By Erin Sherbert
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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.
"It provides you a neutral zone between civilization and wilderness," he concludes, "a seat on the knife edge between the two."
To reach the wave-driven sound sculpture -- the visual equivalent of a Greek ruin and Basil Wolverton drawing -- walk east from the St. Francis Yacht Club, located at the Marina's western edge, past the tiny lighthouse to the tip of the yacht harbor jetty. Choose a sunny day, preferably during high tide or active seas; the best seat is the covered pew that faces Fort Mason, where you'll enjoy a veritable symphony of primal sounds.
To the Organ's converts, Richards recommends two other local sound sculptures, both works by artist Douglas Hollis: the Rain Column, a fountain-cum-sound curtain that adds ambience to the Rincon Center's noisy food court, and the Aolean Harp, a wind-activated lyre whose haunting song cries from above the Exploratorium's main entrance. Like the Organ, both marry sound and environment in fascinating ways.
Somewhere in another sensory zone altogether, however, is Hayward's Ye Olde Pizza Joynt, an unforgettable -- and potentially overwhelming -- experience for ears, eyes, and taste buds that gives found-sound new meaning. The polar opposite of the Wave Organ's natural setting, the pizza parlor houses the Warfield Theater's original Wurlitzer pipe organ, a Yugo-size relic of the silent-film era, one brought to life in an amusement-park setting where sticky tables, slick floors, and a crowd of surly teen-agers, blue-collar families, and old folks take for granted a thriving slice of history.
After ordering your pie, grab a $6 pitcher of Bud from the bar and a seat close to the Wurlitzer, where organist Jerry Nagano performs hourly renditions of "Talk to the Animals" and "Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah." You've made the 40-minute trip from San Francisco to eat pizza and listen to organ music, and damn it, you're gonna do both; yet the combination can evoke a wild nightmare.
Built in 1958, the Pizza Joynt is the original pipe-organ pizza parlor, and -- with all the grace of a Jim Ludtke video -- it comes alive with a boggling array of instruments when Nagano plays: a fully automated percussion section, a grand piano, and tuned sleigh bells that hang from the wall near the bathroom; 16-foot tibia pipes stand near the door, shaking the room when they blow; literally scattered throughout the Joynt are cathedral chimes, a calliope, a glockenspiel, a xylophone, and a marimba, along with a menagerie of horns, sirens, and gongs. In time, they all anthropomorphize under Nagano's fingers.
Along the east wall, wood baffles open and close like fish gills to expose ranks and ranks of pipes that sing and cry. If you're sitting close enough to this pipe chamber, the very breath of the historical beast -- musty, Grandpa's-basement smells of old wood, metal, and leather, pumped by two monstrous Spencer-Orgo blowers -- momentarily obscures the permeating odor of pepperoni.
"I feel like I'm a part of history," Nagano, a 36-year-old California native, says between sets. "Thirty percent of my work is on the keyboard, but the rest is all in the Wurlitzer's tabs," which -- along with dozens of switches, buttons, toys, and var-ious pull-chains -- he operates to perfection, an intricate marionette's dance under the garish stage lights.
Most-requested is Nagano's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," a finale that incorporates (literally) the Wurlitzer's every available bell and whistle: As the bells clang, the whistles scream, and the Wurlitzer's bass octaves begin their deafening chug-chug-chug, you just might suffer sensory disorientation, believing yourself to be (as the restaurant's newsletter claims) "sitting in the cab of the Wabash Cannonball." Well, not on BART, at least.
Located west of I-880 at 19510 Hesperian in Hayward, the restaurant features Nagano Wednesday through Sunday nights from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Like the mozzarella piled high on its namesake, Pizza Joynt's reputation relies heavily on cheese, the mighty Wurlitzer a primary ingredient in its commercial recipe. In any case, the Joynt is sonic light-years from the confines of a smoky warehouse-district club where the latest Touch and Go band assaults your cilia.
Environments like Audium or the Wave Organ may well mark the emergence of new forms of entertainment in general, and sound in particular. Stanley Shaff is only half-joking when he talks about Disneyland: "People are taking little carts through these dark passages, sound blaring at them, their bodies experiencing motion; well, why not take a cart to a concert? There are all kinds of ways the ears can be experienced, and not just by sitting in a formal theater.