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One Hundred and Twenty-four Speakers
A Visit to the Sonic Sphere
Lying on an acoustically transparent mesh mat, suspended in the middle of a $2 million sphere lined with 124 speakers for 360 degree amplified sound, listening with others to a program by techno artist Carl Craig designed to take advantage of this particular space and audio system, I was bored.
Maybe I need to explain that I rarely feel bored, especially while listening to sound. I wasn’t bored on the four-hour train ride I had taken that morning from Boston to New York. I wasn’t bored walking around the bleak plinth of real estate development called Hudson Yards, as I loitered there till showtime. I wasn’t even bored in the anteroom of the Sonic Sphere itself, waiting for its doors to open revealing a geodesic dome shrouded in mist from a fog machine, and lit like a set from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In all those spaces, I was listening. Can’t help it. As John Cage said, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.”
Cage also said, citing a Zen precept: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”
The prerecorded program I heard inside the Sonic Sphere was nearly twice thirty-two minutes, and still I did not discover it wasn’t boring.
I was listening while there, as usual. So was everyone else – that’s what we had come for. Yet I do not think I misread the body language of my fellow listeners: many also seemed to be bored. They shifted. They yawned. They looked at their phones. They took selfies.
Meanwhile, the $2 million sphere did everything it could to try and hold our attention, like a ride in a fun fair. It flashed colored lights. It moved sounds around the sphere. It went loud and it went quiet and it went loud again (you know, the Pixies’ trick).
How could this go so wrong? A room full of people who want to listen to sound – who paid to listen to sound - but above all what I experienced (and I don’t believe I was alone) was detachment from the aural environment, rather than immersion in it.
This runs counter to the Sonic Sphere creators’ goals. According to their “manifesto”:
“Sonic Sphere aims to create an unlimited instrument of empathy, one capable of conjuring new vistas of experience that can open the door to new modes of thought, feeling, and action in the world.”
In other words, the orb is meant to foster the opposite of the aural alienation I felt. To accomplish this, the document explains, its creators have turned to architecture because,
“We need a new type of space that comes after libraries, theaters, and cinemas: a place for people to come together, as they always have, but in a fashion that once again generates excitement and dialogue… We need more spaces that allow technology to delight and inspire us, not just passively, but in ways that provoke action.”
The Sonic Sphere will stimulate this action, in its designers’ view, “by being agile, flexible, and transformable, in contrast to the static, imaluable [sic: did they mean immalleable?], and expensive architecture of today.” ($2 million seems expensive to me, but I’m just a musician.) And because, “Commercial pressures and lowering attention spans are pushing artists to the short form, not allowing them to explore ideas and themes fully,” the Sonic Sphere intends “to create a space where artists can take a participant on a creative journey, firing all their senses and creating a significant memory that then shapes their lives.”
The Carl Craig program I attended was 45 minutes long, same as a single LP. The longest program of the options available when I visited was a recording of a Steve Reich composition, at 65 minutes – the length of a CD. Perhaps the organizers imagine that if the only media you know are Tik Toks, these programs will stretch your idea of time and music. But Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen are filling stadiums right now with three-hour-plus shows of light and sound, no problem.
Maybe this manifesto is as poorly conceived as it was copyedited?
Perhaps, were it truly avant-garde, the Sonic Sphere might generate some shock of the new for its audience, and a chance at the transformative experience it is designed to achieve. But it’s not a new or original idea - it’s a tribute to a famous architectural and audio experiment constructed for the German Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair by Fritz Bornemann and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Bornemann was an architect known for post-war modernism of a particularly chilly kind, with expanses of concrete on plazas and facades, but with a special interest in theaters and libraries – sound spaces, you might say. Stockhausen was the towering modernist of German electronic music, also of a particularly chilly kind, but with an esoteric streak that I have always found winningly irrational amidst all the po-faced declarations. Here he is, for example, explaining the import of being able to use a mixing desk to move sounds around an array of speakers inside the sphere he and Bornemann designed for Osaka:
“And that really brings us into the space age of music; that space I have described is the space of a direct physical experience, and by going through this experience we arrive at a new inner space. It’s not the outer space, it’s the inner space. We talk about outer space, flying with a rocket. You see, that’s something else, because you’re watching these balls – to begin with the two balls, the moon and the earth, you can’t see the other ones yet, we haven’t reached that far. But that’s the next step: I mean there is a direct relationship between our desire to expand our consciousness of the outer and the inner – it’s the same. And in music it’s also the same. We want to expand ourselves through the experience of moving sound and to see what happens to us. Because then we will move with the sound and fly, too.” [from Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer, by Jonathan Cott, 1973]
Making music move in order to make its listeners fly is the kind of alchemical logic Stockhausen followed in much of his work. This is ambition of a different order than the grant-proposal vagaries of the Sonic Sphere’s manifesto, which strings together laudable goals without any clear path toward achieving them. Stockhausen’s goals, by contrast, were not necessarily laudable – indeed, they have at times been questioned as to whether they were even ethical. But crucially – and perhaps this saved him from potential crimes – they were largely unachievable. If we listen to music moving around a sphere, we do not fly.
