It's a New Era for Audium, San Francisco's 'Theater of Sound'

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Victoria Shen, Alexa Burrell and Noah Berrie (L–R) are Audium's first residency artists in the San Francisco institution's 55-year history.  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

It’s a Wednesday night in San Francisco, and I’m sitting in pitch-black darkness. In one minute, I’m sailing on the sea, and the next minute I’m in an airplane with loose, squeaky wings. Eventually I’m floating through a glass factory. Then the lights come up, and I’m back in a futuristic-looking room on Bush Street, snapped out of my reverie.

Since its opening here in 1975, this room, Audium, has been one of San Francisco’s most adventurous first dates. Billing itself as a “theater of sound,” Audium hosts attendees in a circle and pipes experimental music, noises, and soundscapes out of the walls, floor and ceiling in total darkness. Call it surround-sound gone berserk.

Or, in the words of Audium’s director David Shaff: “There’s 176 speakers, we turn the lights out, you listen for an hour, and hopefully it takes you somewhere.”

The listening room at Audium, seen from the control booth, is outfitted with 176 speakers. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

For over 50 years (the venue’s first location opened in 1967), the sound composition at Audium was programmed solely by co-founder Stan Shaff. In 2018, his son David began sharing the control booth. Now, Audium’s first-ever residency program is providing the Bay Area’s deep listeners with new work by three young Bay Area artists: Victoria Shen, Alexa Burrell, and Noah Berrie.

And if the final rehearsal for New Voices is any indication, they’ve brought a fresh approach and truly imagined Audium as, in the words of Shaff, a “composable being” unto itself.

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Shen’s Terpsichore is an homage to Audium, mixing her own analog background as a builder of modular synthesizers and turntable manipulator with the space’s new digital setup. A(void Fire) by Alexa Burrell is an “Afro-surrealist techno-horror fairytale” influenced by surviving the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire, and the 2017 wildfires that burned down her mother’s house. Noah Berrie’s Organ Music draws on voice, skin textures and other “bodily things,” with a custom-built instrument to augment the soundscape.

None of the three had visited Audium before applying to the residency, but all show a deep respect for the venue. Burrell calls it a “deeply emotional and spiritual” experience to sit in darkness and “sink into listening and hearing.”

David Shaff sits at Audium's master control. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Shaff tells me that he was intentionally looking for artists who work outside of his father’s magnetic-tape, musique-concrète style; “people who can have a conversation with this place, and figure out what works and what doesn’t,' he says. “That was the conversation that Dad was having for 50 years, but it was just one conversation.”

The elder Shaff, now 92 and still involved in a consulting capacity, made Audium a destination. Musicians like Pierre Henry and members of the Grateful Dead and the Sun Ra Arkestra would come to marinate within its walls. Engineers from Dolby, Disney and Meyer Sound also visited, drawing on its pioneering approach to inform their own digital sound advances.

During the pandemic, Audium itself used the downtime to switch over to digital. The sound is crisp and clean now out of each speaker, Shaff says, instead of being “smudged” into certain areas of the room.

And while there may be longtime Audium fans dismayed that the old Ampex reel-to-reel tape console now sits unused, and the old analog board with its knobs and switches is dismantled and perched on its side, the digital shift befits Audium’s spirit of exploration and newness. (It doesn’t seem to have changed Audium’s core mission, either. On a butcher-paper brainstorm for Audium’s future hanging on the office wall, under a section titled “Values,” I notice that someone’s written, “Money: OK, if there is intent. Art + Listening = #1.”)

The old Ampex tape console at Audium. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Shaff plans to make residencies with Bay Area artists an annual tradition—along with inviting others in for a month at a time, like Amy X Neuburg’s takeover of the space this coming July. But he’s keeping one foot firmly planted in its history, and the irreplaceable legacy of the family business.

Before the crew takes a pizza-and-beer break out on the sidewalk beneath Audium’s distinctive wooden facade, Shen says it best: “It’s one of the last cool, weird, old-school things in San Francisco.”

‘New Voices’ opens Thursday, Feb. 10 and runs through April 2 at Audium (1616 Bush St., San Francisco). Details here.