AUDIUM: SOUND SCULPTURED SPACE by Stan Shaff
For the past 18 years, Doug McEachern and I have been involved with exploring the language of space in music. The core of our concern has been that sound, in its movement through space defines new, provocative relationships between the two. Given this, the composer becomes sound sculptor, and spatial considerations, direction, speed and intensity require a new musical vocabulary.
The interaction between compositional needs and technological innovation has led to the creation of a musical medium, Audium. Variously described as a theatre of sound-sculptured space, a mobile in sound, and a sound-space continuum, Audium, located in San Francisco, offered an opportunity to design and construct a total environment. From floor to ceiling it is an integrated concept, the result of two years' planning and execution. With the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, we were able to mold each detail to acoustical and aesthetic requirements.
From the time the listener enters the theatre, he begins to participate in the sound experience. Intermittent sounds confront and direct him, guiding him gradually toward a "sound labyrinth." The labyrinth physically and psychologically leads into the prime performance space. here, floating floor, sloping walls, angled corners, an intricate acoustical ceiling and a spiral seating arrangement (soon submerged in total darkness), constitute the listening area.
The space is honeycombed with 136 speakers, each independently controlled. Sounds travel above, below, in front, behind, beside, and on multidimensional planes in space. Exact control of sound movement, direction, speed and intensity is realized through a custom-designed electronic console, responsive to the "tape performer." Live, spatial performance of complete tape compositions allows for the subtlety provided by personal interpretation. Listeners are immersed in a kinetic sound realm wherein speakers and environment become the new electronic orchestra.
To describe a few of the characteristics of controlled spatial movement: a melodic line acquires a starting point, a determined pathway, a measurable speed and a point of conclusion: areas in space become launching sites and meeting stations for converging sound lines: melodic convolutions can be physically felt as they flow along spatial planes -- vertical, horizontal, diagonal, circle, and any desired combinations thereof. the choice of the appropriate spatial course for a particular sound sequence becomes essential in defining its shape and character. In polyphonic writing, as each melodic line travels, layers unfold, overlap and entwine to reveal a rich audio tapestry.
Sculptural and architectural sound structures emerge. "I could reach out and touch the sounds" is a frequent comment by listeners. As sounds travel in total darkness, they create textures, colors, and forms. Waves of sound brush the skin as they flow underfoot, splash down from above, or streak by on numerous planes. Polytonal writing allows chordal clusters to interact on different levels in space. Through the workings of sound tensions and releases, the pushing and pulling of harmonics, the audio space expands and contracts.
Rhythmic ideas have a particular uniqueness in the context of controlled movement. A rhythmic pulse moving through space has inherent melodic qualities. The change in timbre as the sound follows through a series of speakers, each with its own color, enhances the melodic character. As the speed of movement is varied, a new pulse emerges in the nature of the movement itself. With the introduction of various complex rhythms emanating from different planes, the space comes alive with kinetic energies.
The idea of Audium began taking shape in 1958, when Doug and I met. We were both musicians and teachers, with traditional music backgrounds. I was beginning to work with tape (natural and electronic sounds) and was becoming concerned with the spatial aspects of composition and perception. Doug's knowledge of electronics enabled him to develop original equipment systems for live, spatial performances.
In the beginning, a simple performance console allowing for spatial movement among a limited number of speakers was the operating mode. Available public spaces were used, permitting only minimal environmental control. From 1960 throughout 1964, we gave several public performances in San Francisco colleges and museums. But, portable systems had severe limitations.
We began developing a strong philosophy regarding the effect of the total environment on the composition. All sensory input became important -- sound ambiance (before, during and after the performance), controlled lighting (as well as complete darkness), design of congregating areas, passageways and all visible surfaces, seating arrangements, even ventilation. We saw every aspect of the environment as contributing to the musical experience.
My compositional concern was to bring the listener physically and psychologically inside a sound world. I've always been fascinated by the evocative qualities sounds possess. Thus, my compositions are often dreamlike sound images, touching common chords of acoustical memories within listeners. We envisioned an environment where people could become involved with active listening, where they could feel sounds as kinetic, sculptural, shaping energies.
Doug McEachern was concurrently developing a sophisticated performance console capable of live, sensitive control of all spatial parameters of a composition. Finger-touch control of complex speaker networks enabled the shaping of sound through its speed of travel, direction and intensity.
The technological, compositional and environmental directions we had taken dictated the need for a permanent space which would be amenable to experimentation, flexibility and growth in 1965 we leased a hall, and after a year and a half of preparation, opened our first "Theatre in Sound." For the next three years of weekly public performances and occasional school and professional seminars, our understanding of the spatial musical vocabulary expanded. However, since funds and leasehold restrictions allowed only non structural modification of the building, full realization of our concerns in this first space was limited. In October 1970 our lease expired and the building was sold.
The next several years were spent in locating an appropriate building, seeking grant funding, and actual planning, design and construction. The new sound theatre opened in 1975. As described earlier, it is a building within a building, conceived in its entirely for this new musical art form.
The language of space in music, as old as tribal drum messages, Gabrieli's antiphonal choirs, or Berlioz's Requiem, has always titillated the ear. Its potential import, however, has only hesitatingly been examined by a few contemporaries. Our concern has been directed toward an understanding of this language, including all environmental influences. Audium, a designed environment for the performance of spatial music, may be but the beginning of a vast, exciting realm in musical composition and performance.