Wearing White (or Pondering It) for a Surround-Sound Extravaganza

United StatesUnited States Stockhausen, OKTOPHONIE: Rirkrit Tiravanija (visual artist), Kathinka Pasveer (sound projectionist), Igor Kavulek (sound designer), Brian Scott (lighting designer), Park Avenue Armory, New York City. 24.3.2013 (BH)

Stockhausen: OKTOPHONIE (1990/1991) from Dienstag

Ritual is an integral part of the concert experience, but some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s works take the idea to an entirely different level. Part of the opera Dienstag (Tuesday) from the composer’s vast seven-opera cycle Licht, “OKTOPHONIE” is completely electronic and moreover, its ritual presentation is almost inseparable from the musical content. Only afterward, poring over the diagrams in the printed program, along with the cogent notes by Stockhausen authority Joe Drew, did I begin to get an inkling of the composer’s intentions.

The fascinating, 70-minute score is richly layered with low drones, metallic roars, something resembling glass breaking, shards of buzzing feedback, pitch clusters—and what Stockhausen calls “sound bombs” and “shots.” The former fall from above; the latter are projected from below, hurtling upward. (Many of the sounds evoke those of World War II, when the composer was stationed at a field hospital—at age sixteen.) Stockhausen intended the sounds to be emitted from eight points in a cube, with the audience seated in the middle; ideally one hears sounds rotating in circles overhead, below and on all four sides—or even diagonally across the cube’s interior, running “through” the audience.

For the Park Avenue Armory, the environment designed by noted Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija was successful on its own understated terms (more specifics below), but I confess that at least from where I sat (virtually dead center, near the sound projectionist, Kathinka Pasveer) much of the spatial movement went undetected. I had little sensation of being at the center of eight discrete points; the sound was certainly surrounding us—pleasantly, often thrillingly—but the feeling was of a cloud, rather than sound traveling along an axis, or otherwise articulating the space.

Just thinking out loud (and if I understand the composer’s concept correctly), the ideal way to experience OKTOPHONIE might be while suspended in some way, with the speakers both above and below the audience; in this version, our ears were at ground level of the cube. Without having seen the composer’s specific staging instructions—and will all due respect to the Armory for even tackling this project in the first place—I wonder whether the ideal environment might be something more like an anechoic chamber (i.e., with very little resonance or acoustic decay), allowing each of the shimmering tracks to be discerned more clearly. (And in any case the seating—on floor cushions with backs—was mildly uncomfortable, and not conducive to a meditative state.)

Tiravanija, along with lighting designer Brian Scott, placed the audience (roughly 350 people) in a circle on the floor, surrounding Ms. Pasveer, with floor, chairs and any extraneous wiring all made white. Audience members were “invited” to wear white as well, a notion that made me chuckle, given that grimy New York City is not exactly a hotbed of light-colored clothing. In any case, long white vests were given to all participants, making us resemble altar boys, or perhaps overdeveloped lab rats. The subtle lighting generally bathed the crowd in a soft glow, starting with red, eventually ending with “plain” white, with (especially in the first half) occasional beams of light intersecting the crowd.

Opportunities to experience this musical oddity in any kind of 360-degree space are rare, not to mention the chance to hear it executed with such care, so a bit of gratitude to all involved is in order. But I confess that it wasn’t quite the transcendent experience—or rather, the transcendent ritual—that I expected.

Bruce Hodges