There are certain landmarks that attract music lovers – Woodstock, Liverpool, Graceland – all worthy historic pilgrimage sites. There are lesser-known sonic shrines around the world, and the Audium is one of them. One could easily describe the Audium as a temple, built to exacting specifications for a special purpose, and then open for the faithful to come and experience. It is truly one-of-a-kind, a “theater of sound-sculptured space”. It is an institution that has been a part of the San Francisco music scene for over 40 years, the brainchild of composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern.
Some time ago, I read an article about the Audium in a music magazine, and I was fascinated with the description of its design – 176 speakers, installed in a space with sloping walls, a floating floor and suspended ceiling, where listeners sit in concentric circles while the program is performed live at a special console. This is not your typical home theater 5.1 surround sound system, this is immersion. For me, that description was enough to make me search it out while in the Bay Area and finally attend a performance last month.
Despite its sophisticated design, surprisingly, the speakers in your home are likely to have “higher fidelity” than many in the Audium. Stan Shaff, the composer and performer of the Audium spoke with me after the show and explained that he was less concerned with each speaker perfectly reproducing the entire spectrum of sound than he was in exploiting their natural character, limited as it may be. There are speakers of varying types and sizes around, above and below you. Their differences are what give depth and variety to the sound being played, in addition to their spatial position.
After waiting in the “sonic gallery” and a brief introduction by Stan Shaff, we were led down a winding labyrinth that served as a sound and light trap before entering the “inner sanctum” of the Audium itself. Looking around, one might feel they had wandered onto the set of “2001: A Space Odyssey” – the closest example I could imagine to describe the architectural style surrounding me. Finding a seat in the dim lights, I settled in, aware of my fellow audience members for only a moment before the lights very slowly faded to absolute blackness. Among the many unique qualities of listening to a performance at the Audium, I was struck by how effective the total darkness was at modifying my sensory experience. The slightest glow of muted arrows on the floor leading to the exit were all I could see. Rather than having to close my eyes, as many people might do to close out distractions at a concert, I was staring into the blackness with my eyes open the entire time.
What followed can be only poorly described in words – it is simply best experienced in person. In the darkness, sounds, textures, voices, music and more appeared from the void and floated in space around me. The sensation was so visceral that I couldn’t help but imagine the sounds physically manifesting, and sometimes I had to resist the urge to reach out and feel for their source. As the program described, “the Audium is the only theatre anywhere constructed specifically for sound movement, utilizing the entire environment as a compositional tool.” Unlike a typical movie theater experience, where the sound has been created in a studio somewhere else and is played back to approximate the original intent of the creator, the Audium itself is the instrument, and only there could the composition be accurately conveyed. The sounds being performed are sculpted in real-time “through their movement, direction, speed, and intensity on multiple planes of space.” Thus I found myself experiencing a performance totally unique to myself, in that exact time and place. No two performances are the same, though the audio sources have been designed and arranged on tape ahead of time as part of a specific compositional “edition”. For someone used to creating and listening to obsessively-polished and identically-replicated recordings, this was an organic soundscape, being formed by someone’s hands while it was revealed to me. The sonic samples, while possibly a bit dated to modern ears, were a surprising and eclectic mix of noises, songs, instruments, and voices that altogether had the uncanny effect of being in a lucid dream or blind hallucination. More than once I lost all sense of time and even forgot I was in the Audium at all.
Afterwards, Stan was available to answer our questions and elaborate on the design and history of the Audium. His journey began in the 1950′s, exploring the dimensional connection between music and the space it inhabits. A detailed chronology is available on the Audium website (www.audium.org). There are few music shows still around today that can claim such a long, continuous run of performances. There are even fewer that have been conceived, created, and realized as a living experiment in the human perception of sound and music.
“I have always been possessed by the evocative qualities all sounds seem to have, whether natural or electronic. Sounds touch deeper levels of our inner life, layers that lie just beneath the visual world. All sounds are communicative sound as birth, life and death; sound as time and space; sound as object, environment or event. Audiences should feel sound as it bumps up against them, caresses, travels through, covers and enfolds them. I ask listeners to see with their ears and feel with their bodies sounds as images, dreams and memories. As people walk into a work, they become part of its realization. From entrance to exit, AUDIUM is a sound-space continuum.” - Stan Shaff, Composer