Can a Sound Installation Take You to Outer Space?

At Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, the last showing of “Oktophonie,” a 70-minute, pulsating electronic opera by the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, began in a hushed silence

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Stephanie Berger

Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Oktophonie" at Park Avenue Armory.

At Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, the last showing of “Oktophonie,” a 70-minute, pulsating electronic opera by the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, began in a hushed silence. After filing into the cavernous 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall, the well-heeled New York audience had to go barefoot and don shapeless white cloaks. The lights dimmed and we, a sea of floating ghosts, settled into the “seats”—a padded, cream-colored circle at the center of the hall. Created by Thai visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, the environment was meant to offer its inhabitants a “ritualized lunar experience,” in keeping with Stockhausen’s request that the piece be performed as if from outer space.

What followed, at least in this layman’s estimation, was what you made of it. Stockhausen, an avant-garde visionary who, among other acclaimed pieces, conceived Germany’s spherical concert hall at the 1970 Osaka World Fair, passed away in 2007 but his works continue to draw crowds. Last spring, in tandem with the New York Philharmonic, the Armory staged a performance of his orchestral trio Gruppen; he has become an almost routine fixture in the Lincoln Center’s calendar.

“Oktophonie” is the musical accompaniment of one of the acts in Stockhausen’s seven-opera Licht (“Light) cycle. Rather ambitiously, it purports to recreate the Biblical battle between Lucifer and Michael—a dramatic mission laden with a heavy, cosmic freight. The performance’s program notes quote Stockhausen’s recollection of his time as a teenager stationed at a field hospital during World War II: “Suddenly there was this screaming howl of a fighter-bomber; everything was crackling, spattering and exploding around me. I just shut my eyes tight…till I heard the hornets whistling off, opened my eyes and looked at the criss-cross of bullet-holes all around me.”

“Oktophonie,” in a sense, recreates that earth-shattering conflict: coruscating waves of sound from the synthesizer play against the flickering glare of lighting rigged up in the Armory’s ceiling. Jagged screeches, the mournful wail of sirens, an ominous blare of trumpets punctuate moments of whispering, haunting calm. If a glass of wine can conjure up notes of shoe leather and gooseberry, then sitting through “Oktophonie” can lead to visions of barren, windswept tundra and ruined satellites tumbling out of orbit in flames.

And yet “Oktophonie” also presents its audience with something far more mundane. Sitting in my white cloak, I couldn’t help but notice the silhouette of an Armory exit door, the black socks of the person next to me. There were yawns to my left, hunched figures and wiggling toes to my right. Because of the placement of the installation’s eight speakers, each audience member was meant to have a unique experience, mediated by their own position in the “lunar” sphere. But as the Bible’s titans raged in Stockhausen’s universe above, it seemed we were all part of a collective act, hypnotic to some and inscrutable to all. At the end, all is light; the white cloaks come off, the high heels strap back on and the echoes of “Oktophonie” fade into the chill New York night.

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