San Francisco these days is a dispiriting place, as the hollow ambitions of the tech industry have stamped out much of the city’s weirdness and charm. Stepping into the Audium is a welcome respite. This little ‘theatre of sound-sculptured space’, devised by local composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern over five decades ago, is technology from a simpler era, frozen in time. Shaff began devising the concept for the surround-sound space in the late 1950s while working with the sculptor Seymour Locks on early West Coast light shows, and doing instrumental and tape work for Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop. The very first Audium concerts were held in 1960, in Shaff’s San Francisco home.
As you enter the Audium, you travel through a small ‘labyrinth’ filled with simple electronic art works – such as a piece of crumpled steel mesh on the floor, a projector on the ceiling washing it in luminous patterns of colour and texture. Tea and instant coffee are served in a small waiting area. At exactly 8:30pm, you’re softly ushered into the theatre – a circular room filled with 176 speakers, with 49 seats arranged in a radial pattern.
Shaff, now well into his 80s, still introduces the ‘performances’ each week; he’s clearly excited about his creation. He steps behind a control console that looks like something out of a 1960s science-fiction film. The lights go down in the dome-like room; you feel as if you’re in a ufo about to lift off into space. Over the course of about an hour, with a brief intermission, you hear dripping water, the sounds of a parade, of the ocean, various environmental noises and snatches of piano music. This isn’t Karlheinz Stockhausen, for sure; it’s not particularly ‘avant-garde’. It’s just Shaff and his creation; and he wants you to hear these sounds with open ears.