Space is back. Astronauts are offering YouTube tours of the International Space Station, and suborbital thrill rides seem to be always just a couple of years away. Meanwhile, back at Ground Control (where Mr. Space Oddity has a new album and Captain Kirk performed a shtick at the Oscars), the arts are showing glimmers of cosmic nostalgia. The late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who seemed to have a special relationship with the universe, is having a mini-renaissance of his own. Last year, the New York Philharmonic performed his Gruppen in the round at the Park Avenue Armory. This time, the Armory produced Stockhausen’s 70-minute 8-track electronic essay Oktophonie without any musicians at all, which lightened the logistical challenge of the work’s unexpected success as the schedule of six performances grew to eight, then nine.
A truly ideal Oktophonie would take place on a hurtling asteroid, with hyperpowered speakers placed on strategically positioned moons. But the Armory comes a close second. The Wade Thompson Drill Hall’s vast inner space became a noisy cosmos, pulsating with bass drones and wordless chanting angels. In the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation, the audience, draped in white cloaks that were about as sacerdotal and dignified as hospital gowns, snuggled into lawn chairs laid out in concentric circles on a white-carpeted stage. Some people stretched out, others sat grimly erect as if bracing for a long flight. There was little to see except the sound projectionist, Kathinka Pasveer, sitting at a mixing console at the circle’s bull’s-eye, where some alien celebrant should be. Multicolored lights strafed the stage from time to time, though most of the session was spent in meditative darkness.
Not everyone can relax into this controlled cacophony. Electronic dust, warlike bursts, sliding whistles, eerie clangs, explosive collisions, liquid plops echoing like a dripping faucet in a great cathedral—all this sonic activity swirled around Earthbound ears and burrowed into skulls. I could sense some people growing anxious and others getting bored. I let myself slip into the soundscape for a long while before I began to wonder how the composer decided on the piece’s length. It ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with many of both, followed by twenty more minutes of electronic drones.
Oktophonie wasn’t the only Stockhausen piece attempting to blow New Yorkers’ tender minds. A few days earlier, I went to Merkin Hall to hear the percussionist Daniel Druckman and pianist Stephen Gosling perform Kontakte, another hourlong exploration of organized delirium, this one from 1959–60. Stockhausen produced a crowded, more intimate universe, where a profusion of percussive sounds goes spinning through a room that seems to open into unsuspected space. Kontakte is sometimes performed as a purely electronic piece, too, but I was struck at how complex and wild a spectrum of sounds these two superb live musicians could produce in large part by beating on strings and wood and metal.
The song of space continued at BAM, where the musical trinity of Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner (from the indie band the National), and Nico Muhly performed Planetarium, their collaborative homage to the solar system. The stage bristled with technology, but once again, the most entrancing sonorities emerged not from circuits but from a seraphic ensemble of seven trombones.
Planetarium is a beguiling but ultimately tedious album-length set of eleven songs, each one ostensibly inspired by a different heavenly body, but all orbiting around a mid-tempo rock solemnity that recalls Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Representations of the cosmos have their hoary conventions, and they cropped up in this brand-new work: Stockhausen drones, electronic confetti, dancing lasers, lava-lamp visuals projected on a floating orb. Stevens, whose sweet voice and literate lyrics got swallowed in the wash of sound, even sang through a vocoder (or its digital equivalent), the voice-altering gizmo that Laurie Anderson used in O Superman more than 30 years ago.
That’s the fate of all revolutions: Yesterday’s avant-garde becomes today’s antiquarian project. In the meantime, as space-trekking telescopes take portraits of Orion, Earthbound art can hardly keep up with observation.