A Sense of Discovery

Altered audiovisual states at Euphor!um and the Audium

When I was a small child, I stumbled on a simple game of sensory deception while carrying a mirror from one room to another. If I gazed only at the image of the ceiling reflected between my hands, the familiar floor of my living room took on a surreal quality: hanging plants rose out of smooth planes of white plaster with their leaves growing at exotic angles; light bulbs on long, delicate chains stood at attention between billows of cloth that defied gravity. At first, I stepped around these marvels, only to bark my shin on a nearby chair; then, after realizing I should not rely on my sense of sight, I began to feel my way through the known environment while enjoying the contradictory images my eyes offered to my newly developing brain. I learned larger mirrors were better. Staircases became interesting, their narrow, sloping grades lurching and swooning as the mirror jostled under my hesitant step. Open skies were riveting. On the sweet-smelling safety of lawns, I hopped from cloud to cloud, avoiding telephone wires and stomping on treetops. Even knowing what I did, crossing the vast expanses of open blue space caused my heart to race and, on one occasion, I recall a passing adult baffled by my large mirror and audible exclamations of "Whoa! Whoa! Just a little farther. Just a few more steps." I was a strange little kid.

Over that experimental year, I launched other investigations: I kept my eyes closed for long periods of time, going through breakfast and getting dressed by touch (no one seemed to notice a significant change in my fashion sense); I stuffed my ears with toilet paper and tried not to breathe through my nose; I looked at the sun and then pressed on my eyelids; I held my breath until the couch was covered in tiny flashing meteorites; I lay in the dark and listened to static and drew what I heard. While none of these latter experiments provoked me the way the mirror trick had, they carried me through until I discovered hallucinogens, which, for a time, reinvigorated my childish senses. Everything was completely new. Sight and sound overlapped and became nonsensical, mythic, and fascinating. It was during this time that I first read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." "Kubla Khan," as every junior high school student knows, was the result of no uncertain genius and a fair dose of laudanum. It is an epic and supremely sensual poem, which is what brought me to Euphor!um, the latest work by the technology-savvy Antenna Theater.

Pink floodlights draw me from the water's edge of the Presidio to a red portal door outlined in rose-colored light. Red light streams from inside the building, where people sit sipping water and wine at small crimson daises under a large Oriental archway. An ornate golden hookah stands on a long beautiful table where Managing Director Steven Leon answers his headset and takes reservations on a glowing laptop. Sitar music mingles with the smell of freshly cut orchids.

I step through a black curtain into large dark space with a single red dais under a single spotlight. I am given headphones and a magic pouch containing a sensor, and invited to step through the second curtain into utter darkness. A bust of Coleridge is illuminated as a voice explains the creation of "Kubla Khan." I am invited to sit on a large red chair and close my eyes. Hands touch my shoulder, gently guiding me off the chair and into unknown space. A large, square helmet is placed over my head, and my hand is led to a corrugated railing. In the headphones, birds sing and rivers flow as the first stanza of "Kubla Khan" carries me into the "fertile land," and I take my first hesitant steps forward, led only by my sense of touch. Outlandish flowers, butterflies, birds, and castle walls swirl before me, seemingly underfoot, but as with my childhood mirror trick, the images I see are hanging from the ceiling, illusive and untouchable. I understand that this is technology based on carnival attractions and a 19th-century parlor trick called "Peppers Ghost," but it doesn't matter. I feel my sense of equilibrium shift, and I grip the railing harder as I try to hurry through the scene, but the railing is snaky and meandering, requiring slow, deliberate pacing and careful foot placement as it curls back on itself. Voices wail; waning moons and red demon lovers rise out of the "savage place," glimmering before my eyes. I pass into the "sacred river" where ships sail through an eddy of liquid lights and Kubla Khan appears inches before my face with vicious arms and grimacing teeth. I am fully immersed now, my feet long forgotten. I follow the path, through the "ancestral voices prophesying war" where skeletons embrace beside murderous brutes with evil weapons of torture, into the calming blue of the "pleasure dome" where caves of ice sparkle and whirl. I am only vaguely conscious of the rippled banister under my hand; my awareness is now wholly confined to the helmet on my head. There is a sensation of floating as a copper-colored damsel with a dulcimer glides by, winning me with the symphony and song that flows between my ears. Then, Coleridge is there, with flashing eyes and floating hair, drunk on the milk of paradise. Slowly, the fiendish face evaporates and only the glowing eyes remain.

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?"

When the lights come up, most folks resume their conversations loudly, as if they are impatient to reclaim their identities and fill their heads with linear thought. Some of us stay seated, hollowed out and, somehow, filled up.

In the foyer, Shaff discusses his composition with young electronic musicians eager to delve into the mind of this sound movement pioneer, while other people hurry for the door.

"The darkness is very uncomfortable for some people," says Shaff. "It naturally turns your mind inward. And some people are very uncomfortable with that. Others say that the Audium makes them listen to the city differently."

Shaff talks about the character and nature of individual speakers within the Audium, of shaping and moving sound. He discusses themes -- trains, children's voices, water -- and surrealism. ("Everything is nothing," he says of the boys' choir he recorded rehearsing for Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding.) And how sound can act in the layer between reality and dream states. He recalls a woman in her 80s who emerged with the smiling eyes of a little girl.

"She relived her whole childhood in there," says Shaff with a respectful nod of his head. "She came out and told me all about it. Not everyone's experience is quite that profound, but it can be."

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