“Whoa,” a man near me said as the curtains swept open.
He, I and a couple of hundred other people had been waiting in a large room at the Shed, the arts center at Hudson Yards in Manhattan. Portentous, woozy background music was playing, as if an alien encounter was imminent.
Then those curtains parted, and a much larger room was revealed: the Shed’s vast McCourt space, in which a sphere, 65 feet in diameter and pocked like Swiss cheese, had been suspended from the faraway ceiling and bathed in red light.
This arresting — indeed, “whoa”-inducing — sight was the Sonic Sphere, a realization of a concert hall design by the brilliant, peerlessly loopy composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), who inspired Germany to build the first one for the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, Japan.
Stockhausen, an impresario of electroacoustic experimentation and far-out notions like a string quartet playing inside a helicopter, imagined the audiences for his “Kugelauditorium” sitting on a sound-permeable level within the sphere, so that speakers could be placed under, as well as around and over, them.
During the six months that the Osaka exposition was open, hundreds of thousands of people came and heard taped music adapted for the in-the-round playback possibilities, as well as live performances. Then, for the next half century, the idea lay dormant; Carnegie Hall and Vienna’s Musikverein remained intact, having not been replaced by giant spheres.
Enter, a few years ago, a team led by Ed Cooke (whose biography calls him “a multidisciplinary explorer of consciousness”), the sound designer Merijn Royaards and Nicholas Christie, the project’s engineering director.
They have built Sonic Spheres in France, Britain, Mexico and the United States. Each time, like the plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” the contraption has grown. The Shed iteration, open through the end of July, is the first to hang in midair, at a cost of more than $2 million.
As in Osaka, some of the presentations offer taped music; some, live. On Saturday, I climbed the many steps to the sphere’s entrance and reclined, like everyone else, in a comfortable hammock-like seat, listening to the seductively sullen 2009 debut album by the British band the xx. Forty-five minutes after that was over, the pianist Igor Levit appeared in person to perform, for a fresh audience, Morton Feldman’s “Palais de Mari,” from 1986.
Lights, in colors and configurations that tended to shift with the music’s beat, played on the fabric skin of this big Wiffle ball. But for an audience that could be seeing the high-definition stadium shows of Beyoncé or Taylor Swift this summer, the visuals were blurry, rudimentary stuff; this was the aspect of the presentation that felt most trapped in 1970.
And the audio experience that emerged from the 124 speakers was unremarkable at best. The xx remix did nicely separate the bass, coming up palpably but not too heavily out of the bottom of the sphere, from the voices around and above. To no compelling end, though, and the album’s whispery intimacy was supersized into a much blander grandeur.
The situation was more distressing for Levit. While the spare, spacious chords of “Palais de Mari” registered more or less cleanly, with only slight fuzz, the sound was muddy for the Bach chorale he played as a prelude; it was the perennial challenge of amplifying acoustic instruments, times 124. And the jittery lighting, a collaboration between Levit and the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, could hardly have been more uncomprehending of Feldman’s glacial austerity.
For all the souped-up spiffiness of the Sonic Sphere, the programming on Saturday felt like a retread of artists who were more interesting when Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director, presented them during his stint at the Park Avenue Armory uptown.
There, in 2014, the xx did a celebrated (live) residency in front of only a few dozen people per show. Levit, the following year, played Bach as part of an ornate concentration exercise orchestrated by Marina Abramovic. (Will he, now a fixture of New York’s more unconventional spaces, end up hanging upside-down at the piano once the Perelman Performing Arts Center opens this fall?)
Those Armory shows were more memorable than either Shed set. Both of them on Saturday were under 40 minutes, but I found myself getting antsy well before time was up. Perhaps the audiences at Burning Man, the techno-hippie hedonist bonanza in the Nevada desert where a Sonic Sphere was built last year, were more engrossed, experiencing it on harder drugs than the Coke Zero I’d had with dinner.
Sober, none of the music was more interesting, effective, illuminated or illuminating in this space than it would have been elsewhere. It was clear that the main point was that first reveal, as the curtains opened and everyone’s phones came out, ready to post images of something big and glamorous on social media.
So, millions of dollars for Instagram bait — but fine, if its creators didn’t also hype it as “an unlimited instrument of empathy” that’s “experimental, experiential and communal.” I felt, in fact, more distant from my fellow audience members in the Sonic Sphere, even the ones reclining next to me, than I have at most any traditional concert hall.
Empathy? Communal experience? No, the hologram-like specter of Sakamoto was more vivid and substantial than the other people watching with me, who, while I wore the VR glasses, faded into transparent ghostliness.
The wall text in the holding room for the Sonic Sphere acknowledges that technology can isolate us from each other, but adds that mustn’t necessarily be the case: “We need it to delight and inspire us, not just passively, but in ways that provoke action.”
But, as with so much ambitious, empty-headed, underwhelming, ultimately depressing tech, the action that’s provoked by this expensive spectacle is merely a passing moment of “whoa.”