Architecture for musical performance: backstage at the West German spherical pavilion at Expo 70, Osaka

Williams, Sean (2018). Architecture for musical performance: backstage at the West German spherical pavilion at Expo 70, Osaka. In: Performance Studies Network 2018, 5-8 Jul 2018, Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo.


The West German pavilion for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka is remembered mainly for the great success of its spherical pavilion inside which the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen was performed daily for six months in front of over a million people. The auditorium was designed in collaboration between Stockhausen and the architect Bornemann, and represented the pinnacle of performance spaces for spatial audio, with fully controllable 360 degree sound and light.

Research questions
What was the relationship between the architectural and electronic spatial technologies and the performance practice of the musicians inside the spherical auditorium? How did the spherical space live up to expectations? It always sounds like such an amazing project, but what was it really like? Was there any other music played at the West German pavilion? What made the Stockhausen Ensemble split up halfway through the Expo?

Through ethnographic, archival, and some practical reconstruction work, I aim to provide a number of different perspectives on the nature of the project, getting past the marketing splendour and glossy public relations image of this iconic project.

Summary of content
Interviews with performers who spent six months performing Stockhausen’s music in Osaka, including Rolf Gehlhaar, Peter Ëotvös, Michael Vetter, David Johnson, and Mesias Maiguashca, are used to give a sense of the day to day experience of the conditions of performing in the spherical auditorium. Communications between the technical team from the TU Berlin also help build a picture of the conditions in the auditorium. Archival research in the Siemens archive, TU Berlin, and the Stockhausen archives has allowed me to form a detailed picture of the technology designed for the auditorium, and correspondence between engineers and technicians has exposed all kinds of problems with the technology and the architecture, and some responses and solutions to mitigate their effects on the performance practice.

I have found significant details about the other five exhibition spaces, and the range of music by other composers played across all of these halls in the West German pavilion, including some interesting feedback from visitors.

The interview and archival materials paint a rather different picture of the conditions, technology, and practices and underlying all of this is the major differences of opinion between three core members of Stockhausen’s ensemble which led them to split from him in the middle of the Expo.

The Expo 70 spherical pavilion stands as what we might nowadays call an historically significant “impact case study”, and has certainly been presented as such over the years. I have been able to separate some of the public narrative (and myth) from what actually took place, and this paper presents a much more nuanced picture of the event from the perspective of the performers, and their interactions together, with the electronic performance technology, and with the space.

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