For a full week (March 20 to March 27, 2013), the Park Avenue Armory opened its 2013 season with a ritualization by Rirkrit Tiravanija of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s OKTOPHONIE. The piece was staged as the composer originally intended: in outer space. Well, kind of.
OKTOPHONIE is the musical accompaniment to the second act of Stockhausen’s opera Dienstag taken from the Licht (Light) cycle (seven operas; one for each day). The piece can also be performed independently and forms an incredible immersive sonic experience in spatialization. The score calls for a cubic octophonic setting with 4 speakers at the base, 4 speakers 45 feet higher, and the audience at its center. The possibilities of this octophonic system were suggested in the program notes with cubic diagrams explaining the spiral rotations for each track.
Tiravanija’s ritualization started way before the music, though. Indeed, the first step was to remove one’s shoes and trust that nobody would leave with them on—a true collective experience. White robes (ponchos, really) were then handed to each audience member before they were invited to find a seat on the illuminated circular platform at the center of the gigantic and unlit Wade Thompson Drill Hall. A few hundred floor meditation chairs were laid out in concentric circles, facing the center where an audio engineer was sitting in a low, circular booth.
Some people—following the Armory’s suggestions—decided to dress in white and didn’t wear the robe. Soon, the circular platform was full and quite a sight: how often in our urban lives are we surrounded with such uniformity of attire? The lights were dimmed very low and the music started with low drones, “crashes,” and sliding dissonances. The octophonic setting drew complex acoustic shapes, set them in motion, and staged their conflict mirroring Stockhausen libretto: during the second act of Dienstag, a fierce battle rages between Lucifer’s and Michael’s troops, culminating in a huge explosion halfway through the piece.
The ambiguity of Tiravanija’s ritualization led to what could be seen as a paradox: people totally chilling to a war scene set in music. More often than not, when an audience is asked to sit on the floor, a fair share takes this as an invitation to relax, slouch, and inevitably lie down. Even if there is nothing wrong with that, one could wonder what the ritual was expecting from us: meditate? just listen? doze? all of the above?
As fascinating as the idea was, the overall experience felt a little bit rigid and gimmicky. After all, weren’t we trading a ritual (dress up, take a program, and sit down in silence—without coughing—for 90 minutes) for another? Still, the Armory has some unique assets: an incredible and versatile performing space, the ability to attract world-class artists as well as large audiences, and the ambition to bring them together. Do these assets come with a responsibility? At a time when sitting down in a recital hall seems almost not enough, and when multimedia-enhanced concerts are disappointing at best, what can the Armory bring to the scene? Can it redefine what experiencing music (live or not) means? It might be getting closer every season.