Yet the avant-garde pieces Stockhausen composed toward those ends often achieve liftoff. My favorites among them – Stimmung, for example, composed in 1968 and which I believe was among the works performed in the sphere at Osaka, 1970 – are transporting, even transformative. I am not the same listener I was before I first heard that piece; it stretched my understanding of possibilities for composition, for group improvisation, and for use of the voice.
This opening of possibilities for the listener is, I believe, the finest of Stockhausen’s goals, and one he did achieve with some frequency. He took satisfaction from that, too - here he observes the actual physical response of audiences in Osaka, which didn’t include flying but delighted him nonetheless:
“I could always see the hall from the control desk. These were simple people, many with babies on their backs, and at the first sound everyone would look round in astonishment, and try to follow it with their eyes. And after a session of fifteen to twenty minutes they would walk out turning their heads like geese and making spiraling movements with pointing fingers… What is important is that they went out imitating the movements they had heard, and I was very happy. If you discover something really new, which affects human experience, I mean, there’s no discussion, that’s just the way it is. All the rest is minor talk about little details.” [from Stockhausen: Lectures & Interviews, ed. Robin Maconie, 1989]
The Carl Craig mix I heard in the Sonic Sphere was filled with bits of powerful music, not least by Stockhausen himself. Craig conceived this DJ set as “tracing a branch of electronic music’s family tree, including… Algiers, King Britt, Francesco Mora Catlett, J Dilla, Pierre Henry, Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Moodymann, Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Throbbing Gristle, and White Noise” - yet it did not take me anywhere new. I am not sure it was intended to, despite the organizer’s wall texts. Craig’s selections were a knowing nod to the history of the sphere, but didn’t seem interested in breaking ground so much as exploring the technology of the space for its own sake. The result was less a Stockhausen-like, avant-garde shock, and a bit more like the demo records salesmen used to play as they tried to increase your budgeted choice of stereo equipment. “But listen to this!” they would say, putting on a record cut to highlight certain frequencies that might never actually be in music you play in your living room. And lo and behold, those demos created for stereo salesmen sounded impressively “big” on bigger, more expensive speakers powered by bigger, more expensive amplifiers.
How did this Carl Craig mix sound on 124 speakers in a sphere? Spherical. Still, there’s no way I’m taking home a $2 million sound system. More to the point, this demonstration of 3-D audio wasn’t convincing enough for me even to invest in the latest surround sound software being pushed by Apple right now as “Spatial Audio” (developed by Dolby as “Atmos”).
For me, surround sound systems like Dolby Atmos and the Sonic Sphere suffer from the same lack of ingenuity. For all their big promises and flashing lights, is there really anything new in the audio experience they offer? The technological idea – as Stockhausen’s construction for the 1970 World’s Fair attests – is at least a half-century old. And in the unamplified world, we listen to surround sound all day long, every day of our lives.
Which is what left me especially cold about my experience of the Sonic Sphere: the gap between the pleasure of listening to sound surrounding me in environments I pass through every day – even the depressing boondoggle of Hudson Yards, if that’s where I happen to find myself - and the endurance-like test of staying put to hear sound moved from speaker to speaker in a contrived technological environment. I was as antsy as a kid at Symphony Hall, sitting through an orchestral warhorse designed to make that room sound as grand as possible. Sure, it sounds grand. Can we go now?
Listening to: My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, by Anohni and the Johnsons
Cooking: Tarragon, mint and sorrel from our community garden
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