Join us Wednesday, October 15, for the next event in the IASH Fellows’ Speaker Series. Assistant Professor of Music Drew Massey will present “Thomas Adès and the Dilemmas of Musical Surrealism” at noon in the IASH Conference Room (LN 1106).
Few scholars of Adès’s music would debate the significance of surrealism in the forging of his public image over the course of the last 25 years. Yet the essentially unquestioned absorption of surrealism as a meaningful discursive frame for Adès’s music ought to give us pause, and it is the goal of this presentation to explain why that is the case.
First, Massey suggests that surrealism has achieved such purchase in the critical conversation surrounding Adès because of its ability to work so effectively as a proxy vocabulary for other debates. In the first part of this presentation, Massey considers how the idea of surrealism has provided a means to discuss various degrees of “queerness” in Adès’s music (including but not limited to gender and sexuality) while avoiding a rhetoric which uses alterity and identity politics as its primary argumentative fulcra. Although Adès is hardly the only openly gay composer writing today, Massey suggests that critics’ preoccupation with Adès’s relationship to surrealism has served a powerful symbolic role in depicting Adès as a gay composer who simultaneously avoids conspicuous markers of difference.
In the second half of this presentation, Massey considers the historiographic work that is performed by the rhetoric of surrealism that has swirled around Adès and his music. Adès’s surrealist works close off an apparent “problem” in the history of modernism insofar as surrealism – unlike other component movements in modernism like futurism and impressionism – has struggled to find its proper corollary in music, and hence enjoy status as a fully realized dimension of modernism with active practices across the arts. Yet such a situation is not without its historiographic dilemmas. On the one hand, the reliance on surrealism vis-à-vis Adès is a somewhat anachronistic approach, situating a large part of Adès’s significance in terms of a movement that has mostly run its course. On the other hand, it provides an aesthetic and historical basis for Adès’s prominence today, while being ambiguous enough to leave him plenty of room to maneuver in the future without shedding this marker of canonical belonging.
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