I was having dinner with a friend of mine two weeks ago, and she asked me what kind of music I listen to. In reality I listen to a lot of stuff — too diverse to lump into a single category — but for a few years now I’ve jokingly used the term Electro-Acoustic Soundscapes of the 70s. (My friend Martin coined that phrase after unsuccessfully searching through my iPod for 80s music). She had no clue what kind of music I was talking about and she pressed on, so I half-seriously elaborated with “You know, electronic boops and beeps, like outer-space stuff” even though I mostly don’t listen to that; it’s just a small sliver of my collection. And then the conversation moved on.
Little did I know that the 30 seconds I spent rattling off that term would pay me back so heartily. The next week she invited me out to a bar in San Francisco and warned me not to be late. After a quick drink, we walked down the street a few blocks until we came to an old looking wood-paneled building.
Opening the door revealed a museum-esque interior with a ticket booth, stationed by a very distinguished looking older woman. We purchased two tickets at $15 each, and we’re handed two programs labeled Audium: A Theatre In Sound-Sculptured Space. At this point my friend tells me that she remembered me talking about electronic beeps and whooshes from the previous week, found out about this place just by blind luck, and took me here sight-unseen because she thought it might “have some of that kind of beeping stuff in it”. Little did she know how right she was.
We stepped into a very serious looking room filled with sound-related sculptures as well as an array of speakers playing ambient noise: gentle water gurgling, hummingbirds zipping from one side of the room to the other. But this was just the lobby. Clearly this place was built in the 70s, and it looked like not much had changed. And after a bit of waiting around, the ambient noises got louder and the lights in the lobby grew dim, at the same time a spotlight appeared on a wood-paneled hexagonal door, where an gray-haired gentleman appeared.
He informed us and the other two dozen-or-so people in the lobby that we were about to enter the Audium, where we would be treated to a 139 speaker audio-performance-in-the-round dealing with “space and time travel”.
And it was going to be completely in the dark. For an hour.
And then we went inside. The theater itself looks as if the designers were going for 2001: A Space Odyssey but instead ended up with a set from Dr. Who. It was exactly what I was hoping for. The theater is arranged in a circle, with speakers all over the place … hanging from the ceiling, built into the walls, and under grates on the floor.
The real kicker, however, was when the lights dimmed out to complete blackness and the experience started. The soundtrack was straight out of the 1970s and didn’t sound like it had ever been updated (although I found out later that it had). But this was not music. Electronic beeps and boops were everywhere, “flying” through air, along with droning Wagnerian-style synth power chords, abruptly shifting to lo-fi organic recordings of nature, before popping back to beeps. Despite the 139 speakers in use, most of it sounded like it was just coming out of the four big speakers in each corner. It was largely rhythmless, and had no apparent story arc or narrative that was discernible from just listening. And the fidelity matched the decor. This was cliche 70s sci-fi art-school-project-on-drugs sound effects with a dash of the Space Mountain queue soundtrack thrown in. And it just kept going and going.
Half way through the performance there was a 5 minute (lighted) intermission and half the audience left, never to return. At this point I turned to my friend and asked her if she had it in her to listen to the second half, because she had no clue going into this what she was in for, isn’t into electronic music, and even I was kinda worn out by it. But she was gung-ho for soldiering through the second half … which ended up feeling like it was twice as long as the first half.
After the show was over, I was in shock. An hour in the dark listening to 1970s sound effects will do that to you. A zillion questions raced through my mind. Why have I never heard of this place? How did my friend find it? How has it not changed since the 70s? Why were they still getting crowds? I desperately wanted to talk to the gray haired guy, who turns out is the founder and sound designer, but I was worried he was going to chew my already-tired ear off with space and time travel theories.
The entire night was a completely surreal experience. If you’re into the mid century space-age movement at all, you need to go check the Audium out before it closes or gets remodeled. Even though I didn’t “get” what the soundtrack was about, and I thought it was a little long to sit through, I absolutely loved it and now I want to take all my friends. It’s definitely worth doing once for the sheer novelty effect even if you’re not into electronic music. But you better go soon … it really feels like it could close its doors for good any second.
Check out the Audium‘s website.
Audium 8 is performed every Friday and Saturday at 8:30pm. Price $15
Arrive by 8 pm since part of the fun is the lobby.
Please double-check before showing up, I really get the feeling this can change at any time.
1616 Bush St. (@ Franklin), San Francisco
Information: (415) 771-1616
*For the record, the 1970s electronic music I prefer is actual music, with percussion, melody, and harmony. The Audium had none of that. And yes, I did apologize to my friend for fibbing a little about my musical tastes.