Arts and commerce fuse at Hudson Yards’ Sonic Sphere

Jesse Koblin/The Miscellany News.

New York’s Hudson Yards, an upscale mixed-use complex seated within West Manhattan’s High Line dockside, has a storied history. Once an industrial hub home to railway and meatpacking operations, the area has undergone expansive (and expensive, as per Business Insider) redevelopments to attract consumers to its highrise apartments and luxury retailers. In reality, Hudson Yards boasts half-empty apartment buildings, as stated in The Wall Street Journal, and the ill-conceived tower known as the Vessel. Hudson Yards is another urban planning scheme of ambiguous benefit, but amidst its troubled commercial buildings sits the Shed, a lopsided rectangular edifice evoking a massive, glass Tempurpedic pillow. The Shed’s mission statement emphasizes that it seeks to promote creative innovation, an understanding of the world and equity. Its chief attraction is the Sonic Sphere, a vast spherical concert hall 65 feet in diameter and suspended over 100 feet in the air, a dizzying scale for a surreal venue. This summer, I attended three concerts at the Sphere. Two concerts were pre-recorded light shows composed by Steve Reich and The xx, while the third was a live performance by musician Madame Gandhi. Although my objective was to gauge whether the Sphere and its acts could deliver fulfilling musical experiences, I walked away with conflicting feelings and the sense that someone dropped the ball. 

The ascent to the Sphere was the first (and arguably most striking) aspect of the experience. Staff shepherded visitors through industrial black double doors into a cavernous and liminal space, barren except for the Sphere looming overhead in a neon-red splendor. Boggling at the metallic structure above me, a perfectly circular black orb fixed in the air, I climbed three free-standing flights of stairs alongside droves of other spectators. The entire scene evoked a sci-fi-esque pilgrimage toward a mechanical god. This initial experience is fantastical and meant to astound. In an area as dense as New York City, the stark, near-empty space housing the Sphere is a grandiose claim where artistry and luxury can coalesce. The entrance to the Sphere itself is equally imposing. Held aloft by massive steel hooks and ballasts, with mesh floors revealing one’s suspension above the ground and reclined netting seats, the design induces the feeling of free-floating. Structurally and aesthetically, the Sphere is indeed impressive.

The other half of its construction, its musical accompaniment and light show, I am more ambivalent on. With an amphitheater-style arrangement, the Sphere contains rows of net seating built along its curvature and around a central podium where the musician performs. I reclined into my netting and was awash by color as the first concert began, set to an unabridged recording of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” Reich is a master, and “18 Musicians” exemplifies his craft as one of the foremost composers of minimalist music. Beguiling yet delightful, Reich constructs kaleidoscopic lush textures and rhythms that transport listeners into a transcendent space, evoking cosmic and spiritual scalesunfortunately, the lights don’t do justice to Reich’s music. For music as complex and varied as Reich’s, the visuals were ill-fitting, displaying a limited variety of colors, patterns and pulsing cadences. The next concert I saw, set to a medley of songs by the English rock band The xx, was pleasant. The xx delivers under-produced, atmospheric beats set to breathily-sung ballads of ill-begotten love, reflecting the futuristic aesthetic of the Sphere. Here, the lights felt fittingly minimal and slick, matching the feeling of the music. The audio quality waned slightly in this concert, with some songs being noticeably poorly-mixed. Despite the Sphere’s potential to facilitate immersive audio mixing and multi-directional sounds, the limited compositional variety I experienced during The xx’s concert was disappointing. 

The final concert I attended was a live performance by New York-based multigenre musician Madame Gandhi, who combines creative, rhythm-focused sampling with R&B vocals and a lyrical focus on mindfulness and wellness. Gandhi had a convincing command of the live venue, getting a previously disengaged audience out of their seats and, by the end, dancing to her set. She kept the energy up throughout the performance, constantly moving or injecting a percussive element by hopping on her drum set and playing over the pre-recorded track. Gandhi is a genuinely charming performer and leveraged the strengths of the Sphere well, working within the limited physicality of the space to galvanize her audience into active engagement and adding live music to elevate the compressed, flat sound of the Sphere’s mixing. Gandhi’s lyricism added an intellectual complexity to the night; threading together topics of mental wellness, postcolonial thought and racial identity, her set engaged on both musical and thematic levels.

Overall, I am left feeling ambivalent about the Sphere, its surrounding Hudson Yards and the success of its intentions. While a contrived, expensive space can house innovative art, the actual sites of creative innovation are often the cramped basements and salons across the organically made areas of New York City. In my opinion, genuinely emergent, groundbreaking artistry intertwines with the energy of civilian life. Hudson Yards is antithetical to that as a space that conjures the anti-human design of late-stage capitalism, with its aforementioned empty apartments and tragedy-marked buildings. Nonetheless, the Sphere is an incredible space and an art installation in itself. The Sphere begs attendance as a unique venue, even if some technical aspects are lacking. I recommend attending a Sonic Sphere concert if you are in the area and open to an exciting experience; they feature talented musicians and offer a memorable ascent you won’t soon forget. Oh, and the interior is pretty cool, too.

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