"My music is a fast spaceship to the divine." – Karlheinz Stockhausen
In May 2007, I happened to find myself in Rome for a concert of electronic music by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most influential—if polarizing—musical figures of the 20th century. Stockhausen himself sat at a soundboard in the center of Sinopoli Hall, fiddling with knobs while synthesized sounds bounced around the interior, projected from all directions. Included on the program that day was the world premiere of Cosmic Pulses, an hour-long torrent of sound that finally had its NYC premiere at Issue Project Room in 2011 (and would have been performed last October at Alice Tully Hall, were it not for Superstorm Sandy).
The Rome concert turned out to be the last one that Stockhausen ever gave: he died unexpectedly of a heart attack six months later at his home in Kürten, Germany. Fortunately, Stockhausen's longtime collaborators, Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, have carried on, offering authoritative performances of Stockhausen's iconoclastic works while scrupulously maintaining and protecting his musical legacy.
But, since Stockhausen's passing over five years ago, Suzanne and Kathinka haven't been seen on our shores—until this week, that is, where they both arrived to present the NY premiere of OKTOPHONIE at the Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Completed in 1991, OKTOPHONIE was originally the musical accompaniment to Dienstag (Tuesday), part of Stockhausen's massive seven-opera cycle, Licht. But, it also stands on its own, "like a surviving capital from a cathedral ruin," as Joe Drew states in the program notes.
In his own performances (including the one I saw in Rome), Stockhausen used traditional concert halls, though he longed for a day when halls would be built to his spatial specifications (not unlike another autocratic German composer). Stockhausen also preferred to keep the lights in the hall completely dark, with only a small moon projected onstage for those who needed something on which to focus.
For this performance, Armory Artistic Director Alex Poots invited visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to come up with a more immersive environment, reflective of the lunar landscape that Stockhausen envisioned. Upon entering the Drill Hall Saturday afternoon, I was handed a white cloak and was instructed to remove my shoes before taking a seat at one of the 375 seat cushions placed in concentric circles on a cream-colored carpet in the center. As hippy-dippy as it might sound, the experience itself was exceedingly normal, almost soothing.
In the center, Pasveer was positioned at a soundboard (about half the size of the one Stockhausen used in Rome), with a pair of shrouded PowerBooks to her right. Due to the immense size of the Drill Hall, Stockhausen's longtime sound engineer, Igor Kavulek, expanded the prescribed eight single-channel speakers to 56—the most ever—in order to achieve the proper octophonic sound.
At times, OKTOPHONIE seems a bit dated, such as the recurring bouncy synth that sounds as if it were cribbed from the beginning of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." But before long, the music slips into a long drone, over which plays an increasingly heady mix of acoustic and electronic sounds: everything from sirens and shrieks, to chanting and singing. Most startling were the blaring trumpets and trombones that occur halfway through, depicting the epic battle between the archangels Michael and Lucifer.
Throughout the score, Stockhausen uses "sound bombs"—music that starts at one end of the hall seems to travel over your shoulder and crash land somewhere behind you. Stockhausen achieves this effect by placing the audience in the center of a aural cube, so that the music appears to move both horizontally and vertically. Depending on where you sat, your experience of OKTOPHONIE could be completely different from someone sitting just a few feet away.
Working with lighting designer Brian Scott, Tiravanija designed a lighting scheme that tracked the ebb and flow of the 70-minute work, a significant departure from Stockhausen's simple moon projection. Starting in near-darkness, high spots rose and faded in sequence, bathing the center in successive hues of blue, orange, violet, and red; it encouraged a semi-conscious listening state, allowing the music to simply wash over you. In the final celestial sequence, all the lights came fully on, so that for the first time we could all clearly see one another. I felt an immediate connection with these strangers, even though no words had passed between us.
"Not every composer can be a generator," she said. "Karlheinz was never happy unless he found something new...For most of his career, Karlheinz felt alone in the world of electronic music, at least among his peers. But, when electronic music became popular in the '90s, all sorts of people approached Karlheinz looking for guidance, because they suddenly realized how hard it was to write this music."
For her part, Kathinka said that she would have preferred the hall be left in darkness, but at the same time was sympathetic to Scott and Tiravanija's ability to transport the listeners through their set and lighting scheme.
"Electronic music liberates the listener to have their own individual experience, precisely because there is nothing to look at: no violinists, no percussionists, no conductor."
Kathinka also recalled Stockhausen's belief that the world would always be about 40 years behind him. With continuing advancements in sound technology and the explosion of EDM as a major cultural phenomenon, could it be that Stockhausen is finally having his time? Time will tell.
OKTOPHONIE continues at the Armory through tomorrow, but you'll need to be creative about getting a ticket, as the run is completely sold out. If you can't get in, take solace in the fact that there's more Stockhausen coming to NYC this summer, when the Lincoln Center Festival presents "Michael's Journey Around the World," also from Licht. And there's always Cosmic Pulses, which I have on good authority will be heard here in the not-too-distant future.
More pics on the photo page.