A Theatre of Sound-Sculptured Space

Computer Music Journal, 1985

About Audium — A Conversation With Stanley Shaff

Gareth Loy

Center for Music Experiment, Q-037
Computer Audio Research Laboratory
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, California, 92093 USA

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 a 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 singleminded 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 the 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 1950’s and early 1960’s?

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 theater, and 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. I 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 performs in various parts of the auditorium.

Loy: I identify two ways that you utilize space: the one brings sound objects into the physical environment of the listener, the other moves the experiencer of the sound to different sonic environments. It depends on who is active; on the one hand the sounds come to the listener, in the other the listener goes to the sound.

Shaff: It’s interesting that you make that division. Logically that’s correct; however, ultimately the two collide. This issue is an evolutionary one for me because I started with the idea of movement of sounds in a fixed environment, but then it became impossible to separate the other elements out. For instance, at a performance at AUDIUM last week, someone came up and said, “You know, I’ve never heard silence like that” (as though you could hear silence), but every single thing, like the rustling of someone’s clothes, or a cough, suddenly became important for that listener because of the setting in which everything is put. Everything becomes a part of everything else. Even though I still come at it from the direction of movement of sound, inexorably these elements come in and must be dealt with. Loy: What were the other antecedents to your work? At that time there was a movement in our culture to experience alternate states of reality, to observe details of life which had previously been restricted to our cultural unconscious, even for artistic use. In this light, John Cage pointed out that the stage is to music what the frame is to painting. He wanted to remove the frame, to eliminate the distinctions between art and life, thrusting the auditioner into the middle of the music. One technique to accomplish this is to bring the sound out from the stage, around and among the audience. Ideas like this found their earliest manifestations in electronic music in such works as Karheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge. A more apt example would be Deserts by Edgard Varese, as performed in the Phillips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair.

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 Requiem, 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 dimension? 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 device 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. Once 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, 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 the 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 simply showing off the electronics. It was rather to explore the fullest range of expressiveness and sensitivity.

Loy: One can relate this back to more traditional virtuosity. A performer straining to make an effect is less virtuosic than one who can make the effect seem effortless.

Shaff: That is exactly the point. Of course it is extremely difficult, even to this day.

Loy: On the subject of control, there is another important point to be made here about Audium. Virtually all other composers who use space as an artistic dimension have had to be satisfied with vagaries of whatever a performance space has to offer and with the exigencies of whatever sound system can be had. Whereas for you, this has turned into something that is as carefully controlled as any other ingredient in your compositions.

Shaff: In traditional music, we place our sound into a predetermined container, designed according to generic standards for concert halls. We go, as instrumentalists, to a particular auditorium and we play. At AUDIUM the work and the container have evolved out of one another.

Aesthetic Concerns

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 1064 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!

Loy: I’ve noticed that people are typically not prepared for the lights to go all the way out to pitch black. In talking to friends who have experienced AUDIUM for the first time, some were a little panic-stricken at this. In analyzing it, they felt that without the anchor of visual contact, they were forced to give more credence to what they heard. There were typically to reactions to this: they either fought against it or went with it. The former had a rough time, the latter had a tremendous experience.

Shaff: That is a very typical profile. This whole issue was unexpected. I didn’t have any idea of the psychological implications of what audiences go through. As part of my work I like to engage the audience, so after each performance, I’m always there. And so another aspect of the experience of AUDIUM is this encounter. Some ignore me, others come talk to me. People are sometimes very negative, sometimes ecstatic. There’s very little in the middle, save for those who are simply puzzled. But the one thing that seems to be common is the impact of the darkness. There’s a primordial feeling about that, going back even to the womb. I’ve always been very intrigued with the ideas and feelings which we carry about sound. We carry many sound histories with us, some arising even before birth, which conjure all kinds of subtle emotional responses from us. I tend to drive my work in that direction.

Loy: Of course the typical approach taken at most tape music concerts I’ve attended is to leave the lights dim. But I rather liked a comment ascribed to Boulez, that he always felt that dimming the lights reminded him more of the moment the body is burned at a cremation ceremony, than a concert!

Shaff: But to turn them off is quite different, because that forces the audience into nonreliance on their eyes and causes them to examine each sound with greater wonder than they would if some visual concomitant were available.

