Right in the Pacific Heights ‘hood of San Francisco you’ll find some strange retro-futuristic dome: Probably the only one of its kind, the sound theatre called Audium is a sound-sculptured space that’s been around for over 30 years. It’s a venue of musical experimentation with its physical space being one of its main instruments. The peculiar architecture borrows from early futuristic icons such as Flash Gordon episodes! The music you encounter inside is composed by eighty-year-old songwriting genius and Audium creator Stan Shaff, playing a cross between Philip Glass and something you might have heard if you’re into deep-sea scuba diving. Now imagine yourself seated in a pitch-dark room being flooded with multiple layers of soundscapes wrapping around your body… and 174 speakers guide you into a heaven of noise, composed by Mr. Shaff himself. PingMag spoke to Stan Shaff after one of his biweekly performances.
First, when did you have the idea of exploring sound in different spaces?
It all started in 1960: I was a trumpet player interested in performance and playing. When you play in an orchestra, there are works dating back to the 19th century that put a brass choir out in other spaces within the symphony houses. Space was involved with this and it intrigued me. Visual arts and their abstract ideas probably inspired me more than anything else. I met VJ pioneer Seymour Locks at the time he started getting really involved with light. We became friends and started collaborating on improvisations: He projected abstract images on the walls and then I started to play my trumpet against some of these images. The imagery put me in a position of openness and it made me get up and start moving around the environment…
And then? Today’s Audium opened to the public in 1975…
In 1959, I came across a musician named Doug McEachern who was into electronics. He became my partner in crime and created a primitive board attached to speakers which multiplied the sound. In the beginning we had 20 or 30 speakers — now it’s up to 174 and I plan to keep expanding… In the ’60s we opened the very first Audium after some stints at museums and art schools. A couple years later we lost the lease and I thought the dream was over, but at our very last program somebody from the National Endowment for the Arts came and helped us get a grant from them and we created this current space.
How was the structure of the space conceived?
Push the button! At the consoles.
We’ve learned a lot from our past experiences, the quadrant of speakers and how it should be spaced. And also a lot from audience feedback, because there’s no book about that — it was something that hadn’t been explored yet. We partnered with an architect, but we already knew what we wanted: I had this idea of a tunnel of sound when you come in, and then a womb. First you walk through the tunnel, which would lead you into this environment of sound. As the design came along, there were certain acoustic requirements that drove a little bit of the shape. The architecture grew out of the sound itself.
How does it feel to be ahead of your time for the past 40 years…? Did people get your vision?
As of today, I can’t point to any given space like this. I think we’re pretty unique in what we do and I am a little surprised that no one caught up yet. I guess having done this so many times I’m aware that people are moved by it and that’s the driving element that keeps me consistent. But even without that I think I would’ve continued to explore, because there’s a natural evolution in the art form and I think space is just so inherent in life today. I mean, it’s a major element in humanity, we’re spacial species and its inevitable we’re going to move in that direction.
And how would an audience consisting of different cultures respond to that?
The Audium logo outside, nice and straight!
Things have changed a lot with my audiences and I notice now we’re getting a wide range of different cultures. I’m all very impressed with the relationship between the eastern view of sound in Japan, India and the like. They take a different view of the nature of sound. Particularly in Japan, there is a history of sounds being an important element in life, especially the sounds of nature. So, I would say, I’m learning all the time by people who come here. And that has influenced me as a composer.
And when composing, how do you feel mixing synthetic with human sounds?
I really don’t hear the difference anymore. I’m just interested in a sound and if it happens to be produced electronically or maybe played by an accoustic instrument, it’s just all one. It’s how it shapes that matters. You could have a door slam, it might be just a door slamming and mean nothing more than that. On the other hand, if it slams at the right moment at the right time, it can be very profound if the setting is right and that’s how I feel about all sounds. Depending on how a sound emerges it can be a jewel or nothing.
Stan Shaff, creator of Audium.
Lastly, where do you think the concept of sound and space will be explored in the future…?
The idea of space and sound is going to grow much wider and larger and richer than any of our imaginations. When composers have increasing tools to play around with environments, they’re going to take on all kinds of space. Audium is only one way of doing it. I believe there will be installations that will encompass space and the movement of sound at already fixed venues for rock groups. They’ll create systems using newer forms of speaker location and sound projections, getting sound away from the speakers and more into a natural environment. Have a more kinetic feel from the sound. I don’t think space is going to replace anything, but will be an additional layer.
Thank you, Mr. Shaff, for inspiring us and showing that imaginary worlds can actually exist if we stick to our beliefs and concepts. Also special thanks to your wife and Brendon Baker!
1616 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA.