“Welcome! Please remove your shoes and leave them under the benches to your right, and then put on this cloak.”

Stockhausen, Oktophonie at Park Avenue Armory © Stephanie Berger
Stockhausen, Oktophonie at Park Avenue Armory
© Stephanie Berger

Had I stumbled into Hogwarts? A cult ritual? No, I was just one of hundreds of curious concert-goers filing into the Upper East Side’s Park Avenue Armory for a rare musical event. This week, the Armory has been hosting a slew of sold-out performances of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s staging of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic composition Oktophonie. After kicking off my shoes and slipping on the white cloak, I joined the other audience members on the circular white platform occupying the cavernous drill hall. Our seat cushions, also white, blended in with the felt surface, and the only colors in the sea of white were the socks sticking out at all angles and the faces and hair of the listeners. In the center of Mr Tiravanija’s alabaster wonderland sat former Stockhausen collaborator Kathinka Pasveer, surrounded by the instruments she would conduct: a soundboard and two laptops. The audience’s solemn anticipation mingled with the smell of feet and polyester.

Stockhausen, the controversial pioneer of electronic music, died only six years ago, but has had a sprawling impact, influencing not only generations of contemporary classical composers and musicians but also artists ranging from the Beatles to Miles Davis to Animal Collective. The spatial demands of his music are perfectly suited for the enormous Drill Hall, which also hosted Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras last year. On Sunday evening, the audience was immersed in the 70-minute clangor of Oktophonie, composed in the late 1970s and 1980s as a component of Stockhausen’s opera Dienstag aus Licht. The overlapping rhythms and textures bombarded us from eight speakers surrounding the platform.

My first reaction to the piece, once the lights dimmed and the music began, was that it sounded like the universe was falling asleep and undergoing a series of psychedelic nightmares. Shortly after being plunged into darkness, the electronic sounds started chiming and pulsating around us. Distressingly, there was nothing for our eyes to focus on during this sonic maelstrom. The lights occasionally brightened a bit, illuminating the skeleton of the ceiling high above us, but this was a grim backdrop for man-made sounds that managed to evolve and sparkle in such a celestial way. The other option was the even bleaker darkness of the inside of my eyelids, but closing my eyes only invoked further anxiety. At one point, an arrangement of spotlights glowed purple like a constellation above us, but that was really the extent of the visual interaction.

There was simultaneously not enough and too much going on: to be stationary – trapped in the same visual landscape while listening to the dreams of infinity roving breathlessly through and across time – triggered what felt like an intergalactic panic attack. I bit my fingernails into nubs as Stockhausen led us through a chaotic chorus of shifting voices, grumbling and wheedling and groaning and belching. I was confronted by synthetic shrieks and assaulted by hisses springing out of the babel into the darkness of the Drill Hall.

After what felt like eight years, blinding orange light broke through the cacophony: the universe was waking up. A whirring remnant of a dream oscillated around us for several minutes, decrescendoing to a near-imperceptible whisper as our eyes adjusted to all the white. After a long time, the whisper could not be distinguished from silence, and someone began a tentative round of applause. Once I had folded up my cloak and stuffed my feet into my shoes, I scurried back out into reality, my mind moving at the speed of light. (My thoughts have not slowed down since then.) Oktophonie was one of those experiences that I think everyone should try even if I personally may not have enjoyed it – like exercising, or reading Proust. Not surprisingly, my overstimulated brain underwent a series of troubling dreams once I finally fell asleep on Sunday, and I can’t help but think that Stockhausen and all those unearthly nightmares might have had something to do with this.

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