About Audium--A Conversation with Stanley Shaff
After you buy your ticket, you enter an oddly shaped waiting room containing geometrical sculpture and paintings. A clock ticks somewhere, and you eventually notice what appears to be the projection of an antique clock face on a piece of frosted glass. After a while, the location of the clock seems to have changed. As the clock strikes the hour, a curtain parts at the end of the room; a figure emerges from the darkness beyond and says pleasantly, "Hi, I'm Stanley Shaff. Welcome to AUDIUM." He leads you through a dark labyrinth into a symmetrically shaped cavern, with concentric rings of seats surrounding a low, black obelisk.
The room bristles with loudspeakers, in the floor, the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and lurking among the chairs (Fig.1). Halfway up the side of one wall is a cockpit. Shaff climbs in, and mans a cluster of controls, all utterly devoid of labels. The lights gradually dim until the room is pitch black. The silence is as thick as the darkness. Somewhere off in the distance you think you hear something....
AUDIUM is the name given by composer Stanley Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern to this theater in San Francisco, and to the concept of music that dictated its design. The work is little known outside the San Francisco Bay area of California, and it is hardly surprising if one has heard neither of Shaff nor of AUDIUM; yet he has been giving AUDIUM performances continuously for the past 25 years (save for brief periods devoted to theater building). Both his creation and his single-minded devotion to its fulfillment for over a quarter of a century have been driven by the urge to explore interactively the use of space and environment in music composition.
Following in the tradition of other California composers such as Harry Partch, Shaff had to become an instrument builder in the service of his philosophy of music. Shaff has carried his vision into the design of the music, the unique sound reproduction system employing upwards of 136 speakers, and into the design and construction of the theater itself. Shaff has issued no records, and gone on no tours. A record would be to the experience of AUDIUM what a photograph is to a kinetic sculpture. Because it depends on this specialized environment, one must go to AUDIUM to have this experience, which helps account for its obscurity.
Use of space as a compositional element in music has received wide attention for decades, especially among electronic and computer musicians. Shaff's contribution lies in his realization that, if one is truly serious about utilizing space in music, one must configure the performance environment in ways that are inconceivable in a typical concert hall. Shaff and McEachern created the AUDIUM theater as an interactive environment for the exploration of sound in space. AUDIUM enables Shaff to develop and produce his finely crafted compositions, utilizing the results of their research. These remarks and the following interview are an attempt to bring his pioneering work to the attention of friends of these ideas.
The Beginnings of AUDIUM
Loy: Let's start with the beginnings of AUDIUM. Was there any relationship between you and the San Francisco Tape Music Center back in the late 1950s and early 1960s?
Shaff: Not really. I was a trumpet player at that time and performed many works with them. However, I was formulating my ideas on the use of space in music at that time. Parallel to that, I was doing improvisations with Ann Halpern's dance company. She was interested in developing a more encompassing, total theatre, recognizing music and sound as a stronger force in dance, rather than just as a decorative quality. It was out of that improvisation that I first had the chance to try out ideas of sound in space, using distance, and orientation as part of the music.
In 1958 or 1959 I met Doug McEachern. Each of us was a music teacher at the time. As we began talking, I started asking "what if" questions about placing the sound of my instrument at various phantom locations in a theatrical setting. I found out that he had a strong electronics background, so we decided to try out some of the ideas together, and a collaboration was begun.
Loy: Was one of your "what if" questions related to the notion of a sound as actor, or dancer?
Shaff: Yes, that was part of it. Even before my work with Ann Halpern, a very close acquaintance of mine, the sculptor Seymour Locks, and I had been working with lights and overhead projectors. I would go over to his studio and play various instruments while he improvised with the lights. He was also interested in theater, even though he was a sculptor; he was thinking of sculpture as environment. It was in his studio that I began to expand on the idea of sound in space, which was the precursor to everything else. The idea took root in me that there are qualities in sound that are related to many other things: sound in relation to light, to space, to the entire environment. The early manifestations of this notion occurred when I worked with Halpern, of moving myself as a performer in space. Then, as a music teacher, I began to write compositions for my instrumental groups utilizing performers in various parts of the auditorium.
Shaff: Absolutely. The notions of relativity, time and space are all a part of the philosophic basis of our century. Interestingly enough, my own ideas grew not out of music, but out of philosophy and the visual arts. In fact, I found a rather dead environment around me, musically. Actually, as a trumpet player, my involvement in twentieth-century music was relatively limited. It was these other art forms that really blew my mind open.
The Transition to Electronic Music Composition
Loy: How then did you make the transition from trumpeter to composer of electronic music?
Shaff: By becoming involved with Seymour Locks who worked with space as a sculptural idea, I was confronted with the question, isn't this true with sound? Also, I had played quite a lot of antiphonal music: works by Gabrielli, Berlioz's Requium, for instance. Distance lends a distinct character to instruments. Also, instruments placed in space have possibilities beyond those bunched together. There is another element of color, tension, and relationship that exists but had not been adequately explored.
Loy: So these were ideas you hoped to have more to say about through the development of AUDIUM?
Shaff: Yes that's right. I experimented in performance groups with antiphonal music, adjusting dynamics, distances, grouping, to see what effect it would have. This was my thinking at the time when I had the insight: Isn't there a language to describe these relationships between instrument placement? What is the coloration which occurs? What about speed? Is there a geography in the mind space that hears sound, and what are its dimensions? These abstract questions eventually did lead to fruition after several years.
Doug McEachern and I experimented with several ideas. We set up several speakers, to see what would go on. The notion of sculpture kept coming into my mind, but I wasn't sure whether it was there in the technology of simply panning a sound from one speaker to another. It was a nice effect, but so what? So we got more speakers, but then we were only switching the sound from speaker to speaker, which was also artistically simplistic.
Eventually Doug developed a method of extremely sophisticated panning among a matrix of speakers, which takes into account the distance between the speakers and the trajectory of the sound, and tries to make that movement as subtle and carefully controlled as any instrument might So we began to sense that multiple speakers might enhance some other possibilities. It took Doug a long time to develop the appropriate circuitry, panning devices, and switching matrices of superior quality.
The AUDIUM Sound System
Loy: Could you describe the technical arrangement of AUDIUM as it is currently?
Shaff: The performance is controlled from a customized board. I am able to control the volume, direction, speed, and placement of a sound to any of 136 speakers. Speakers are placed in arrays around, above, below, and among the seats of the audience. Right now my masters are four track, but the facility supports up to eight. We've found that four is really a handful! Aside from those elements, there are some programmable motorized devices that can shift sound through the space. We can control rhythms, or patterns of rhythms, of sound location for any particular track through some of the specialized arrays of speakers.
Loy: So that's like a sequencer of channels.
Shaff: Exactly. The sound path can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, and the pattern of movement can have an infinite variety of choices of rhythms. Essentially, the sound is shifted through the space through a series of binary and ternary switches, and a rather complex panning device. The board appears deceptively simple. In fact, each switch carries a multitude of senses. One switch may activate numerous others, and change their meaning. The panning network was the major design project of Doug's over the years, developing a method of moving sound smoothly and convincingly through banks of speakers.
The space is laid out in sectors, usually of four speakers each. The corners might be a sector, the floor another, the walls another, the ceiling, etc. Between the floor and ceiling are two sectors of floating speakers. The sound can float within a sector or between sectors. Then there are clumps of speakers, such as in the center of the room. There is another clump of tweeters up in the ceiling. Then there are speakers located at various distances from the audience, including some located in the serpentine entrance tunnel. Then there are about 36 speakers in the main space that are hooked up to this sequential mechanism that I described previously. Many of the speakers are quite small.
We have found that one of the most intriguing qualities of movement is of being able to draw a line through space, controlling its rhythm and symmetricality, and we've found that two-inch and three-inch speakers perform this with greatest clarity of motion. So we can move sound quickly from one bank of speakers to another, or pan very carefully between banks, or move between individual speakers, or from any one speaker to eleven speakers. Now don't ask me why the number is eleven, it just worked out that way!
Loy: So you have three generic operations, the first of sequencing through the speaker arrays, controlling individual speakers, and controlling sectors. And I guess there are ways of taking a sound in one speaker and directing it to a sector.
Shaff: Or to a single speaker in a sector. Any given speaker can be dealt with independently, or as a member of a sector.
Loy: For four channels over 136 speakers, this must be an awful lot of wires. Shaff: Yes, it's a mess!
Loy: And there must be banks of power amplifiers.
Shaff: Actually not, there are four amplifiers, and the panning and switching is done between the amplifiers and the speakers. Of course this is an impedance-matching nightmare! All speakers were chosen for their efficiency, so that we can work at low energy levels. Perhaps that's enough on that subject, but I want to make a point regarding the issue of sound quality. One of the very first things we agreed upon was that the technology had to be subordinate to the music at all times.
Loy: Certainly there have been many reviews which I have read which laud your technical excellence. The silences are very silent, and there is an elegance about the sound and an effortlessness in its movement.
Shaff: Achieving this was a central part of the design methodology. We weren't interested in simple showing off the electronics. It was rather to explore the fullest range of expressiveness and sensitivity.
Loy: About the work, could you elaborate on your compositional aesthetic?
Shaff: Again, this goes back to the visual arts. I have an interest in the surreal: the relationships and interconnectedness of things and the dream state. The notion of how the space is designed, how, for instance, the audience walks through a tunnel into a cavern, is also part of my compositional attitude. Because the dream world seems to suspend our notions of time and space, dreamlike imagery and sequences are natural subjects.
Loy: The dreamlike effect is certainly enhanced by the total darkness.
Shaff: Yes, it not only puts the audience on their own, but their imaginations are drawn in by the darkness to corporealize the sound images. Our eyes really cut into the experience of listening if they are given the chance. I remember especially before we had our first theater. From 1960 to 1964 we were carting our gear around, performing in local colleges and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Finding a place we could make dark enough was very difficult! Even a single light could destroy an entire work!
Another aspect of the experience of AUDIUM is this encounter. Some ignore me, others come to talk to me. People are sometimes very negative, sometimes ecstatic. There's very little in the middle, save for those who are simply puzzled.
Performance of Electronic Music
Shaff: The performance goes beyond merely assigning sounds to speakers. As I mentioned, there is a wide variety of speakers, ranging from broad spectrum to very narrow. The composition is stacked up in such a way as to take advantage of their characteristics. The speakers become instruments in the performance. The same effect would not be possible using filters, by the way. That would lose the subtlety of, for instance, moving from big, thick, round, full sounds in the floor, going up to a small set of tweeters in the ceiling The pull that occurs between the floor and the ceiling has a dimensional quality, a textural quality, a geometry, a certain feel, of something that can't be done any other way. One can get squeezing, pulling, and pushing effects. It's like a bundle of clay that you are attempting to shape. The effect simply exists, one time only, in that space, when it is performed.
Shaff: ... When I started out, I had no idea this would grow in this way. As the idea grew, the cost factor became almost prohibitive, even with the grants we've had from the National Endowment for the Arts. Most of the money has come from Doug and myself. So, just the time and effort it took to eke out a living as teachers and to sustain AUDIUM, technically and compositionally, effectively prohibited Doug and me from collaboration with others. I also have to admit that we both have very independent natures that have made us appear to be "standoffish." Only recently have I begun to consider being a little less private.
I teach at a local college, and it would have been a lot easier, financially, if AUDIUM had been a part of some institution. It would have given us easier access to grants and other support. On the other hand, institutions usually are meddlesome, which is maybe as it should be, but for me it would be an encumbrance, particularly aesthetically. In this sense, I've been very free, but of course, I've paid the price for this freedom through limited funds.
Although this kind of experience is not everybody's cup of tea, it is amazing that we do have a general audience. I get regular listeners coming who have never, and would never, attend a contemporary music concert in their lives! And it's been going on an awfully long time, every weekend. I think we are probably the longest running show in San Francisco, and nobody knows about it!
Gareth Loy Center for Music Experiment, Q-037 Computer Audio Research Laboratory University of California, San Diego La Jolla, California 92083 USA