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From Issue #47 July 17, 2014

Listen Carefully

An auteur of sound has spent decades perfecting his idiosyncratic performance space.

By April Kilcrease

Located in a squat wood-paneled building, streaked white and gray with age, Audium stands in sharp contrast to its showy Victorian neighbors and the fortresslike church that anchors this San Francisco block. No neon sign lights up the entrance. No windows offer a peek inside. Only the soft glow of a single bulb shines on the steps between the gate and the door. On the Saturday night I attend with a couple of friends, composer Stan Shaff’s 28-year-old son staffs the ticket window. Dressed casually in a plaid shirt and jeans, Dave has been working here since he was in middle school. On other nights, visitors might find his mom, with her mass of white hair partially tied up in a loose bun, at the booth.

While Las Vegas, Nevada, and Branson, Missouri, have their long-running one-artist spectacles, San Francisco has the experimental tape music musings of Stan Shaff. For Shaff, space truly is the final frontier. Since the days of LP records and FM radio, we’ve been trapped inside stereo’s sonic confines. And for more than 50 years, Shaff has been on a not-so-quiet mission to liberate our ears from the narrow plane of 20th-century music. “As the tools become available, it’s going to be the new layer,” says the 85-year-old sound art pioneer. “Melody, harmony, rhythm, and space.”

Shaff’s shrine to 3D sound is Audium, a 49-seat theater packed with 176 speakers of various sizes embedded above, below, and around the audience. The setup allows him to play his taped compositions — a mix of acoustic instruments, field recordings, and electronic sounds — from specific speakers and, in a sense, sculpt sound in real time. Shows are conducted in complete darkness, giving sound free rein over the room.

Despite a complete lack of advertising and Shaff’s fiercely idiosyncratic compositions, Audium has gained international acclaim and is often cited as one of the first works of sound art. Other early explorations in sound spatialization include the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, where 400 loudspeakers projected the sounds of Edgard Varèse’s tape music composition “Poème Électronique” around the audience, and the West German pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Expo, which featured Karlheinz Stockhausen’s spherical concert hall surrounding attendees with 50 groups of speakers.

What sets Audium apart is Shaff’s unrelenting commitment. He has been executing his unique vision since 1960, and performing every Friday and Saturday night since this incarnation of Audium opened to the public on Bush Street in 1975 — a level of dedication that few artists can compete with.

An interior aural landscape

Before this evening’s show, clusters of people in their 20s and 30s chat in the L-shaped lobby. Like a Laserium for stoner audiophiles, Audium has gained a reputation for drawing a repeat crowd of drugged-up customers. Judging by the eager expressions on some of the pasty dudes in hoodies and the dazed looks on the faces of others, my friends and I estimate that half of tonight’s audience is high and the other half are sound nerds.

The lobby itself is a quaintly trippy experience. Speakers hidden in the walls emit seemingly random noises — cowbells, low electronic hums, a mallet running up and down a xylophone. Sculptures by the artist Seymour Locks, a pioneer in psychedelic light shows, decorate the room. Shaff changes the art to reflect the mood of each composition. The current piece, Audium 9, has been running since 2008, and it looks like some of the sculptures haven’t been dusted since then. It feels like the perfect place to host a cocktail party for Trekkies in homemade costumes.

Suddenly, the subtle cacophony of bleeps and squeaks from the speaker boxes stops. There’s a single dramatic sound, and Shaff appears from behind the black curtain that shrouds the theater’s entrance. A retired middle school music teacher and community college lecturer, Shaff does not look like a showman. He still sports a rumpled professorial style: mustard-colored button-down shirt, wide-wale corduroy blazer with patches at the elbows, and eyeglasses poking out of one pocket. His clothes look big and baggy on his rounded frame, and what remains of his downy white hair forms a halo around his head.

He stands a few steps above us, and welcomes the gathered crowd with a friendly, albeit fast-paced, speech. His voice is low and gentle as he explains that the composition explores memories and fantasies. “Some liken it to a waking dream,” he says. Then he ends with a warning of sorts: “As tempting as it might be to relax on that floor, I appreciate you don’t do that.”

We follow the faded glow-in-the-dark masking tape arrows through a dark passage with a few short turns. The little labyrinth is akin to the entrance to a neighborhood haunted house, only the soundtrack is running water rather than creaking doors and screams. Inside, concentric rows of seats encircle a cylindrical black speaker. More speakers hang from the ceiling like a space-age mobile. I half expect a Silurian or some other alien from Dr. Who to lumber into the room.

But no Styrofoam monsters appear. Instead, the already dark theater begins to get even darker. I can’t see the friend sitting next to me, though I know he is there. I move my hand back and forth in front of him, but he doesn’t respond. I wave my hand in front of my own face and see nothing. Shaff had told me in an earlier conversation that the darkness used to be too much for some people, and they would walk out. The disconnect is slightly discomfiting, but that is part of the point. Shaff wants to help his audience move into a surreal state (if they’re not already there).

As light exits, sound takes center stage. And although I can’t see him, I trust that Shaff has taken the helm in the low balcony that overlooks the theater. Unlike other sound art pieces, where the composer might control the loudness and softness in time, every moment at Audium is under Shaff’s fingers. With his joystick and inscrutable custom-designed console, he begins to conjure a sonic landscape.

