One person’s final frontier is another’s impersonal void, or at least those are the two experiences of space you’re likely to have at Oktophonie at the Park Avenue Armory. On the first of its performance run that started this week, the crowd, some grudgingly, took off their shoes and put on white “cloaks” (really more like ponchos) and filed into the circles of chairs on the floor of a raised white stage. What followed was over an hour of what is described as a “ritualized lunar experience,” scored by cold modernist music and shifts of light.
If you’re planning to go to Oktophonie, it’s worth knowing what you are getting into. While much of the art at the Park Avenue Armory is very accessible and often reveling in spectacle, such as Ann Hamilton’s recent The Event of a Thread, this is much different. I recommend giving the prolific German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s early 1990s Oktophonie a listen prior to dedicating an hour of being immersed in it. The late Stockhausen was a boundary-breaking and highly experimental early electronic musician, and the sprawl of this piece, with its constant undercurrent of rumbling bass, has echoing spectral noises that sound like they’re being hurled across a dark abyss. When a human voice or what sounds like a train emerges from the sound, your ears hang onto them like they are life support. The piece itself has numerous tracks mixing together in eight layers (hence the “okto”) with elements of chance, and Stockhausen apparently intended for it to be performed in space. This is its first time to be staged in New York, and it is part of a greater work called Licht which is a cycle of seven “operas” that are meant to be an eternal loop. It’s not a friendly work and takes some mental endurance, but Stockhausen was always concentrated more on the aesthetics than human connection (a fault that may have played no small part in his comments following 9/11 that still get him some posthumous scorn).
At the Armory, one of his collaborators, Kathinka Pasveer, performs the piece at a station of electronics in the center of the stage, dressed in white and wearing a mission control-like headset ready to pilot us into space. The installation aspect of the Armory presentation of Oktophonie could use some variation, because while there is a light installation in addition to the cultish seating arrangement in the Rirkrit Tiravanija-designed “lunar environment,” it doesn’t have enough variation to make it interesting. My experience would have been better if I could have listened to the music in the dark and have had the ability to move around. The music feels like it’s flying through the space, yet as an audience member I felt grounded. As the lights came up again and people pulled off their white cloaks and looked for their shoes, I didn’t exactly feel like I’d been to the moon, but spending time with Stockhausen’s electronic landscape was definitely otherworldly.
Oktophonie takes place at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 27.