I went to see Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (1928-2007) OKTOPHONIE last Tuesday at The Armory here in NY. This turned out to be an appropriate night to go, seeing that this piece is part of his opera about Tuesday, Dienatag (yes, “Tuesday”), which itself is a section of his mega-opus LICHT (“Light”), which examines the mythological aspects of each day of the week. Tuesday is symbolized by Mars and the color red, and this section is about the battle between St. Michael and Lucifer. (KS was not one to underplay grandeur.)
OKTOPHONIE is a pre-recorded electronic work from 1991 that was composed to be played back on eight loudspeakers. It is presented much like a cube, with speakers in each of the eight corners. The audience is placed within this cube. In this particular arrangement the audience was on the same plane as the four lower speakers with the other four mounted above. The audience was arranged in concentric circles around Kathinka Pasveer, a longtime KS collaborator who, in this case, was billed as the “sound projectionist.” From what I’ve read, the original technology allowed only four audio tracks, so dispersing those tracks to the eight speakers had to be performed in real time. I assume that’s what she was doing. I happened to be sitting in the outmost circle and quite close to one of the lower corner speakers. But because of the composition itself, and perhaps because of Ms Pasveer’s mixing, I didn’t feel my experience of the event was at all unbalanced; I could hear sounds from the distant speakers quite clearly.
KS’s idea was that this piece could be thought of as a journey through space. (In fact, one of my favorite reviews of this run came from the astronomy website, SPACE.com, that said, “It can be scary, off-putting and uncomfortable at times — much as traveling through space could be for the less experienced.” I take it they are referring to those of us who have not experienced space travel.) To that end, the visual artist Rirkit Tiravanija created the circular seating arrangement and had everyone wear a white robe and sit on a large round white carpet on (comfortable) white cushions with white backs. This gave a nice clean palette on which lighting designer Brian Scott could place ever evolving light changes. For me, the lighting was the most unfortunate part of the evening. It did not add anything to the experience and the few times I did open my eyes, the audience was simply bathed in a different solid color. There were no projections nor use of the magnificent structural beams of the Armory main hall to give the feel of being in some sort of starship. (A few people have mentioned how great it would have been in a planetarium. But I’m pretty sure the concave ceiling of any planetarium would have been disastrous for the audio.)
But that’s fine. I was there for the music. Overall, I found it astonishing on many levels. At first I was a bit put off that I could not follow specific sounds around the space, as one can so clearly with Mort Subotnick’s multi-speaker pieces. But I think I quickly got the hang of what I was in the middle of. It seemed to not be so much about individual events making up a whole, but about existing within a multidimensional system. It seemed to be a living sonic organism where different physical areas, near and far, progressed and evolved on their own time, and then swirled together far above. Or at least that’s my way of explaining it now. At the time I was just trying to experience it, whatever “it” was. Many explosions, many glissandi, many drones, many timbres floating and flying about.
Occasionally my brain would say, “uhg, that’s such a tired Yamaha DX-7 sound!” (Actually much in the same way, with early KS pieces, I’d think, “ooh, that’s such cool pulse wave filter sweep sound!) But then my brain would be content to realize that KS was just working with what was available at the time, and would quiet down so I could go back to listening with my entire body.
And that is what made this such an amazing experience for me. It wasn’t just that my brain enjoyed it, but it seemed all my internal organs were “enjoying” it. Or perhaps “being positively effected” by it would be more accurate. After all, never before in my life have I been in circular rows of people in a cube of sound with such a wide variety of vibrations enveloping my entire body.
My internal organs do not usually experience music. It’s either played too quietly, or through headphones, for the vibrations to make their way passed my cloths, skin and muscle. Acoustic instruments played meters away in a concert doesn’t effect them. Probably the closest thing would be a rave or a dance party, but then the vibrations are homogenous to a regular beat. Then there’s the subway, but that’s not intentional, nor enjoyable. Perhaps the closest thing my organs have experienced to this was listening to Glenn Branca live at New Music America in Hartford, 1984 (the concert where afterward Cage infamously called Glenn’s music “fascistic”). Jim Tenney, Gordon Monahan and I chose to stand up in order to “listen” to the loud music with our entire bodies, not just our ears. Ah, and then there is also Phill Niblock’s music, which is spatial and loud, and very slow moving compared to OKTO. (My internal organs do like Phill’s music.)
But the fact is my body felt different for a few days after experiencing OKTOPHONIE. I felt somehow cleansed right after. My dreams that night were more colorful than usual. And here’s something: the next morning I was jolted awake by the phone ringing. For that split second before my brain knew what was going on, I experienced a deep, “loud,” purple color right before opening my eyes. Never experienced anything like that before. And then, all the next day, my body was telling me, like an addiction, that it wanted to go back and experience it again. My brain didn’t want to; the next day it was sort of bored by the memory of it. But my body wanted more. It really wanted that experience again. I can only imagine, or perhaps sense, that all of my body was subtly transformed by the experience. That the loud drones, the swooping sounds, the sonic explosions, and of course that wonderful unexpected silence about 2/3rds of the way through had my internal organs dancing along with it, moving in ways they weren’t used to but were certainly beneficial.
In my Facebook post I called KS a shaman. His earlier vocal work, STIMMUNG, certainly explored the body’s relationship with sound, and his later writings certainly show his awareness of the non-auditory power of vibrational energy. I’m glad his work seems to be having a re-examination here in NY. Unfortunately I missed the multi-orchestra GRUPPEN last summer, also at the Armory. But I look forward this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival’s production of his Michaels Reise um die Erde (“Michael’s Journey Around the World”) which is the second act of the opera Donnerstag (Thursday), also from LICHT.
Hopefully I’ll be able to see it on a Thursday.