Chamber of Secrets
Out of the hundreds of things to do in the city on a Friday or Saturday night, paying $15 to sit in pitch black darkness for almost an hour and listen to random sounds isn't likely to top your to-do list.
When a friend told me about Audium – “a theatre of sound-sculptured space” – I was a little skeptical. Okay, I probably said something like, “Fuck that, that’s white people shit.” (What? I’m not being racist, white people just like weird shit.) But deep down inside, I was intrigued (because maybe there’s an old white hippie living inside me).
I’m an audiophile. I grew up outside of the Bay Area – you know, where people drive cars. Cars blasting heavy bass from two 15” speakers in a Plexiglas box in the trunk. I even have one of those original Radio Raheem-style Lasonic ghetto blasters. Needless to say, sound is something as serious as cancer to me. Audium, I found out, was a room filled with 169 speakers. It rose to half-mast just thinking about it. I had to check it out.
Located in lower Pacific Heights, Audium is housed in a nondescript wood-paneled storefront. Conceived in the ’60s by composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern, Audium has been at its current location since 1975. For the last 35 years, two performances have been presented weekly: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. sharp.
The only sound theatre of its kind in the world, Audium seats 49 people and generally attracts about 25 heads at each performance. I made sure to email Shaff in advance and reserve tickets for myself and a friend, just in case. Tonight, I count 22 folks, two of whom will leave at the intermission. Everyone looks like an art student.
After picking up the tickets at the box office, run by Shaff’s wife, I make my way inside. The hall leading to the performance room is filled with trippy art installations, including a small sculpture of a staircase leading to a door in the sky. As we wait to enter the performance room, I hear water dripping, and what the creators of old-school sci-fi flicks thought the future would sound like: random blips, beeps, and bloops.
There’s a pentagon-shaped doorway that leads to the performance space. “Hi. Good evening,” says Shaff warmly as he enters from behind the black curtain. Sporting a beige suit, the gray-haired composer, now in his 70s, explains what we’re about to get ourselves into and invites us to follow him through the passage. I feel like I’m about to board the Starship Enterprise or cross a Stargate into another world, which in a way I did.
I follow the group through the dark hallways. There are faint glow-in-the-dark arrows leading out in case you need to use the restroom (but play it safe and just go before the show). The performance space has a retro-futuristic look and feel, perhaps what might have been an LSD-induced experiment from the ‘60s, though it’s hard to imagine the genial Shaff as a hippie. Inside are 49 metal-and-cushion chairs placed in concentric circles. And sure ‘nuff, there they are: 169 speakers in all shapes and sizes, hanging above you, hidden beneath you, embedded in the curved white walls around you. True surround sound. Even before the performance begins, I’m wondering what Dark Side of the Moon might sound like in this room.
When the performance begins, the lights dim to a pitch black and sounds come at you from every angle. You’re in the middle of a 169-speaker fuckfest. And, much like a real gang bang (I’m assuming), it’s unsettling.
If you want foot-tapping, head-nodding melodic arrangements, you’re not going to get it here. Nor are you going to sit in your chair and be literally blown away by the sound like in that classic Maxell commercial. What you will get is aural schizophrenia. Random sounds flow through the space – everything from electronic noises and orchestral arrangements to animals and children at play (along with the one person snoring and a fart or two).
The sounds start in the distance, slowly coming closer and closer. They move around you, under you, and over you as Shaff “sculpts” them. You don’t get to see him in action (a request to go behind the curtain was denied), but I imagine, like a wizard, he’s making the sounds come alive from his custom control booth. I’ve never done any psychedelic drugs, but I’m guessing I’d be having some sort of lucid, mind-altering visions right about now if I were high. Or tripping balls. Even without the drugs, it’s certainly a surreal experience.
By sitting in total darkness, you isolate your ears from all other senses and let the sounds just be. Since sound is linked to memory, each person will have a unique experience. The experience lets you get out of your head, transporting you to different places and triggering different emotions. (God forbid you’ve been a water torture victim; I almost lost my shit with all the drip sounds.)
The children at play sounds could have been creepy – think of all the horror movies with little kids giggling. But with a nephew on the way, I started thinking about the joys of uncle-hood – and the many ways I was going to corrupt the little guy. When the soothing sound of waves rushed in, I slowly dozed off. I started dreaming about my birthplace, Fiji, and its postcard beaches and clear blue water. Though I haven’t been back since 2004, it’s a memory as fond as a first kiss.
But the splashing waves were meant to signal intermission: The floor shook in a thunderous rumble and I jumped like a little kid seeing Freddy Krueger’s claws rise in the bathtub.
The performance runs about 45 minutes. When the lights turn on, I’m a little disoriented. I look around the room and observe the speakers before drowsily staggering out.
Shaff stands near the exit, thanking everyone for coming. He’s genuinely delighted to have our company. A brief Q&A session takes place, where curious and frazzled minds pick his brain. Yes, he’s thought about having guest composers. No, he has no idea when he’ll unveil a new performance. “You’re all so nice and quiet,” he says before thanking us again.
As I exit the sound labyrinth, I’m not quite sure what I’ve just experienced. And maybe that’s the point.
Obviously, Audium isn’t for everyone. But for the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free and take a trip without actually leaving the city, head to 1616 Bush St. with $15 (cash only). Hallucinogens optional. Performances are held Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. sharp.