Music Review: D J Spooky’s ‘Nauru Elegies’ at Metropolitan Museum

January 21st, 2013

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Paul D. Miller, a k a D J Spooky, who is artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, performing there on Friday.

The motto of Met Museum Presents, the Metropolitan’s revamped series of concerts and lectures, is “It’s All About the Met.”

It is a succinct summary of the programming priority of Limor Tomer, the series’s general manager: tying the presentations to the museum’s collections and exhibitions. To that end Ms. Tomer invited Paul D. Miller, the composer and hip-hop turntablist who performs as D J Spooky, to be an artist in residence this season, creating a series of events connected to the art on display.

Friday evening brought Mr. Miller’s second offering, “The Nauru Elegies,” a well meaning but embarrassing spectacle ostensibly related to the collection of Oceanic art. (Mr. Miller led a tour of those galleries on Saturday.)

Even before connecting with the Met, Mr. Miller nursed an interest in the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, a onetime German colony occupied by the Japanese during World War II, exploited for its mineral resources and abused as a tax shelter. Its sad history inspired “The Nauru Elegies,” which, according to Mr. Miller’s Web site, “represents a virtual territory at a culmination of global currents, and creates music compositions that reflect that kind of virtuality.”

Many such pseudo-academic buzzwords are thrown around during the hourlong work. Its technological and philosophical ambitions are lofty.

But as multimedia performances go “The Nauru Elegies” is essentially standard issue. Mr. Miller’s electronic rhythms, textures and samples join syrupy melodies and pulsing arpeggios for a live string quartet (the intrepid teenagers of the Pannonia Quartet, part of the new-music youth ensemble Face the Music) as the accompaniment to shaky video footage of the island, focusing on the melancholy ruins of the Nauru Phosphate Corporation.

The video footage is punctuated by interminable computer simulations of urban and island topographies and quotations from writers ranging from Goethe to Adorno about art, economics and, thanks to the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, the “abyss of deconstruction.” High-minded, confusing and boring, the whole thing is an overearnest assemblage simultaneously bloated and thin.

The music is simplistic; the beats are bland; the emotional landscape is vaguely, well, elegiac. Its numbing style is shared by artists like the composer Mason Bates and the violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. They, like Mr. Miller, specialize in acoustic-electronic combinations and receive an outsize amount of attention and prestigious commissions because of their presumed — and in my experience, unproven — ability to draw young, diverse audiences to traditionally staid musical settings like the Met.

As for the Met, I am all for bringing the topic of global economic instability into the museum, many of whose donors are important participants in the financial system implicated by Mr. Miller. But his critique of that system is so weak and his artistry so ponderous that “The Nauru Elegies” must be counted, at best, a missed opportunity.

D J Spooky participates in a panel discussion about “The Nauru Elegies” on Wednesday evening at the Metropolitan Museum; (212) 570-3949, metmuseum.org/tickets.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.