If you find yourself in San Francisco anytime soon, I suggest checking out Audium, which is a unique and beautiful and kind of trippy experience — in other words, the precise thing travelers of a certain inclination may be seeking upon a visit to San Francisco.
I use the word “experience” because I don’t know what else to call Audium. It’s a concert of sorts — the playing of a pre-recorded composition by Stan Shaff, Audium’s co-creator. Shaff himself greets you at the door — a professorial-looking man, well into his AARP years — and prior to the performance he gives a brief, well-rehearsed speech hinting at what’s about to happen. You’re then led down a twisting corridor into a womblike space unlike any you’ve ever seen — an almost Kubrickian interior, but warmer, with the general feel of the flight deck in a postmodern spaceship. You find a seat and watch Shaff climb behind a massive control panel. The lights dim, and the composition begins.
The performance and the space itself are indivisible; Audium is both an event and a place. The theater was designed by Shaff and engineer Douglas McEachern specifically for the purpose of playing Shaff’s compositions, which explore sensations of space within sound. Its walls, ceiling, and floor are lined with a total of 176 speakers. The effect of these speakers is different from, say, a surround sound movie theater, in which you hear things happening around you. Here, in the pitch-black theater, you feel as though you’re in a space literally constructed of sound, as if all the molecules in the room, including those within your own body, are the tiny plucked strings and exhaled notes of a larger symphony.
Before starting, Shaff explained that his composition was about memory. In terms of form, it’s probably best described as a sound collage — an arrangement of noises culled from the natural and unnatural worlds. Waves crashed, phones rang, strange electronic pulses hummed. There were moments of calm, and of extreme dissonance. The room pulled apart and reconstituted the sounds; the sound of waves, for instance, revealed a tremendous range of embedded frequencies. “Wave crashing” was not a single noise, but rather a collection of them, from the trebly terror of the wave beginning to fold in on itself, sounding almost like many sheets of paper being torn apart, to the thundering bass of its implosion and churning, foamy roll.
I imagined it was an extremely personal work for Shaff, an effort to gather the passed moments of his life into something nearly physical. I tried to ask him about it after the show, what the work meant to him, but he was immediately swarmed by a group of guys who seemed keen on discussing every technical aspect of Audium. After floating in the deep space of Shaff’s composition, the idea of waiting in a line seemed radically unpleasant. So I left Audium, feeling at once solemn and electrified, emerging from its cocoonish realm into a cool, buzzing, neon San Francisco night.