Step Inside Audium, San Francisco’s Trippy Music Sculpture
On weekends, San Francisco’s music-lovers and truth-seekers seek out a mindblowing sound-space experience at Audium.
Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
As humans, we spend a lot of time staring at things, boring holes into glowing screens with our eyeballs, saturating our brains with ocular stimulation. Looking at something is often not only aspirational, but also external—by its very nature, viewing something is to be outside of yourself, removed from your own self, at least to some degree.
But to hear something, to listen, to close your eyes and let a sound wash over you and whisk you along with it, flowing, melding your reality as it goes, that’s internal. It brings you back, centers you, stimulates emotions and thoughts that are abstract, malleable enough to be formed into whatever you need them to be to make the experience your own. A trip to the Audium is indeed a journey to the first, and also final, frontier—our own inner space.
Located, as such things often are, in San Francisco, the Audium is a curated sound sculpture, crafted inside a specially designed theater. Colored wholly in red and black and white, the Audium’s inner sanctum looks appropriately like the set of a science fiction B movie from the 1960s, which is when it was constructed. It was moved once, in 1972, and has resided at 1616 Bush Street ever since. Doors are open every Friday and Saturday for just one 45-minute show each night, for $20 per person, cash only.
If tripping out to crazy audio inside a retro funky space ship is your jam, that’s one Jackson well spent—this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At least, it is the first time you go.
Inside, upwards of 50 individual chairs are arranged in a circle, with 176 speakers located throughout the room and under the floating floor. One of the Audium’s founders, Stan Shaff, “conducts” each experience, choreographing a wide variety of sounds culled from nature to pop music to more obscure or haunting tones. Photography and cell phone peeking are strongly discouraged—this is, after all, not a concert, but an immersive audio experience, a landscape into which you are dropped as the lights dim, left to traverse and interpret with your subconscious.
“I have always been possessed by the evocative qualities all sounds seem to have, whether natural or electronic,” Shaff explains on the Audium’s website. “Sounds touch deeper levels of our inner life, layers that lie just beneath the visual world. All sounds are communicative—sound as birth, life and death; sound as time and space; sound as object, environment or event. Audiences should feel sound as it bumps up against them, caresses, travels through, covers and enfolds them.”
Once the sounds start, you have no choice but to go along for the ride, and it’s a wild one. Psychedelic, to say the least.
“I ask listeners to see with their ears and feel with their bodies sounds as images, dreams and memories. As people walk into a work, they become part of its realization. From entrance to exit, Audium is a sound-space continuum.”
Each evening is reportedly a unique soundscape, though they are constructed from a collection of notes and clips that has changed nine times over the theater’s 50-year history. Around halfway through there is an intermission where you can collect yourself and take a reality breather, glance around to fellow attendees and ascertain that you’re all still tethered to the earth.
“Man, that is so nuts,” exclaims the equal parts stoned and hip twenty-something to my right. “It’s like camping on the astral plane!”
He may be right. But it’s also a consummate SF experience, a portal into the experimental mindset of a city that also gave us Burning Man and Acid Tests. In an era of Silicon Valley tech’s takeover of San Francisco—both physically and metaphorically—it’s a refreshing, if nostalgic, glimpse of the adventurous soul the Bay Area is legendary for.