Loy: While we’re in this vicinity, I’d like to bring up a term which occurs frequently in your writings; the term is “evocative”. This quote is from the AUDIUM brochure: “I have always been possessed by the evocative qualities which sound seems to have, whether natural or electronic. Sounds touch deeper levels of our inner life, layers that lie just beneath the visual world.”

Shaff: I’d refer back to what I was saying about the surreal. For me, sounds become part of the memory of a moment. Reproducing that sound evokes emotional responses in me. In my work I try to draw on this. I have noticed that many people who come have reported the experience induced in them many memories or experiences.

Loy: I would contrast your approach with a different compositional style which has been much favored in our century. Rather than attempting to play upon the human condition, to touch upon the transcendental experiences of life, it seems that much art music of this century which I’ve encountered attempts to render a formalistic principle, exempt from the individual differences of listeners, so that the composition could achieve transcendence by internal coherency alone. But here, I see in your work an attempt to draw upon this fund of associations we have to sound, be it abstract or concrete, so listeners tend to perceive that which they themselves brought to the work.

Shaff: That certainly summarizes my own view. There is something else which strikes me when you say that. The most difficult listeners are often other musicians and particularly composers. Even those who are very liberated, with a vocabulary rooted in a broad experience of contemporary music, usually come with an unwillingness to redefine sound for its own sake. They come with the prescription already, unknowing of themselves, that unless certain musical structures can be identified within the work, it ceases to mean anything. I feel we must go back to the fundamental question of what is sound about, anyway? From this perspective the ear is given liberty to explore the inner potential of sounds, rather than a fixed prescription of how sounds are to be ordered.

Loy: This is reminiscent of Pierre Schaeffer and his philosophy of Musique Concrete where he was attempting to develop his compositions out of recorded sound material rather than to superimpose upon the material a program of some formalistic organization.

Shaff: Yes, the form emerges out of the work, not the other way! If there is anything to be discovered, it is in the work itself; the form emerges, it is not something one applies to it. I’ll take this a step further. What is interesting about my work at AUDIUM is that it takes its meaning out of its performance. Sometimes the performance works and sometimes it doesn’t. It really is shaped by what occurs in the moment. The space in the theater is like an empty universe. As the work evolves, it has to put down some roots. Even though the sequence of sounds id predetermined, the form isn’t; it must evolve right then and there.

Performance Of Electronic Music

Loy: I also feel that your role as a performer of your compositions injects a necessary human presence into the work. So much of the problem people have with tape music is because of its lack of a human performer. The problem has been to identify a meaningful function for that performer, which you have elegantly solved.

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.

Public Response

Loy: One curious aspect of AUDIUM through the years is the lack of exposure, both in the press and also among your colleagues. There are two related feelings about AUDIUM. The first is intimacy — of reaching out to be as close to the audience as possible, since you are physically there in the room to oversee each performance. The other is of privacy — your laboratory facility is closely guarded. The techniques you use, the equipment you work with are viewable neither by the public nor even by your colleagues.

Shaff: There have been pragmatic reasons for this, although not always of my choosing. When I started out, I had no ideas this would grow in this way. As the idea grew, the cost factor became almost prohibitive, even with th4e 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 also 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.

Loy: Do you foresee that changing in any particular direction? Do you envision providing access to others to utilize AUDIUM?

Shaff: That is a possibility in the future. I am actively considering ways to broaden AUDIUM beyond my own work. But the primary thing now is to find easier ways to make this thing work, such as attracting a larger audience, to offset expenses. 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! Also, now that I’m starting to have more time for it, I’m hoping to advance on some technical fronts, exploring various areas of computerization. Of course, people have asked me why I don’t simply computerize the sound trajectories in the performance. The answer is that I choose to perform because this is how I have the most direct and expressive contact with the material. However, I can easily imagine extending the power of the resource by means of interactive computer systems designed for the purpose. But laying hands upon the sound in the act of its performance is still fundamental to me.

Loy: This reflects on the current state of the field of computer music. Until very recently, it has been the rare exception that a computer music system of any power has been capable of being performed in real time. Most computer music research facilities had great compositional tools, but they could not respond interactively to modify the music in real time. Now there is a real explosion of relatively low-cost digital tools for performance that are starting to be worthy of attention. The possibilities for augmenting the number of variables that are under the conscious control of a performer, when considered in the light of what you have already at AUDIUM, is astonishing.

Shaff: These are indeed exciting prospects. I thought there was a universe involved where I am, then another door opens and there’s another universe!