Spacing Out With Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Mulhy


Space was the place for a pair of stellar yet utterly different multimedia works that enjoyed their New York premieres this week. Way Uptown, installation artist Rirkrit Tiravanija transformed the Park Avenue Armory into a sternly minimalist lunar viewing station for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s eight-channel electronic work Oktophonie; while the Brooklyn Academy of Music became the dazzling, laser-razored epicenter of Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens’ solar-system serenades, Planetarium. The ghost of 2001: A Space Odyssey hovered over both projects like a distant relation.

Wednesday evening, listeners were asked to remove their shoes and issued white cloaks upon entering the Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall. Our reclining seats were arranged in concentric circles around the late composer’s associate, Kathinka Pasveer, whose similarly cloaked mixing board and laptops were arrayed in the center of an acoustic cube consisting of eight large groups of speakers. The besmocked audience might have been awaiting the stewardess of 2001‘s Pan Am Space Clipper, if not a dental procedure. Yes, there were walkouts throughout the work’s seventy demanding minutes. But the first dark, loud, and low movements of Oktophonie slashing diagonally, horizontally, and vertically across the hall were enough to separate cadets from officers on this spaceship.

Composed circa 1988-90 – on Yamaha and Oberheim synthesizers, a Casio sampler, and a Quadrophonic Effect Generator – as the second act of the Tuesday edition of his seven-day opera cycle, Licht (Light), Stockhausen’s Oktophonie is a tightly programmed space opera chronicling the cosmic confrontation of the archangel Michael and the fallen angel Lucifer. Searchlights, “sound bombs,” and cannon fusillades swoosh and exploded across the sky with maximum multidimensional and visceral impact. This wasn’t mere ambience or ear candy by a long shot (although lighting effects were possibly understated to a fault), but rather a life-and-death battle royale for the soul of humanity. Late in the piece, Stockhausen lightens up with the sound of toys, a stock exchange, and the ecstatic music of a clownish character called Synthi-Fou, who stands alone at the end of this marvelous and demanding electronic masterwork.

The following night, Sufjan Stevens played the part of a loosely autotuned Synthi-Fou in Planetarium. The real star, though, turned out to be the huge black orb protruding from above and behind Stevens (vocals and keyboards), Mulhy (keyboards) and Dessner (guitar), who were arrayed in front of a string quartet, seven trombonists, and drummer. Just as the three collaborators supplied reup-Holst-ered musical interpretations, some more dramatic than others, former Wilco lighting director Deborah Johnson gave the mammarian globe (or crystal ball) a distinct visual personality for each of the eight planets, sun, moon, and even poor demoted Pluto.

Neptune manifested as a gaseous green cloud reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz at his most powerful. But it couldn’t hold a candle to the Kubrickian “light tunnel” of Jupiter: Sweeping lasers strafed BAM’s opera house as Stevens again evoked light-bearing Lucifer and sang of “the loneliest planet” over big electronic beats and trombone blasts. Red planet Mars, the harbinger of war, and quick little Mercury earned similarly high-concept displays. Venus was blue-gray and syrupy, an “oracle ghost” of lust in a “Methodist summer camp.” Stevens’s evocative lyrics packed a mythological punch, even as the trio’s music trafficked in that strange new slipstream where minimalism, electronic music, and pop melodicism converge. Although Planetarium has been performed in Australia and Europe, it still has the feel of a work-in-progress, especially when pieces come to an abrupt halt just as they were achieving orbit. But it hangs together well, especially when the three collaborators returned onstage for a slow, shaky, and exceedingly sweet rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Talk about wishing upon a star.

Random notebook dump: Mirrorballs are a lot like planets, too.

Overheard: “We don’t really have to wear these, do we?”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 22, 2013

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