The Audiophiles: "Audium" composer and founder on creating the Bay Area's first sound theater
Now, if you're in a place where you can close your eyes, close them. Do it. Take a few moments to really listen to these sounds...
[MUSIC FROM "AUDIUM"]
Now, imagine you're in complete darkness, sitting with about 40 strangers, and these sounds are coming at you from 176 different directions. That's what it feels like to visit Audium -- The first sound theater of its kind, located right here, in the heart of San Francisco.
LAUREN PERLOW: It was really surreal, you feel simultaneously helpless and empowered.
That's Lauren Perlow, a recent visitor to Audium.
PERLOW: A friend at work told me about it because he said it was one of the most interesting things to do in San Francisco that you've never done before.
And the mastermind behind this interesting thing?
STAN SHAFF: Oh well, let's see, my name is Stan Shaff and I'm a composer.
Along with his partner Doug McEachern, Shaff founded Audium back in the late 1950s. KALW's Martina Castro joined Stan Shaff in the very, very dark Audium theater, to talk about how and why he created this one-of-a-kind performance space. It;s one of our new series of conversations that we're calling “The Audiophiles."
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STAN SHAFF: Well, essentially what's going on here at Audium, my work is in effect, the composition itself, is mixed down to a hard disc. That is all a finished work and composition. And it comes into the board that Doug evolved, that I'm able to sit there and control what those sounds on that composition are intended for. And I'm able to locate it in all kinds of points in that space -- there are actually 176 speakers that are located in all kinds of quadrants in the space -- and I'm able to take advantage of being able to move that sound just about anywhere. It comes in on four discreet channels, and im able to move those channels in any direction, in any form I wish. So the board is like an instrument. I am literally playing the space. I lay it out like a musical composition, I rehearse myself through many hours as to how I want to lay that work out. Almost like a conductor conducting an orchestra, is the way I conduct the space.
Overall people really do find themselves being, well, I don't want to use the word changed, but they find themselves having an experience that they haven't had before or hadnt even thought about. Because when you come into an environment like this you can't help but go inside yourself. Because you're not having available a visual thing, you simply go inside and the sounds then move the emotional world inside.
MARTINA CASTRO: So right now we are sitting in the space where your audience comes and sits down and -- I know this experience because I came and heard your show -- and you come in and its kind of a dim lighting. But then all of the lights turn off, and then it is so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. So, I'm curious why you decided to do that, why not have the lights on and have people put on headphones, why is it that you decided to isolate sound?
SHAFF: Well, for one thing, the darkness really heightens soud. Every little nuance and quality becomes forward. You know, we are such a visual culture to begin with, although I think probably in the earliest of eras that the ear was far more important just for survival's sake. But today, in modern-day world, the eye is extremely important. So when you are put in a situation when just your ear is listening, every little point in space becomes magnified, becomes enlarged. And so it is with that in mind that we find that absolutely necessary here. It's funny, when the lights do go on, or if in fact for some reason or another the eye is turned onto a light in the space, immediately there is a diminishing quality to the sound. And what we want to do is to bring out the fullest characteristics of every little nuance of sound.
CASTRO: What is your favorite sound?
SHAFF: The funny thing is, when I started to compose in this form of so-called electronic music, one of the things that really attracted me was the sound of life around. I think there are universal sounds that we all respond to in a very deep way. For example, I go back over all of my works -- this would be my ninth work for Audium -- liquid always plays a very important role, and I guess if you had to put something at the top of the list I'd put that because so much of our lives are shaped by liquid, and I find the sounds of it are infinite. But there are others, certainly children's voices, what is anything more universal than a young baby or a child? Doesn't matter what country you're in, the rhythm, the characteristic of that sound we all respond to, and in deep feelings.
CASTRO: So, ultimately, what do you hope audiences come away with in terms of thinking of sound and the way they perceive it in the world?
SHAFF: Well, it would be nice to think that when people walk out of here that perhaps they might listen to the street, and to their own voice, and to the world around them, and recognize that we are all in a kind of choreographed sound world, we are all in a kind of orchestration of sound that we are making out there. You know, if you just stand on a street corner and listen to it over a period of time you're going to hear the rhythm of that corner, and it's quite genuine. And the same thing would be true in just about any part of our lives, sound plays such a deep language to us that we just kind of take for granted. And maybe it just might, for a few, heighten that a bit.
You can catch a performance at Audium every Friday and Saturday night at 8:30pm. For ticket information, go to Audium.org. If you have any other ideas for our new series of conversations with creative minds in sound, please drop us a line and let us know at email@example.com.
This story originally aired on April 28, 2011.