Sound Unseen, Sight Unheard

Yesterday I followed up on my friend Ari’s recommendation and went to the Audium. What’s the Audium? That’s a good question. It’s a little hard to describe, so I’ll describe the Audium experience.

There are shows every Friday and Saturday at 8:30. We waited, along with two dozen others, in a small, peacefully lit lobby littered with bizarre sculptures. At 8:31 a man opened the black drapes that closed off the entrance and announced that the show would begin; there would be complete silence; no sound or real movement allowed. Then you follow small arrows on the ground around a winding hallway until you come to this room:


Not many chairs. Pretty small place. Nice picture though! But we only saw that image for a second, because during the show everything looked like this:


For the entire show, which lasts around 90 minutes, there is only darkness, no difference between eyes shut and open. From the 176 speakers around, below, above, and in front of us came a sound collage, or maybe soundscape is the term, without songs or music or, apart from a few moments, rhythm. Water running, people talking, a brass band playing, electronic blips and beeps and hums, from all over, always changing and, quite literally, moving. There was a five minute intermission during which the lights were merely dim, but even then, nobody left their seat or spoke.


When the concept of AUDIUM began taking shape in the late 1950’s, space was a largely unexplored dimension in music composition. The composer who suspected space capable of revealing a new musical vocabulary found his pursuit blocked by the inadequacy of audio technology and performance spaces.

Because of an unusual combination of art and technology — AUDIUM’s creators, composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern, were both professional musicians — AUDIUM’s conception and realization were able to evolve jointly. AUDIUM is the only theatre anywhere constructed specifically for sound movement, utilizing the entire environment as a compositional tool.

After the show, a number of audience members (including myself) talked to Mr Shaff, and learned more about the Audium. Essentially, “The Audium” is a tool, a system, and what we heard was Mr Shaff playing one of his compositions — his eighth — through the Audium. As the technology has improved, Mr Shaff has created a new composition, so that none of the previous pieces could be played today (and vice versa). And, unfortunately, noone else has ever had the opportunity to compose a piece for the Audium.

Here’s hoping that someday Mr Shaff will realize the potential of his creation and will allow other artists to compose for the Audium.  What would Jon Brion or Timbaland do with this medium?  Why couldn’t there be massive Audium stadia seating thousands of people.  That would be something.

Today, in a nice juxtaposition, I was able to take in part of the 12th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  We had planned for an entire day of piano/silence, but fate intervened, and I only saw two movies — The Valley of the Giants, released in 1927, and Maciste, released in 1915.  The first was just tremendous, portraying the battle of two logging companies for control of redwood timber.  It featured two spectacular scenes: star Milton Sills tight-roping on top of massive redwoods while a the train on which the trees sit is crossing a ravine and heading towards a cliff — Sills, in silent-film tradition, doing all of the stunts himself — and an amazing D.W. Griffith-like fight scene involving dozens of woodcutters, lots of lanterns and a machine gun.


The second film, Maciste, starring Bartolomeo Pagano, was the first in the Maciste series, which continued through the sixties with a number of Italian strongmen — sort of like Menudo.  The plot was both simple and tortured, and the movie really could have just been a ten-minute short, because Pagano could do some amazing things, such as picking up two men at once and tossing them here and there like a sack of potatoes, and picking up a table with his teeth!  Maciste is allegedly the original bodybuilder as well as a model of Mussolini’s physical style.  Still, hwhen it comes to aesthetics he’s no Eugene Sandow!


I wish I could have caught more movies, because the festival is a wonderful thing.  The battle scenes and Pagano’s feats of strength would not have been appreciated in the same way if there had been a pumping soundtrack to accompany them.

Published in: on July 14, 2007 at 7:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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