Space Age New Music Weekend by Nick Hallett

Tyondai Braxton

HIVE by Tyondai Braxton, commissioned and presented by Works & Process at the Guggenheim, March 21, 2013. Photo courtesy of Works & Process at the Guggenheim/Jacklyn Meduga.

Between March 21 and 24, 2013 three iconic Upper East Side institutions convened semi-ritualized multimedia gatherings of electronic music and art in celebration of the divine elements that define Earth’s relationship to the cosmos—lunar orbits, bodies of water both liquid and frozen, insect habitats—while in Brooklyn, opera audiences gathered in front of a giant video orb to celebrate all the remaining planets in our solar system. As the events of the weekend unfolded, I progressed from concert to concert as if at some kind of rarefied Burning Man festival, inscribed by the art world. Perhaps the synergy was due to the weekend’s proximity to Vernal Equinox or the Passover holiday. Whatever the reason, the music and art left me feeling evolved, ready to beam up to … somewhere, resulting in what I have since been calling Space Age New Music Weekend.

Of course the main event was the Park Ave Armory season opener—Oktophonie, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1991 multichannel soundwork—the announcement of which resulted in a box office rush analogous to last year’s Kraftwerk retrospective at MoMA. I was quick to acquire tickets once the Sunday afternoon show was added. With Oktophonie on the horizon as the finale to my weekend, I set forth into the night.

Stockhausen2 Body

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s OKTOPHONIE at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Thursday evening at the Guggenheim, the museum’s Works & Process Series and Wordless Music presented Tyondai Braxton’s concert-cum-installation, Hive. The composer and his four collaborators sat atop platforms built by Danish architect Uffe Surland Van Tams, which—covered with instruments and wires—cast the ensemble as hookah-smoking caterpillars on Alice In Wonderland mushrooms. The 45-minute work explored sonic boundaries between modular synthesizers (played by Braxton and Ben Vida) and live percussion. Hocketing at the beginning recalled the sounds of an insect construction crew. This quickly developed into arrays of interlocking patterns that sounded better and better the further one ascended the rotunda, especially when taken visually with the plastic tubing that criss-crossed through the center of the space, courtesy of the Gutai retrospective. I arrived back on the ground floor for the minimal techno drum half-circle that signified the completion of the structure.

Also opening that night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was Planetarium, a re-imagining of Holst’s The Planets co-composed by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly, with video design (onto the aforementioned orb) by Deborah Johnson. And Saturday saw a performance of water and arctic rhythms courtesy of DJ Spooky at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with video and staging elements as well, to bring awareness of the melting polar ice caps. Unfortunately, I could not make it to either, as I was obliged to be at The Kitchen for the second installment of its new electronic music series, Synth Nights. (It should be said that I curated the launch last Fall.)

If the shared ideaspace among the uptown institutions formed a Stonehenge-like array of futuristic Druid gatherings, The Kitchen served as the downtown research laboratory, or at least the ambient chillout room. Works spanning 45 years of the composer David Behrman’s career served as an anchor for the two concerts, which also featured the music of a younger generation of electronicists, Greg Davis, Sergei Tcherepnin, and Ben Vida (he who had featured in Braxton’s Guggenheim show the previous night).

With all of the Stockhausen mania uptown, I couldn’t help but to consider the connections. In 1959, a 21-year old Behrman attended Stockhausen’s composition course at Darmstadt, and was taken with what he heard. Five years later, Stockhausen gave Behrman the exalted role of sound engineer for the notorious performance of his Originale at the New York Festival of the Avant Garde. One could argue there is an overlap of concern in their individual practices from then on out, even as their worlds and careers moved in separate directions. The music at the Kitchen was spun of pure resonance and vibrancy, pulled out of the silence between acoustic and electronic instruments, and devoid of the myth and mania inescapable with Stockhausen. A new, digital version of Cello with Melody-driven Electronics (1974) performed by Okkyung Lee perfectly demonstrated this transparency of sound. Runthrough (1968), a piece played originally with the Sonic Arts Union, saw Lee, Davis, and Vida swinging small flashlights over photocells to trigger oscillators. While the photocells used were the analog originals, the electronic sound sources were digital.

Behrman Paula Court Body

David Behrman. Photo by Paula Court.

Sunday afternoon, as I made my way west on 67th street towards the Armory, I struck up a conversation with a couple I was able to identify as Stockhausen-bound from the smell of their joint. As we met up at the entrance with others wearing white—I noted makeup artist James Kaliardos in a lacey kurta—the experience exacted a pilgrimage to an Indian temple. This spiritual posturing was supposedly at the invitation of the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose name was printed in the same font size as the composer on giant banners outside, emblazoned with the image of a solar eclipse. Audience members removed their shoes and donned white robes before proceeding in near darkness to a circular performance area within the 55,000 square foot drill hall, surrounded by speakers. Reclining meditation chairs were arranged in concentric rows, simulating a kind of lunar amphitheater, in the center of which longterm Stockhausen collaborator, flautist Kathinka Pasveer performed her role as sound projectionist.

Oktophonie is essentially eight channels of electronic sound effects from the heyday of digital synthesis that roil around between the speakers. Ideally, the piece is performed in a cube with one quartet of speakers at the base, and one quartet above the audience, but it sounded great in the Armory. One can not truly hear the entire piece from a single vantage point such as we were given, and the dramatic, colorful lighting, too, was to be felt from within the staging, not looked at per se. This limitation in many ways served Tiravanija’s concept, which may just have been Stockhausen’s original intention to suspend the audience in space, exemplified when a friend conceded afterwards that the experience had made her feel very alone in the universe. At times, the music, which narrates the archangel Michael’s battle with Lucifer, eerily resembled Vangelis’s 1982 soundtrack to the film Blade Runner, which is to say dramatic and captivating throughout, but not without a sense of the absurd (a clown named Synthi-Fou makes an appearance towards the ending of the musical narrative). As the final strains faded into the rafters, white light bathed the audience. The spaceship had landed.

Back on Earth, the announcement came that more Stockhausen is to be heard in New York this June, with the U.S. Premiere of Michaels Reise Um Die Erde at Lincoln Center Festival. Having personally presented and performed in several Stockhausen concerts in New York over the past five years while the composer’s name was basically verboten to major institutions, I find the whole rebranding of his music to local audiences subtly justifying. Not nine months ago, a New York Times review of a Musik Im Bauch was still quick to point out the composer’s comments after 9/11. Armory artistic director Alex Poots, whose work with Stockhausen dates back to just exactly that time, boldly quoted the composer’s quote that Oktophonie sonically represented the transformation of “war into art” and “weapons into music” in his program notes to nary an arched eyebrow, it seemed. The presentation was, of course, a coup for Poots and the Armory, and the Lincoln Center marketing demonstrates the allures of being able to present New York premieres of these essential and impractical works. “Finally, after 40 years!” exclaimed Pasveer, post-performance. I spoke with many people after the concert (free wine was served in lieu of an ashram kitchen) who had never heard of Stockhausen before and came for the otherworldly experience offered by the Armory, and more importantly seemed eager for more Space Age New Music. If the events of the weekend taken altogether were any indication … if you build it, they will come …

Nick Hallett is a composer, vocalist, and cultural producer. Follow him at @NickHallett. As part of his Darmstadt Essential Repertoire series, he is presenting John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia happening, HPSCHD on May 3 and 4 at Eyebeam and is editing a blog at johncagehpschd.tumblr.com in the weeks leading up to the performance.

Tyondai Braxton by Ben Vida
Tyondai Braxton
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