street view

Is the Spherical Listening Room at the Shed an Innovation or a Gimmick?

Photo: Ahad Subzwari/Courtesy The Shed

In Hudson Yards, there is the Shed, and in the Shed is the McCourt. Dangling from the rafters of that hangarlike, bubble-wrapped event space until the end of July is a globular concert hall. The approach is appropriately labyrinthine: To enter, I crossed in front of the Vessel, walked down a flight of stairs, ducked through a doorway, then another, rode an escalator up to a darkened gallery, and waited until a HAL-like voice invited me to climb a long flight of metal stairs and cross a gangplank. There, I discovered a venue-in-a-venue-in-a-venue made mostly of air. A thin fabric, more hole than material, stretches across a framework of metal tubes. Vertigo sufferers beware: The audience walks on mesh and reclines on beds of netting. The densest substance around is music, which emanates from 124 speakers arrayed around the listeners, swaddling them in a rich brocade of sound.

The concept for a ball-shaped listening pod comes from the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a cosmically radical artist who sent musicians aloft in helicopters to play airborne string quartets. The Kugelauditorium, as he called it, presaged the ever-evolving, ever-expanding Sonic Sphere, which arrived in New York in its 11th iteration, 65 feet in diameter. To call it a concert hall is misleading, since the shows I attended were really listening sessions devoted to a pair of decades-old albums: The xx’s self-named 2009 debut and Steve Reich’s 1998 Nonesuch recording of Music for 18 Musicians.

This walk-in bauble, wired and lit to resemble a cross between a Death Star and a Wiffle ball, harbors Stockhausen-scale ambitions. A text panel announces that it “aims to be 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.” It’s hard to gauge success on that front, but I suspect most of us in the audience walked out exactly as empathetic as we had been on arrival. I wouldn’t care to speculate about who discovered what modes of thought, but I will say the music sounded refreshingly good. That’s not nothing. The 20th century’s pursuit of audiophile perfection foundered a couple of decades ago, and we now experience most music, most of the time, as a thin gruel dribbling out of earbuds, car stereos, and laptop speakers. Distortion is endemic. Movie theaters, once havens of vivid (if bass-heavy) sound, are becoming part of our pre-pandemic past. So the experience of being acoustically enfolded is both a throwback and a promise.

At the Shed, it has the slightly creepy quality of ritual with its regimented processions into and out of the sanctum and its hour of supine absorption. Maybe the fact that we spend our days staring through a small sheet of glass has urged us toward technology that simulates old-fashioned, physical, three-dimensional life. Reality comes packaged in 3-D, virtual, or mixed flavors or in the form of immersive installations that allow you to slip into a painted landscape. And yet there’s a difference between experiencing an artwork that’s been created for a wraparound medium and a digitally exploded version of an analog original. The Shed also approached the artist Janet Cardiff, the creator of exhilarating all-around-sound works like 40-Part Motet and the outdoor installation FOREST (for a thousand years …). Nothing came of that conversation, which is a shame because she surely would have known how to make the most of such a sophisticated tool.

Inside the big ball. Photo: Ahad Subzwari/Courtesy The Shed

I caught two of the four daily offerings (and missed pre-baked playlists by the DJs Carl Craig and Yaeji). All that electronic firepower seemed like overkill for the xx’s mixture of spare texture and epic intimacy. The sound sources are few, and the sound guru Merijn Royaards meddles with them only very judiciously. A guitar chord stays pinned to its spot in space for as long as it keeps plunking away. Oliver Sim’s voice always sounds like it’s coming from the next pillow over.

Reich’s Music for 18 is another story. Nonesuch turned over the original takes to Royaards, who effectively reedited and remixed the entire hourlong album from scratch and turned a ’90s stereo recording into a 124-track spatial extravaganza. How you experience the result of all that manipulation depends on where you’re sitting — but not that much, because you’re always in the center of the action with music coming from all sides. A piano plinks over your right shoulder; a group of pulsating clarinets travels toward you across the void; a violin sounds high above your head. The apparatus creates the digital equivalent of a church organ but with a spatial twist: The placement of those instrumental ensembles gradually shifts so that, even over the course of the piece, what was in the east winds up in the west and what had been near wanders into the distance.

In the real world, we use our hearing to know where we are and what’s happening around us. The engine of an approaching truck, a snatch of conversation, a siren’s wail, footsteps on pavement during a lull in the urban hubbub — all these stimuli help the brain make sense of space, even the parts we cannot see. If you heard a sudden whoosh of surf coming from the direction of Ninth Avenue, the anomaly would set off an instant adrenaline rush. The sphere’s disorienting symmetry suspends that acoustic logic, allowing Royaards to tinker with the motherboard of your sensations. Reich’s 18 musicians have multiplied, and they drift slowly through the air, an orchestra of fireflies.

The acoustic effect is striking, but I’m not sure how meaningfully it affects your perception of the music. Reich composed flat, hard planes of sound with marimbas and amplified voices filling in blank space like dense cross-hatching. Rhythmic precision matters more than depth of field. He’s not a purist about his intentions, though. In the late ’90s, he gave his blessing to the Nonesuch album Reich Remixed, which featured some muscular reinterpretations of his scores, and he approved this spatialized version, too — at least in principle, since he has yet to hear the result. This Music for 18 is a pumped-up, spread-out, extra-tall, full-body version of a piece that earned its classic status from audiences that heard it in a plain old room full of live musicians or else lying on the bed with a good set of headphones. Which leaves me wondering what new modes of thought and action the Sonic Sphere can really discover. So far, it strikes me as an orb in search of a point.

The Shed’s Spherical Concert Space: Innovation or Gimmick?