San Francisco’s Audium blends sound and space

Composer Stan Shaff's sound art exhibition has been experimenting in audial art for the last 50 years

Beginning in the 1960s, a singular institution in sound art composition and performance known as Audium has quietly made its home in San Francisco. offering patrons a uniquely immersive and affecting art space. Created by composer Stan Shaff in 1960, Audium is an exhibition space for Shaff’s sound sculptures, offering patrons a uniquely immersive and affect art space that integrate architectural and audial forms.

Shaff conceived of Audium over 50 years ago, as a unique way to represent the spatial and immediate qualities of sound, and as a space that embraced hearing as humanity’s most contingent sense. The actual Audium building, tucked away north of Japantown just west of Van Ness, is described by Shaff in an email interview as a “potential composing tool,” where the audience is part of the performance the moment they walk through the door.

The foyer to the performance space is an art gallery, with each piece of art somehow relating to Shaff’s performed composition. During a visit this past April, the works reverberated with plays on light imaging and projection, drawing similarities between the substances of light and sound. The art echoed the sounds of water that seemed to drip from the ceiling and coat the entire space, portending the actual performance that would take place in a separate room. When the time came for the actual performance, the audience members were filed through the sound labyrinth in complete darkness, surrounded by a flux of sounds, before reaching the performance space: a round room with chairs arranged in concentric circles, with over 170 speakers embedded in the walls, floor and ceiling. As usual, Shaff performed his hour long piece live, as the audience sits in complete darkness.

Any verbal account of the so-called “sound sculpture” is incapable of capturing its immersive sensation, or the weightlessness that accompany a half an hour long envelopment in sound without vision. The sounds themselves vary in referent: some have clear origins, others are entirely electronic, and a few lurk somewhere in between. They can be atavistic, campy or reassuringly natural, but they are not solely representational or imitative of a visual scene. While the composition is distinctly non-musical, it is remarkably engaging: meditation on the sound creates discernible shapes, akin more to three-dimensional forms than linear notes on a staff.

As the piece is performed in complete darkness, there is no clear performer-authority over the audience or sympathetic reaction amongst the listeners. The experience becomes entirely solitary, but not isolating – the aural equivalent of returning to the womb, without any psychoanalytical implications. Audium’s primary goal seems to be establishing sound’s communicative and tangible qualities, as a medium for both linguistic and sculptural creations.

While Shaff composes with both sound and architectural space in mind, the Audium of forty years ago could not have predicted the digital sound technology that has since evolved. In a post-Internet sound-scape, Shaff has access to and the ability to manipulate more sounds than was ever before imaginable, a practice which has expanded his own thoughts on sound in composition and performance: “Any sound can be morphed into any other sound in the electronic domain and enhanced by controlled movement and placement in the environment.”

When the performance ends, enough light gradually fills the performance space for patrons to leave through the sound labyrinth at their own pace. Shaff has made a habit out of talking to patrons after the performance, dissolving the pretensions between performer and audience that begin upon entering the sound labyrinth. Audium is a remarkable piece of San Francisco, idiosyncratic not only to the experience of sound, but as a piece of aural history.