A Sense of Discovery

Altered audiovisual states at Euphor!um and the Audium

My helmet is removed and I am invited to recline in the decompression room before joining other patrons in the atrium, where I find them engaged in casual conversation about poetry, memory, drugs, and dreams.

"This is theater of the mind," explains Steven Leon. "The whole show happens between your ears, so it can stimulate some very interesting conversations. This is one of the few shows I've seen where people actually stay around afterwards to talk, and talk about poetry no less. It's pretty amazing."

At the invitation of Technical Director Sean Horton, I slip back through the curtain to watch other audience members make their journeys. The helmets, which cover both head and face, con- tain mirrors that reflect the ceiling and floor, creating a composite 3-D image for the viewer while obliterating all other scenery. Unaware of their real surroundings -- the maze of cloth, the crew that delicately manipulates lights and motion, the other customers who may be only a few feet away -- patrons walk slowly along the banister, completely immersed in their own sensory experiences.

"A person picks up different patterns and sculptures depending on where they point their helmet," says Horton, operating a string of glowing filaments that slows one patron down with the illusion of bubbling sea foam, "so every person's experience is going to be a little different, according to what they look at and how they think."


Across town, a group of people prepares for another sort of sensory experience. Standing in the red-washed foyer of the Audium, surrounded by the low murmur of running water and clock chimes, Audium composer Stan Shaffexplains that the sound piece we are about to experience utilizes time, space, and movement. He suggests that, without our sense of sight, we will be more susceptible to memories, dreams, and fantasies.

Stepping past the muted projections of clocks keeping time on the floor and wall, we pass into a dark, mazelike hallway that reminds me of a futuristic loading dock. The Audium, a creation that began in 1965 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is a circular white room fixed with more than 150 speakers that line the walls, floor, and ceiling in precise, geometric patterns. Speakers that look like space-age lamps hang over the chairs that surround a small monolithic speaker rising from the center of the room. The space is sterile but comfortable and softly lit. A low, white control module extends out of the southern wall from where Shaff will manipulate his instrument -- the room, itself -- in complete darkness.

The lights dim until the room is left in tarry, impenetrable blackness. The people to my left shift in their seats nervously as electronic thumps reverberate underfoot and chase each other around the room. The sound of a tremendous organ fills every pore of the environment, giving way to water rushing around my ears and disappearing into a drain in a distance I can't see. A tinkling sound, like that of crushed ice running down the back of my throat, is accented by the faraway plunks of a piano key. Voices murmur over and under breaking waves, a brewing storm, a basketball bouncing in a hot, still, yellow afternoon. The wistful memory of someone else's youth is accented by unseen dread, a sound in the distance that becomes the immense organ, so overwhelming it threatens to tear down secret catacombs. Then nothing.

I hear people shift, sigh, hold their breath as a low pounding grows like the blood behind my eyes on a forgotten morning. The organic sound gives way to an alien computer, uncontrollable and inflexible, spiraling around the room, under my feet, across my fingers, filling my mind with mathematical equations I don't understand. Is there a marching band in the distance, and behind that a woman's voice, a siren's voice, high and mournful? A train moves through my body, the sound of its furnaces being stoked by sweaty, coal-covered hands. I remember a hotel room overlooking wet, green treetops and the distant sound of a train whistle, watching a trail of smoke carrying my hopes over the border, to another place. But this is not my memory. I imagine steel springs bouncing around the room like mechanical monkeys. There are children's games and snippets of conversation on porches and subways; the music of clouds, rain, flushing toilets, dark stairways, digital wasps, laughter, roosters, and the cavernous echo of a whale's belly; I hear black-and-white televisions, old radio programs, and the geometrical ballets inside honeycombs; I see military parades and tawny fields reaching into space. I hear the ace of spades flickering in the spokes of someone else's bicycle, and behind all these things the chiming of distant clocks and faint whistle of vanishing trains, wistful and yearning.

Toward the end of 90 minutes, the sound of sprinklers is absorbed by helicopters and a chorus of helium balloons. I imagine a tunnel of fireflies, luminous and erratic, filling the space with effervescent motion, carrying me. There is a sudden crack, a big hollow boom, and suddenly I am in the rafters of a cathedral or train station, listening to fragments of echoed conversation. A boys' choir mingles with the murmur and echo, and a woman's voice says, "Where are you going now?"

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