Last night I did something I hadn’t done in perhaps 20 years, and thought I’d never do again. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but under the circumstances it seemed like the right thing to do. I…um…drank a cup of instant coffee. Now I realize this will come as a shock to those who know the seriousness with which I approach coffee. (I have a saying: “You can take your coffee light, but you must never take it lightly.”) But there was a method to my madness, and I hope that a few words of explanation will put my behavior in context. The scene of my transgression was a little-known San Francisco institution called Audium. It is the world’s only venue devoted exclusively to the performance of pure sound.
Audium is a unique and highly specialized theatre. The room where the performance takes place is actually a building-within-a-building, completely isolated from outside sounds. About four dozen chairs are arranged in three concentric circles, with 169 speakers of all shapes and sizes located around the room. Some speakers are suspended from the ceiling, or hidden behind the walls, under chairs, or beneath the floating floor. You’re completely surrounded by speakers, so all seats are equally good. It’s almost like being in a planetarium, except there’s nothing to see—the performances take place in complete darkness. You come to Audium to experience a total immersion in sound.
Sounding Out an Idea
The idea for Audium was conceived in the late 1950s, when electronic music was beginning to appear. A pair of classically trained, professional musicians became interested in exploring the role space played in composition and performance. Not content with two channels of sound, they wanted to know what it would be like for sound to move all the way around, above, and below the audience—using space itself as an instrument. Composer Stan Shaff and his partner, equipment designer Doug McEachern, began a long collaboration. Shaff conceptualized the sounds and effects he wanted to achieve, and McEachern figured out how technology could bring those ideas to life.
In the early 1960s the first Audium concerts were held at universities and museums in San Francisco. In 1965, the first Audium theatre was created, and after a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972, construction began on the current building. Since it opened in 1975, the current Audium at 1616 Bush St. has given weekly performances. Shaff still sits behind the console, and McEachern still maintains the equipment—now in the process of being updated for the ninth time.
Everything about Audium is analog—there’s not a CD player, computer, or digital effects processor in sight. Considering the vintage of the technology, the sound quality is startlingly pure. On a good night, with the controls handled expertly, there simply isn’t any hiss or buzz. Every sound is bright and vibrant. Shaff said he gave a special concert last year for a group of engineers from Dolby, who were impressed by Audium’s use of technology. It makes Surround Sound seem downright pedestrian. Still, the engineers said, composers and soundtrack designers would have to learn entirely new skills to be able to create sounds for an audio environment as rich as Audium.
Echo of the Past
Visiting Audium is like stepping back in time 30 years. The building’s architecture, décor, and the performance itself are pure 1970s. When you arrive, you buy your ticket at the box office (cash only, of course) and proceed into the foyer. The first thing you notice, appropriately enough, is sound. There’s a faint but steady drone that sounds like a discordant organ. As you adjust to the sound, you also adjust to dim lighting and begin to study the abstract sculptures and prints lining the walls. Meanwhile, hidden speakers on every surface play seemingly random sound effects—voices, waves, ticking clocks. On one wall, a ghostly green projection of a clock face shows the current time. The total effect is one of intriguing eeriness. But it’s eerie in a very particular way: you begin to notice, almost subliminally, that the entire experience reflects the sensibilities of a bygone era. Everything around you must have seemed extremely modern when it was built, but there’s a complete absence of any artifacts, sounds, or scents of the post-computer age—right down to the powdered soap in the lavatories. But the unselfconsciously anachronistic setting is quite endearing.
On a small counter, next to blank index cards on which patrons could write their addresses to sign up for a mailing list, was what at first appeared to be an electric coffee urn. Then I noticed the small sign that said “Hot Water,” and before I realized I’d automatically started looking for tea bags I did a double-take and read the rest of the sign: “for Coffee.” No tea bags in sight, but there was a dispenser full of instant coffee. At first I was annoyed—this just isn’t natural, especially not in San Francisco in the 21st century. But then, intuiting that this could be an essential part of the complete package, I went ahead and made myself some. If I’m going to have the sights, sounds, and smells of the 1970s, I figured, I might as well have the tastes too. The coffee was…everything I expected it to be.
Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
At precisely 8:30 p.m., Stan Shaff pulled aside a black curtain and introduced himself to the 20 or so members of the evening’s audience. After a few words of explanation about the performance, he led the group through a dark, twisty hall called a sound labyrinth and into the performance space. As the lights went down, Shaff seated himself behind a customized console of knobs and levers in a small control booth. He then began what he refers to as sculpting sound. While taped recordings of all sorts of sounds played, Shaff manipulated their positions, speed, and volume in real time. So although the content was fixed, the performance itself was dynamic, changing significantly from night to night.
The sounds we heard were dreamlike, evoking unexpected memories and emotions. There might be children playing, an airplane taking off, a flushing toilet, or a marching band. Interspersed with the natural sounds were the textures of old analog synthesizers—not melodic for the most part, but aleatory—sometimes playfully so, other times harshly serious. The show was not a musical work in the conventional sense, but rather a sound performance in the best tradition of experimental twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.
The show lasted about an hour and a quarter, including a brief intermission. As the sound faded away and the lights returned, the audience simply sat there, silently, for several minutes. For some, perhaps it was simply a matter of waiting for a cue that the show was really over and it was time to leave. But I think most of the audience was still savoring the experience, pondering the strange sensations and impressions of this unique performance. I left pleasantly disoriented, having to readjust to the sounds of the city with their conventional directionality.
Audium performances are held every Friday and Saturday night promptly at 8:30. Audium does virtually no advertising, so Shaff never knows what to expect. On some nights, he said, the show sells out; on others, it’s just him and his wife. But he’s quick to point out that it’s not a commercial venture so success isn’t measured in numbers. What is important is his unique art and the impressions it leaves on the audience—including, he hopes, future generations of composers who will take up the torch of omnidimensional sound sculpture. —Joe Kissell