Oktophonie by Karlheinz Stockhausen/ Rikrit Tiravanija at Park Avenue Armory
By Anthony Tommasini
Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde German composer who died in 2007, is on a roll at, of all places, the Park Avenue Armory, a building dedicated in 1880 as the headquarters of New York’s Seventh Regiment, a volunteer outfit that catered to the city’s silk-stocking set.
Last summer the New York Philharmonic and its conductor, Alan Gilbert, ended the season with a concert at the armory called “Philharmonic 360.” The centerpiece of the program was Stockhausen’s “Gruppen,” performed as stipulated with three separate orchestras encircling an audience.
On Wednesday night, in the first of nine performances (three have been added to the initial run by popular demand), the armory presented another Stockhausen spectacular: “Oktophonie,” a 70-minute, electronic work in which the audience sits in the midst of eight speakers, which were placed as if in the corners of a cube. The piece is actually the second act of Stockhausen’s pathbreaking opera “Dienstag” (or “Tuesday”), the fourth installment of “Licht,” a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week, an epic to end all epics. The music of “Oktophonie” depicts a cosmic battle between the forces of the archangel Michael and those of Lucifer. But it can also be performed, as it was here, separately as a concert work.
The armory added elements of ritual and theater to what was basically a listening and light show. An audience of 375 (the maximum) sat in a circle as an eight-channel digital recording of “Oktophonie” was played, with Kathinka Pasveer, the sound projectionist, at the control board in the middle of the audience. The visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, in keeping with Stockhausen’s request that “Oktophonie” be experienced as it might be in outer space, turned the Drill Hall into a sort of lunar landscape.
The floor was covered with a cream carpet. Audience members, sitting on the floor leaning against individual back supports, had to take off their shoes and were asked to don simple white cloaks, which was not as silly as it may seem. During stretches of the work, while a play of lights in the rafters of the 80-foot-high hall caught your attention, the white cloaks made the people in the darkened floor area blend into the lunar atmosphere.
The “Oktophonie” score is arresting and ominous. Sustained low, wavering drones are heard almost constantly, so that even bouts of angst, dissonance and intensity seem grounded, sort of ur-tonal music. There are eerie screeches, crackling bursts and whistling effects. Sirens are sometimes terrifying and sometimes made alluring, like a celestial choir of fire trucks. The piece evokes Stockhausen’s memories of fighter bombers and explosives as a 16-year-old conscript at a field hospital near a battlefront in Bedburg, Germany, during World War II. Steely, clattering shards of noise depict the forces of Michael and Lucifer in fierce combat. But there are timeout episodes, when the pervasive drones turn high-pitched and heavenly.
The lighting by the designer Brian Scott was a little tame. For long periods the hall was basically dark, with just colored lights shining down or fleeting shafts of light coming from the sides. As the piece ended, orange-tinged lights filled the hall, like the glow after some cosmic detonation, and finally we could see one another.
This was “Oktophonie” as a musical and environmental experience. Still, I yearned for imagery and wished there had been videos. The action of this act includes: scenes of downed aircraft; shadowy figures slipping out of rock faces; a writhing, miniature human body; Michael’s trumpeter troops dressed in blue and red. Now that would be something.
Still, here was a chance to hear “Oktophonie” in ideal conditions. And people entered into the ritual spirit. Most everyone wore cloaks. I was impressed again at how game New Yorkers are for collective experiences, despite the unfair stereotype that we are all feisty individualists.