Stockhausen Syndrome

Karlheinz Stockhausen's OKTOPHONIE with visuals by Rirkrit Tiravanija at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

“WOULD YOU LIKE to join the inner circle?” Not the kind of invitation I receive nearly often enough, but at the Wednesday night final performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s OKTOPHONIE, the Park Avenue Armory’s latest coup de théâtre, an usher seemed determined to shift me from my arbitrarily chosen middle-section seat to one in the front row. This was after I, along with every other ticket holder, had been asked to remove my shoes and don a white cloak (actually closer to a kind of disposable poncho), before heading for a circular white platform on which were ranged concentric rings of minimalist deck chairs. This visually—and, presumably, spiritually—unifying requirement was the brainchild of jack-of-all-disciplines (installation, cookery, Ping-Pong) Rirkrit Tiravanija, but it also jibed with the late composer’s kosmische aesthetic.

A senior couple behind me noted the mise-en-scène’s similarity to a planetarium’s, also recalling the latter venue’s popularity among smokers. And as if on cue, I could have sworn I detected a familiar heavy-sweet aroma. But most likely it was the power of suggestion, things having become less free-’n’-easy since a marathon performance of most of the composer’s works was staged in a spherical auditorium at the 1970 Osaka World Fair. There was also an undeniable element of Halloween to the setup, as the cloaked masses fumbled for their places in the dimly lit interior like myopic phantoms. (Stockhausen preferred that listeners experience his work in total darkness, but he was usually required to compromise, often projecting a single moonlike disc of light above the performers as a simple visual focus.)

As the crowd settled in, the lights faded to black, then flashed on again to the accompaniment of a burst of electronic noise. This was overseen by “sound projectionist” Kathinka Pasveer, a longtime Stockhausen collaborator and interpreter, who was seated behind a semicircular desk in the center of the hall, a few feet away from me. For the next seventy minutes, Pasveer twiddled knobs on a mixer, perused an array of laptops (the glow of their Apple logos softened by draped white fabric), and bombarded us with music that, courtesy of a cubic speaker arrangement (four speakers just above ground level, another four forty-five feet up), zoomed around the space in a way that made mere quadraphonic reproduction seem rather half-assed. The volume wasn’t overwhelming, but the dimensionality of the sound made for an immersive experience nonetheless.

OKTOPHONIE is part of Stockhausen’s Licht (Light) cycle—seven operas, each of which contains sections that also function as stand-alone works. OKTOPHONIE belongs to the second act of Dienstag (Tuesday), the fourth opera in the cycle. According to the program—which also reproduces a section of the unhinged-looking score as well as technical instructions such as “The rotations roughly follow the pitch contour of the glissandi: in the case of a downward glissando the rotation descends, in the case of an upward glissando it climbs again, more or less parallel with the glissando, and so on” [emphases the composer’s]—Dienstag focuses on the conflict between the angels Michael and Lucifer, and was inspired in part by the composer’s experience of conflict as a teenager during World War II.

Kathinka Pasveer in Karlheinz Stockhausen's OKTOPHONIE at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Attempting to describe the experience of the piece itself feels as futile as describing music always does. If you’re a Stockhausen fan, you’d probably love it; if not, probably not. As an enthusiast more in theory than in practice—I own one (rarely played) recording, 1968’s Stimmung, and have attended one previous performance, at Frieze Music in London in 2005—I enjoyed the experience without being truly awed. Perhaps the composer, who died in 2007, is a victim of his own success, having become a major influence on composers in both academic and “popular” spheres; it is difficult not to now find his work a little dated. So many of the sounds here have been so thoroughly integrated into electronica and noise music that it’s easy to forget their originality.

Filtering into the ornate Veterans Room post-performance, clutching my free-drink ticket, I remembered a 1995 gambit by the Wire magazine and BBC Radio 3 in which Stockhausen was sent tapes containing music by a clutch of then current post-techno artists, and vice versa. This did result in the odd spark of mutual admiration, but for the most part, the elder composer found the young pretenders’ efforts too repetitive, and the club kids noted their senior counterpart’s compositions’ undanceability. But Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, did at least offer the hand of friendship: “He should hang out with me and my mates: That would be a laugh. I’d be quite into having him ’round.” Regrettably, if unsurprisingly, the date was never arranged.