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Imagine this: For 90 minutes, you sit in pitch blackness, your ears experiencing sensations they've never known. Tactile, multidimensional audio sculptures, paintings in noise, compositions that vary from airy soundscapes to claustrophobic aural nightmares surround you in a controlled, comfortable setting. At various points, cartoonish chirps of sound pingpong madly around you and atonal passages of synthesized music transform into industrial static that presses you to your seat. Just before intermission, a virtual marching band crosses the room.
When the lights come back up, you find yourself inside Audium, a San Francisco performance space dedicated to exploring sound's spatial and communicative qualities. Sonic respite from the confines of nightclubs, Audium is among the best of several little-known local sites where the listener can do more than just hear music. Some, like Audium, appeal through rigidly controlled environments; some through random, organic noise; others simply offer you strange sounds where you least expect to stumble upon them. Yet each offers its listener a dazzling, multisensory experience, giving your eardrums a break of a different kind.
"I work from two fundamental concepts," says Audium co-promoter, composer, and performer Stanley Shaff. "One, that sound's 'motion' can be an element of musical composition, and two, that the space itself" -- he gestures around himself -- "is an essential part of the work." Shaff plays the house-size musical instrument twice a week for live audiences, using prerecorded tapes and custom-designed mixers.
Reached through a curtained maze, Audium looks a little like a swanky bomb shelter, a low-lit concrete room with high walls, semicircles of chairs, and an observation deck on one side. Upon paying the $10 admission fee and entering, you notice dozens of what seem to be lights suspended from the ceiling. Wrong. They're speakers -- 169 of them to be exact -- and they fill the room, bolted beneath the seats, protruding from the corners and the floor, rising in a monolith from the middle of the room. Ambient noises -- running water, faraway birds -- lead you into and out of the space.
"Some people come expecting new age, what I call 'wallpaper' music," Shaff says. "They're not going to get that. I'm taking a certain aesthetic that doesn't interest everybody; I don't compromise -- I'm not trying to appease anyone."
Audium's appeal comes from its tweaking of the primary senses. Because the room deprives them of sight, listeners find their other antennae take over: Upon arrival, your sense of smell becomes acute; anyone wearing perfume is immediately noticeable. While the performance dazzles the ear's full range, other receptors -- touch (the texture of clothes, the feel of your skin), memory (often of sounds and scenes long forgotten), and myriad "sixth senses" (one's feel for others' delight, discomfort, or restlessness during the performance) -- are heightened in the blackness. Some participants have compared the effects to those of a sensory deprivation tank.
After moving Audium from place to place, Shaff and his partner, Doug McEachern, built the site at 1616 Bush in 1975, funded, in part, by a $10,000 NEA grant. "It became apparent from the beginning," Shaff explains, "that to get that sense of space, distance, and movement, Audium required complete darkness."
"There's something dramatically different about giving sound pointed energy," Shaff says of his instrument. "When you push and move music, you're introducing a whole new dynamic: harmony, melody, rhythm -- and now energy or space. Audium challenges some basic assumptions about sound: It's kind of a musical threat. I see it as an arrow pointing in a multitude of directions."
If Audium's technological confines don't appeal to your senses, perhaps the natural setting of the Wave Organ will: Located at the edge of the bay in San Francisco's Marina District, the Organ is a series of partially submerged vertical pipes, "played" at random by the motion of bay waves. As Audium relies on controlled sounds for its sensory massage, the Organ runs on natural rhythms, generating sounds that, combined with the smells and textures of the bay setting, result in a listening environment no less sensual. Or intellectual -- this organic ambient music recalls the found-sound theories of avant-garde composers like John Cage and Brian Eno.
Built in 1986 from the stones of a demolished cemetery, the Organ is the work of two artists, George Gonzales and the Exploratorium's director of arts programs, Peter Richards. Here, while listeners repose on carved stone pediments and rock ledges, the surf growls and gurgles with gentle percussive and liquid noise, evoking everything from African talking drums to an afternoon rainstorm. Occasionally, when the sea is right, the Organ sounds like a huge creature -- breathing, snoring, or belching with indigestion.
Each concrete pipe is steel-tipped and concave, rising from the granite like a severed ventricle, its full range of sounds best heard by holding your ear close. More than an instrument, however, the Organ is a meditative site: The percolating babble of sounds is incredibly lulling, and other noises -- a distant foghorn, faraway sighs from Marina Boulevard -- mix with smells of surf, fennel, and, occasionally, a passing freighter's gust of diesel.
"The piece is about listening, as opposed to hearing," Richards says of his work. "It's about paying attention to a place. When I go out there and sit for a while, it's like the sounds slowly float in. You become more sensitive, hearing these lovely relationships between seagulls and horns, foghorns and motorcycles -- it's remarkable. I see people who don't give it enough time -- just stick their ear in the pipes and leave. Some think it's a scam, but many go there regularly to meditate or collect their thoughts.