By Paul Hertelendy, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
                                                                 Week of Dec. 7,  2008
                                                                  Vol. 11, No. 42
          Audiences enter Audium, and they embark on a new fantasy world of the imagination, fired by sound and unseen space. After the performance, they sit, still mesmerized, taking forever to stand, talk and resume real-world life. For a mere $15 it offers the ultimate nonpareil concert experience, all without benefit of alcohol or drugs.
            The marvel of Audium is not the sound score, but rather the extraordinary installation, with 174 speakers in a blacked-out room making the sound leaps about, gazelle-like.

            Audium, composer Stan Shaff’s intimate site-and-sound, could claim to be San Francisco’s longest-running one-man musical institution, still giving 100 performances a year, a half-century after Shaff, 79,  first launched his ambitious work. His concerts have been presented more than 4,300 times in the most intimate surroundings, with just 49 seats in the custom-built facility. That is close to the number of S.F. Opera subscription evenings over that 50-year span.

            Audium started so long ago, there was no web site, and no announcements had to be made about turning off cell phones.
            Shaff’s musical mission is modern, different and specific. “I ask audiences to see with their ears and feel with their bodies,” the soft-spoken composer declares.

            And now he has launched the ninth in his evolving programs at Audium, going fully digital for the first time.

            Modern art, with touches of surrealism, greet the visitor in the foyer while unseen speakers enhance the world sonically. Hallways wend about maze-like, with indirect lights from unknown crannies. Friends, it’s another world, and it’s an agreeable, soothing  surprise journey, supremely restful for any one fighting the bridges and parking hassles.

            Shaff’s soundscape is a blend of natural sound, processed sound and entirely electronic. He has children talking distantly, surf, bird-like twitter, thunder, junk sounds, dripping water, keyboard, and at one point even a Cuban beat. Somehow he avoided the temptation of a real San Francisco cliché: fog horn. But he did include gulls.

            Also there are effects of oboe, contrabass, vibraphone, a street trumpeter, clarinet  and light percussion, with all the emphasis on lucidity (taking advantage of digital transmission) and articulation. The closest aesthetic to his might be Arvo Pärt. His composition is episodic, rarely rhythmic or melodic, and only moderately interesting.

            Curiously, he uses very little of the woofer (bass) part of the spectrum, which could easily make the floor shake enticingly.  
            The salient disappointment was in the mobile-sound aspect. Shaff can make the sounds jump around the room, but his earlier, less refined version of Audium he was often able to make the sounds swish around the room, like a musician constantly strolling between the chairs.

            The Audi(tori)um is round, with speakers at the middle, above, and around the perimeter.
Barely perceived, Shaff himself is at a discreet console, “steering” the sounds of four pre-recorded digital channels around the room, never quite the same way twice. “I’m always surprised at myself,” he says of the result, adding self-effacingly, “Sometimes I’m better than others.”
            Just hitting the half-century mark in spatial sound, Shaff looks forward to further evolution, possibly broadening the mix. “My next major thing is to open (this site) up to other composers.”

            Audium 9, an hour-long program in sound-sculptured space by composer Stan Shaff. Audium, 1616 Bush, San Francisco. Every Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. For info: call (415) 771-1616, or go online.

        ©Paul Hertelendy 2008
           Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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