Audium — the quirky music venue that has lived at 1616 Bush Street since 1975, after moving from a Richmond District venue that opened in 1967 — debuted its New Voices program on February 10, reimagining the space through immersive compositions of spatial sound with works from three Bay Area-based composers.
Describing itself as a "theater of sound," Audium first began as nameless experimentations with Anna Halprin’s modern dance troupe in 1959, which were followed by concerts at SF State and SF Museum of Art that were then labeled under the Audium moniker. The runaway success of Audium’s first three shows gave it the momentum it needed to eventually open a dedicated workshop space in the Richmond District — which took over eighteen months to build out. That location saw master craftsmen (and craftswomen) in music showcase groundbreaking techniques and introduce new sounds into immersive auditory disciplines.
SF-based electronic music composer Stan Shaff would later get a series of grants from the NEA and build the Bush Street theater, and for decades he hosted regular performances of his works there to rapt audiences sitting in the pitch-black space, outfitted with 176 speakers.
So honored to have been selected as a composer for the first ever residency program at Audium SF. This theater of sound boasts 176 speakers and offers one of the coolest sonic experiences I've ever enjoyed. Looking forward to presenting my work here beginning Feb 2022! pic.twitter.com/yqD2WQPm7A— victoria shen (@EvicShen) October 25, 2021
Fast forward a couple of decades, and a New Voices program now brings a fresh approach and modernized reimagining to Audium, courtesy of the works from resident talent Victoria Shen, Alexa Burrell, and Noah Berrie — each of them bringing their own original works (and custom controllers) to offer live preformances of their individual sound pieces.
Shaff, the co-founder of Audium who had been the sole programming force behind the venue for over fifty years, began splitting programming responsibilities with his son, David Shaff, in 2018. Per KQED, it was David’s idea to introduce Audium's first-ever residency program back in 2021, which has now provided Bay Area audiophiles an opportunity to experience contemporary works by those three aforementioned Bay Area artists.
But for Shaff, choosing artists for Audium’s first residency program wasn’t just about talent; it was also an exercise in narrowing down applicants who could “have a conversation” with Audium’s indoor space that features 176 speakers.
“[I wanted] people who can have a conversation with this place, and figure out what works and what doesn’t,” the younger Shaff told KQED’s Gabe Meline. “That was the conversation that Dad was having for 50 years, but it was just one conversation.”
Interestingly enough, none of the three admitted applicants had visited Audium before applying to the residency program. However, all had expressed a “deep respect for the venue” during the application process.
Now 92 years old, elder Shaff still remains an integral part of Audium’s successes and image, though currently holds more of a consulting relationship with the venue; his son has since taken over much of the day-to-day grind. Members of the Grateful Dead and the Sun Ra Arkestra once frequented the space to commune with its mesmeric walls. Audium, too, has seen renowned engineers from companies like Dolby, Disney, and Meyer Sound visit and help push digital sound advancements.
During the pandemic, Audium — like many local creative spaces — temporarily shuttered, but it used that long stretch of downtime to move the space to primarily digital production elements, helping create a “crisp and clean,” more reliable sound out of each of the installed speakers. David Shaff noted to Meline that chimes in some areas of the room were historically “smudged” and muddied prior to the digital shift.
Admittedly, those who have a certain affinity for Audium’s now-retired Ampex tape consoles might feel stung in their absence, but Audium’s New Voices program will surely help sway even the most analog of music lovers to embrace Audium’s new digital age.
"New Voices" will run every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from now until April 2; doors open at 7:00 p.m. before the show beings 7:30 p.m.; admission is $20 to $30, and tickets can be purchased in advance at cityboxoffice.com.
Photo: Courtesy of Twitter via @urbanhermit