Horses clop by and then break into a gallop, thundering around the room. The spectral tinkling of a piano solidifies into a child talking. “I found a reed,” a boy says before the words balloon into an unintelligible mass. A cuckoo clock bumps into a brass band; a wall of clocks morphs into tribal drumming; crickets chirp and owls hoot after a samba band. Out of the pelting rain and crashing ocean waves, a giant insect emerges, followed by a hulking beast that stomps through us like a ghost.

“In electronic music, you can take any sound and morph it into other sounds,” Shaff tells me later. “In dreams, anything can become anything. The butterfly can become an elephant. That’s part of what’s aesthetically appealing to me. You can be in bliss and then suddenly it can be horrible.”

Artwork in the lobby

The ears of perception

During the brief intermission, the lights return to their dim setting and gentle waves roll in and out of the theater. Two people practically run out, but everyone else remains seated and silent. One couple holds hands throughout the intermission while looking straight ahead. I don’t know if they’re under Shaff’s spell or if they think this is part of the show.

The blackness returns and more swirling music follows. When the lights come up at the end, the hand-holding couple are still at it. Again, one couple jets, but everyone else stays still, slowly blinking their way back to reality.

Shaff teleports from his conductor’s cockpit before anyone can catch a glimpse of him there. When we emerge from the room, he is standing in the corner of the lobby next to a coffee pot and basket of tea, waiting to answer questions. This evening, no one pours a cup, but a group of four middle-aged friends, among them the keyboard player and onetime Grateful Dead sound technician and producer Bob Bralove, pepper Shaff with questions. The most excited of the bunch is Henry Kaiser, a guitarist known for his free improvising style and his scores for TV shows and films, including Werner Herzog’s documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World.

“I believe that Audium is one of the most significant experimental music performance spaces of the past 50 years,” Kaiser says. A youthful 61-year-old wearing Converses, Kaiser has been attending Audium about every three years since he was in elementary school, starting with early performances at its original theater in the Inner Richmond district. “It is totally amazing that Stan Shaff could continue his unique personal vision and share it with tens of thousands of people for so long. Few experimental musicians can boast of that kind of success, while uncompromisingly doing things on their own terms,” he says. “Every time he opens a new show, I am stunned that he always seems to find new things to do with sound and space.”

Bold statements, but Kaiser is not alone in his enthusiasm. Although one woman in the audience that night said, “Oh good, I can leave,” when the lights came up, and one of my companions conceded that he’d have liked it better if he were high, Shaff has many sober admirers in the electronic music and sound art world.

Audium’s impressive list of past visitors includes seminal musique concrète composer Pierre Henry; Hans Tutschku, director of the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition; Chris Chafe, director of Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics; and engineers from Lucasfilm, Dolby Laboratories, and Walt Disney. And attendance is on the rise. “This amazes me,” says Shaff. “I’ve never been interested in this in terms of the general public. For some of my earlier programs, it was me and my mother-in-law and she didn’t show up. Really, it’s true.”

To hear Gareth Loy, a musician, computer-music researcher, and author of the MIT Press book Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music,” tell it, the direction of Shaff’s work changed the course of his life. In 1965, Loy was a hippie living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district when he attended Audium. “It completely blew my mind,” he says. Loy had recently read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

In the book, Huxley wrote,

In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions…

Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honoured. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts about existence, are almost completely ignored.

Primed for a transcendent experience, Loy felt like Shaff had hit upon a way to evoke memories and feelings that went under the radar of listeners’ conscious minds and allowed unconscious associations to surface. “What Shaff provides at Audium is a way to tap into the mystery of the world, the mystery of sound, and the mystery of self,” he says. “Visually and auditorily, the integrated experience reminds me nothing so much as a visit to a powerful oracle.”

Perhaps partly due to the prophetic trip he took at Audium, Loy eventually ended up at Stanford University at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where he received a doctorate in music, and then went on to teach for a decade at the University of California, San Diego. “As far as I’m concerned, he is a complete maverick,” Loy says. “He struck out in a unique direction all the way back in the 1950s, and he never looked back.”

Sound logic

When Shaff tells me after the show that he hopes that Audium “is a giant arrow pointing in a direction that others will take in different ways,” I can’t help but think of the worn-out glow-in-the-dark arrows on the theater’s floor. He says that the next stage will be to bring in other musicians to experiment in the space. And over the past several decades, many have already requested to do so, but so far no one has been granted access. By staying so steadfastly focused on his own particular vision, Audium has become a sort of museum piece or a time capsule — a fading vision of the future from the past.

Today, sound spatialization is a huge field, from Lucasfilm’s THX standard to the complex concert halls of Paris’s Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music and Jonty Harrison’s BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre) project in Birmingham, UK. There are annual festivals that feature multi-channel sound, including Berlin’s Club Transmediale festival, Toronto’s New Adventures in Sound Art, and the Sea of Sound festival in Edmonton, Alberta.

“Stan achieved the perfect confluence of art and technology, theater, and science for his time,” Loy says. “It has been chugging along ever since. Because he has been so ‘standoffish’ — his word — with Audium, I don’t think it will survive him. But then, that will also be perfect, I suppose.”

Special thanks to Stephan Moore, the curator and artistic director of “In the Garden of Sonic Delights,” an exhibition of sound art at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in New York, for his help in providing current and historic context. Photo of Shaff in the Audium theater by Mark Akamine. Other photos by the author.

April Kilcrease writes about rollerskating, whiskey, and breakfast tacos. When she's not working at her desk in Oakland, she enjoys petting baby farm animals and climbing fences. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, AFAR, and San Francisco Magazine.

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