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Exploring 'Sonic Sphere': a bold new concert space at The Shed

Founder and creator Ed Cooke discusses the multisensory audio-visual format, on behalf of the Sonic Sphere team.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jul 21, 2023

The Shed, a cultural institution based out of Manhattan, New York in the United States, is presenting Sonic Sphere, an innovative spherical concert hall that is suspended at their premises. Sonic Sphere is a multisensory experience that blends together what is effectively a large-scale 3D sound installation one may enter, with its own light installation, and provides audiences with an opportunity to experience music by highly acclaimed artists Yaeji, Steve Reich, Carl Craig, and The xx. Also playing are works by Aligers, J Dilla, Sun Ra, famed composer and sound artist Karlheinz Stockhausen and Throbbing Gristle, among others. Additionally, the venue is also hosting live performances by Madame Gandhi, yunè pinku, UNIIQU3, and Igor Levit. The space has been developed by it's Founder and creator Ed Cooke, along with architects Merijn Royaards, and Nicholas Christie, while Russian artist Polina Zakh, along with and Mark C. Slee, have undertaken lighting design duties. The Shed’s Founding Artistic Director and CEO, Alex Poots, has curated the artist line-up, and Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija has created visuals for Sonic Sphere.

Interior of Sonic Sphere on its opening night at The Shed, New York, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Interior of Sonic Sphere on its opening night at The Shed, New York, 2023 Image: Ahad Subzwari, Courtesy of The Shed

Cooke discusses Sonic Sphere in an interview with STIR, saying, “The idea of a spherical concert hall derives from Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, who in 1970 built a Kugelauditorium, or concert-ball—a nearly spherical space in which the audience sat on a sound-and-light-perforable floor, with speakers surrounding them on all sides. This great vision was largely forgotten and never repeated for 50 years. We chose to reanimate the idea in 2021, and undertook the task with a methodology of rapid iteration: choosing to build a sequence of successively more elaborate spherical concert halls, incorporating learnings each time from the structural, sound, light, and architectural aspects of each sphere.” A startling fact regarding the production process for Sonic Sphere is that its current avatar is it's 11th iteration, and the first at Shed, with previous editions having made appearances at venues such as Chateau du Feÿ’s creative commune, in London, Mexico, and at the Burning Man festival.

Igor Levit at Sonic Sphere at The Shed, New York, June 30 and July 1, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Igor Levit at Sonic Sphere at The Shed, New York, June 30 and July 1, 2023 Image: Heather Cromartie, Courtesy of The Shed

The production team’s methodology for this large-scale installation process arose from a desire to learn and innovate as quickly as possible. They also placed a special emphasis on ensuring that the process was economical, and with this in mind, other, potentially pioneering spaces within the wider world of concerts may wish to take particular note of the Shed’s achievement with Sonic Sphere.

Audiences at Sonic Sphere, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Audiences at Sonic Sphere, 2023 Image: Ahad Subzwari, Courtesy of The Shed

When asked where he positions Sonic Sphere in the concert space, Cooke says, “It is an attempt to invent a new category of a concert or public space. Of course, it also incorporates aspects of the auditorium, the nightclub, the theatre-in-the-round, and more. Concerts at Sonic Sphere are inherently intimate and transportive.” Cooke sees the space as both, a platform and an instrument, that can be utilised for musical expression across genres and styles, “from the hypnotic classic austerity of Feldman and Steve Reich to the modern house sounds of Yaeji, to the techno of Carl Craig.”

Sonic Sphere’s dome, illuminated during concert, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Sonic Sphere’s dome, illuminated during concert, 2023 Image: Courtesy of The Shed

One wonders if Sonic Sphere’s new media savvy concert format will allow audiences to develop new perspectives on older, and yet, startlingly divergent musical practices such as that of Throbbing Gristle, who combined rudimentary industrial motifs with sound art crafted out of noise and spoken word, in the late 70s and then the aughts. Cooke responds to this, expressing that the team believes it would, and further to that, has this to say: “It’s curious you mention Throbbing Gristle, as though the specificity of their imagery is somewhat different to the more abstract expression of Sonic Sphere; their ambition to create new spaces of consciousness through sound and light, which is a historic tradition that we think really kicks off with the Russian avant-garde in the 20s and 30s, is precisely what we are about.”

<em>Sonic Sphere,</em> at The Shed, under construction, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Sonic Sphere, at The Shed, under construction, 2023 Image: Courtesy of The Shed

Going beyond the realm of music as it is popularly understood, Cooke sees Sonic Sphere as a holistic environment that could potentially benefit musicians, spoken word poets, dancers, and even philosophers in communicating their practices to new audiences.

Portrait photograph of Ed Cooke, 2023 | Sonic Sphere | The Shed | STIRworld
Portrait photograph of Ed Cooke, 2023 Image: Courtesy of The Shed

Discussing the Sonic Sphere team’s plans for the near future, Cooke tells STIR, “We are going to get some well-earned rest. Then, from the fall, we’ll seek to continue on our pathway of endless iteration. Specifically, we hope to set up a few permanent spheres in places like London, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, alongside transient touring ones, and begin the process of boot-strapping an international community of musicians devoted to advancing the new format.” Eventually, Cooke sees it wholly plausible that every town will be able to enjoy a sphere, provided that their future iterations of Sonic Sphere continue to advance the merit of the concert format. He ends his interview with STIR by saying, “Cinemas, after all, are ubiquitous, and the time is ripe for a public venue to host the next generation of multisensory art.” Exciting times certainly, for lovers of all things musical and performative.

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