SAN FRANCISCO — Audium, a 49-seat theater that is enclosed by 176 speakers, is a vestige of oddball experimentation in a rapidly gentrifying city. Stan Shaff, 91, who began his experiment six decades ago, just a few years before the Summer of Love, describes it as a “sound sculpture.”
Mr. Shaff was inspired to create it in the 1960s, after performing as a classically trained trumpet player with the dance ensemble of Anna Halprin, who was a postmodern pioneer.
Today the space, which is in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, houses a community of fans of sound art and the city’s iconoclastic past. Every Thursday through Saturday night the eclectic composition is “shaped” by the performer — Stan or his son David — who uses a control board affixed with glow-in-the-dark labels to manipulate it, directing sound from rumbling bass speakers beneath the seats to small horn speakers above.
Stan, who was once the sole performer to run the theater’s tiny “cockpit,” has largely handed the reins over to David.
“I’m tempted to say he started in the womb,” said Stan, who recorded sonar checkups with his pregnant wife and inserted the sound of David’s toddler chatter into his musical compositions.
Both Shaffs pinpoint a societal change toward looking inward for modern audiences’ enthusiasm for Audium. “People are more into yoga and meditation,” David, 35, said. “Seeing and feeling inside their bodies.”
It was once common for some audience members to flee Audium performances, alarmed by the darkness, the unusual soundscape or both. David said he has noticed a “dramatic shift” in audiences seeking not only experiences that demand focus, but also introduce mystery back into live events. Audium is not easily photographed or described, said David, who is careful about what he shares on social media.
“Until people get there and experience it, I don’t want too much information to be available to them,” he said.
David hopes to tap into the hunger for immersive experiences to expand Audium’s offerings and grow its community beyond a core group of audiophiles. He plans to collaborate with artists from multiple disciplines, and is digitizing the space’s analog technology, with the help of Paul Barton, a nuclear engineer from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
At a recent workshop for those interested in learning more about the sound system, a group of 17 people that included artists and sound healers brainstormed new uses for Audium, like ASMR listening parties. David, also a trumpet player, spent two years by his father’s side learning to work the control board. He described his father’s sound as “like Jackson Pollock, like throwing a bunch of sounds at you … boom, boom, boom,” and his own as melodic.
Karlton Hester, the director of jazz studies at the University of California Santa Cruz and David’s former teacher, likened Audium to Egyptian burial, in which a series of elaborate practices ready the soul for afterlife.
“I think it’s a kind of ritual,” said Mr. Hester, who has been to Audium more than five times. “From the time you come in the building, you’re being prepared for what’s happening.” He recommended Audium to fellow professors and students keen to explore uses of space.
It’s “like a speakeasy,” said Logan Daniel, a sound artist who has experienced the performance about half a dozen times since the 1990s.
“You had to know where to go, you had to know how to enter,” Ms. Daniel said. After which, she said, you would pass the tip along to fellow sound enthusiasts.
Audium, which has never advertised, stays open in part because of word of mouth. A 1972 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts enabled Stan to purchase the former bakery that houses it, inoculating it against rising rents that have imperiled other local arts outposts. Curious first-timers and repeat customers pay $25 each to pass through the visual stimulus of the lobby into the darkened theater.
Roddy Lindsay, an entrepreneur and software engineer, attended the November premiere of Audium’s 11th composition with a group of friends who had teamed with him to start their own sound project, called Envelop, where in addition to listening experiences, they offer yoga and sound baths. He said Audium was a key inspiration.
“It’s the ultimate non-Instagrammable experience,” said Mr. Lindsay, who has been coming to Audium for nine years. “It’s in the dark, there’s sounds all around you. You can’t have your phone out, so you have to pay attention and just deeply listen.”