Sink into an auditory performance dedicated to turning off the noise of the world.
These days, it seems like we’re bombarded by a constant stream of music, visual stimulation, and distraction at all times. Passive listening has become crucial just to skim through the vast amount of media available at our fingertips. But what if you could turn some of that noise off, close your eyes, and actively listen to something, even just for an hour, letting your brain relax and sink into itself? Audium provides just that kind of auditory breather — the sort of downtime you don’t know you need until you get it.
Housed in an old donut shop in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Audium is a unique sound-art event that has been presented since 1967 by composer Stan Shaff. Walking in, the space has the familiar feel of an old basement: carpet wrapped up in rolls, flickering light projections on the walls and floor, and a soothing soundscape of car horns, street traffic, trickling water, and other ambient noise. The lobby is filled with surrealist and abstract art pieces, and the auditory control even here is intriguing. Different sounds echo out of different speakers, cutting in and out, causing a disorienting yet still somehow relaxing feeling. There’s coffee and tea in the corner for anyone who wants it, as well as a book of newspaper clips dating back decades.
The long-running performance takes place in a specially designed space with seats arranged in a circle and 174 speakers placed meticulously throughout the round, acoustically controlled room. Everyone who enters has to turn off their phone. The lights go down slowly, plunging listeners into complete darkness, and then the compositions begin. Stan refers to the piece as a “sonic sculpture.”
“The idea of the world itself as an orchestration kind of occurred to me decades ago. All sounds have an impact on us, only we don’t think of it that way.” —Stan Shaff
The performance itself uses recorded sounds played from a custom console by Stan and his son David on original equipment created by collaborator Doug McEachern. The room is specially designed for complete sonic control by either father or son. They’re able to play specific sounds out of specific speakers when and how they want, giving the performance a kind of physicality as they work through each recording.
Each show is split into two sections with a short intermission in the middle. The second segment, composed and executed by Stan, is reminiscent of some of the weirder works by electronic music duo Autechre, using atonal sounds interspersed with found noises. The first, composed by David, features ambient music and sounds he’s picked up over the years on his travels.
“My dad has been doing things a certain way for many years,” says David. “We take our sounds from many different places. I kind of learned from [my dad]. Growing up, I thought everyone had a dad who carried around microphones everywhere.”
This aural curiosity feeds the heart of what Audium is and can be, exploring the world in a way that goes further than just listening to music. The compositions become an examination of space, sound, and the senses, using both the recordings and the room itself as an instrument.
“It gives your ear a chance to get inside, and opens up the possibilities in composition,” says Stan. “Any sound can mean something in the right moment. As a composer, I’ve been intrigued by the thought that we have a lot of sound memories, and the notion that our eye is a very dominant factor in our thinking process in the daytime, but when we get inside ourselves, our ears drink up a whole world. I think that is the important ingredient.”
Audium is the kind of sound experiment that is needed today more than ever. As our waking lives are endlessly saturated with sounds and stimulation, spaces like this remind us of the importance of unplugging and resetting. And both Stan and David have high hopes of growing and continuing their work in new and different ways.
“I think Audium is only a beginning of what could be conceived,” says Stan, “in terms of new environments, new ways for perception of the world, the use of light, architecture, the way people encounter the moment. There are a multitude of ways in which people could explore.”
David, as part of the newer generation, also sees potential in newer technologies to enhance what they already have and create new experiences in the space. “Think about what could be possible with a multidirectional sound system,” he says. “There’s a whole other layer of energy and creativity that can be explored with this idea of space and special sound.”
With endless possibilities ahead, Audium continues to present a unique sensory immersion for the world-weary and the sonically curious.
Theodora Karatzas is a writer, content producer, and occasional DJ based in San Francisco. She is originally from Portland, OR, and used to play the flute pretty well. Find her at theokaratzas.com.
Kim Huynh is a San Francisco–based documentary filmmaker and photographer from Honolulu, Hawaii. She received a Telly Award in 2009 and her passions include social activism, live music, and impromptu dance parties.