate the Met’s expansion, she has also landed the U.S. premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 21-part suite of pieces called Klang. Stockhausen, who died in 2007, was partial to theatrical blowouts that are almost — but not quite — impossible to mount: He once wrote a string quartet in which the players are distributed in four hovering helicopters. Klang, his final, incomplete extravaganza, is a round-the-clock ritual, an assemblage of chamber pieces that includes a half-hour organ solo called “Ascension,” and another piece called “Heaven’s Gate,” for one percussionist, cymbals, sirens, and a wooden door. On March 25 and 26, a force of 33 musicians will spread out among the three locations in a series of repeating and concurrent performances. Peripatetic audience members might start out at the Cloisters on Saturday morning, take the No. 4 bus to the Ur-Met in time for the big organ and percussion numbers, and then make the leisurely jaunt to the Breuer for the electronic portions. That’s a long day, but actually not long enough, Tomer says: “To experience the whole thing you need a helicopter and a time machine — which, considering it’s Stockhausen, is perfect.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Music