Sitting with other audience members in a circle on the floor of the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall, bathed in a pale shifting glow from lights high above, with the electronic intonations of Karlheinz Stockhausen echoing around the space, it was hard to think of anything but a decades earlier visit to the Los Angeles Planetarium to experience Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” augmented by a laser show and a contact high from all the skunk-weed wafting in the air. Even without the pot — this is Bloomberg’s New York, after all — Stockhausen’s music did manage at moments to induce an altered state. The fluctuating lights and minimal scenography — Rirkrit Tiravanija placed the audience, shrouded in white cloaks handed out at the entrance, on a white circular platform — turned out to be more distracting than enriching, anchoring the work and the listeners in a specific place rather than setting them free.
Oktophonie is many things. Composed in 1991, when the father of electronic music was in his early 60s and had mastered a wide range of techniques, it is a coherent, mature work that still bristles with inventiveness. It is also the score to Dienstag (Tuesday), the fourth opera in a seven-work cycle written between 1980 and 2003, telling the story of an epic battle between Michael and Lucifer. So Oktophonie can be understood as an attempt to convert alchemically the raw force of war into art.
More prosaically, it is an hour-long piece of recorded electronic music played back over eight channels arrayed like the corners of a cube, four of them surrounding the audience at ground level and four set 45-feet above. This configuration allows Kathinka Pasveer, a longtime collaborator of Stockhausen’s who operates under the apt title of sound projectionist, to playback the tracks so that the sounds whirl about the great space and hover over the listeners heads. While the music is striking for way the complex sounds seem to morph from evocations of familiar instruments — you would swear at times that you are listening to a flute, an oboe, a violin — to the uncanny songs of whales, it is the sense of sound in movement that most defines the work. When the New York Philharmonic attempted to create similar effect while playing Stockhausen’s Gruppen in the same space last year, the outcome was hit or miss. Recorded music, and a projectionist of Pasveer’s talents, are clearly needed to make the music take flight.
The weeklong run of Oktophonie concludes March 27.