Enter the 50-ton concert hall that hangs like a disco ball
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Enter the 50-ton concert hall that hangs like a disco ball
A dress rehearsal for the Sonic Sphere a 66-foot-diameter spherical music hall suspended in air, at the Shed in Manhattan, June 15, 2023. The realization of a modernist dream by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen aims for a new kind of listening experience: surrounding the audience with 124 meticulously arranged speakers and an array of lights that change color with the music. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- The lights inside the cavernous McCourt space at the Shed had been dimmed, and a mystical soundtrack was playing. “Your journey begins in five minutes,” a recorded voice announced to the roughly 200 people gathered there on a recent evening.

A curtain opened, revealing a 50-ton spherical, suspended concert hall that glowed red and orange.

There were whispers among audience members that the hall, called the Sonic Sphere, resembled a spaceship, Epcot, a disco ball or the Death Star. Some people, snapping photos, joked that it might take flight during the nearly 70-minute program, a listening session of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” Others were expecting a more spiritual experience.

“I want to lose myself in the sound,” Stephen Ross, an architect, said as he made his way up a flight of stairs to the main entrance. “I want to be transported.”

The Sonic Sphere, a realization of a modernist dream by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, aims for a new kind of listening experience: surrounding the audience with 124 meticulously arranged speakers and an array of lights that change color with the music.

This summer, the Sonic Sphere will host listening sessions of music remixed for its spatial sound design, including the xx’s debut album from 2009. The lineup also includes playlists by DJs Yaeji and Carl Craig, and live performances by pianist Igor Levit, who will play Morton Feldman’s “Palais de Mari” with a visual accompaniment by Rirkrit Tiravanija.

The Shed’s iteration of the Sonic Sphere — overseen by a team that includes Ed Cooke, Merijn Royaards, Nicholas Christie, Chester Chipperfield and Jessica Lair — is the 11th and the largest, with a diameter of about 66 feet and a capacity of roughly 250 people, who sit or lie in netted areas.

“It’s about a change in consciousness that leaves a memory,” Cooke said of the project. “Can people have an experience where they touch some new territory of consciousness, not in a way that is like an altered state but one that actually leaves a trace?”

Stockhausen conceived of a spherical concert hall known as the Kugelauditorium, a form of which was erected at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, Japan. There, Germany’s pavilion presented works written for the dome, including music by Stockhausen himself. Crowds of music fans visited, but the idea never caught on.

Since 2021, Cooke and his team have revived the concept, building Sonic Spheres in France, the United Kingdom, Mexico and the United States, including at Burning Man. Each time, the hall has grown bigger; the first one, at the Féy commune in northeastern France, was 10 feet in diameter and cost about $1,000.

The version in New York has 1,178 steel struts, 3,500 yards of cloth and 12 structural cables supporting the sphere from the roof. The hall’s opening was pushed back a week because of delays receiving supplies, including trusses and floor plates. The result is the first Sonic Sphere to be suspended in air, at a cost of more than $2 million, with much of the financing from technology investors and entrepreneurs.

Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director, who in his early career worked with Stockhausen, said the Sonic Sphere’s aim was to bring the focus back to sound.

“These days, we talk about going to see a concert, which is kind of nuts,” he said. “We’re so dominated by the visual. Here we’re bringing music back to the center of the experience, and that’s really beautiful and important.”

At the “Music for 18 Musicians” listening session last week, audience members had a range of opinions about the hall.

Ryan Mannion, a software engineer in New York, said he was able to lose himself in the music: “I found myself just sort of sitting back and closing my eyes and enjoying it.”

Some, though, found the experience too noisy and too long. “There were a few moments when it was sublime,” said Sarah Watson, an executive coach, “but not all the time.”

Watson’s 9-year-old daughter, Matilda Morton, said she enjoyed the session but found some parts excessive.

“It felt like we were secret agents in an alien mother ship,” she said. “It was pretty overwhelming with the red lights and the loud, vibrating noises.”

The Shed’s Sonic Sphere will close July 30 but is expected to return next year. Before then, it will move to another location, possibly on the West Coast or in Europe.

Cooke said he hoped the agility and accessibility of the spheres, which can be built and taken down relatively quickly, would allow them to become more common.

“People are more and more desperate to come together and experience rich, transformational things,” Cooke said. “We want to give them something magical.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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