13 Oct


Dylan Welch. Audium. Archival digital print.

A coyote chorus and stars.  These elements were present when I attended an event at Audium Thursday night, a theater of sound-sculptured space at 1616 Bush Street.  The program comprised works by Stanley and David Shaff, father and son.  I already knew from a friend that the performance would take place in total darkness.  Thus, I was apprehensive when the lights began to dim.  How do we experience in the dark?  I felt the same apprehension sitting in the waning light at Bear Valley Visitor Center.  But once it was dark in the valley I was greeted by a sky of stars.  And a chorus of coyote howls in the distance (see previous post).

At Audium, the brief coyote sounds were a single element in the vast collage of natural sounds woven by the Shaffs, in what they refer to as a “sound-space continuum.”  This is immersive space; the Shaffs call it a “building within a building.”  Once dark, the stars appeared.  There are small lit arrows embedded in the floor to direct audience members to an exit should they feel the need to leave before performance end.  The arrows created a sky upon which were sitting in our chairs.

My first experience with sound composition was through the artist Patrick Todd.  I met Patrick through my friend Max Yawney, a painter, both based in New York.  In 2007, Patrick characterized his work as “explor[ing] the outer realms of manufacturing noise production through digital interface.”  Patrick introduced me to the salon-style space Experimental Intermedia at a 224 Centre Street loft in Manhattan.  It was there that I saw and heard an early work of Phil Niblock’s, different than Patrick’s work in that its structure was collected natural sound.  Niblock started as a film maker and photographer and began to explore sound to accompany his films.  His works has been called “live sound collage.”  Niblock and Experimental Intermedia are celebrating fifty years this month.

I brought Patrick’s work into the exhibition American Seven at WORKS/San José in 2006.  Subsequently, Patrick created a composition for a collaborative performance called Detainee, which was performed at The Lab Gallery of the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan from January 29 to February 2, 2007.  In this work we created the red stripes of the American flag, the flag and field of stars already outlined on the gallery floor, by dragging my body through poured paint.  Viewers, many just passersby, were able to watch from outside the gallery through large plate glass windows.  One passerby, George Anttila, posted a video of a performance at YouTube.  Patrick’s contribution, run through a speaker above the sidewalk, complemented the performances by pulling out the dark impulse of torture we alluded to in the piece.  It also gave the audibly muted drama inside an ambient presence outside.

The Shaffs work with field recording from urban space and natural environments.  Human voice, animal sound, musical strands, mechanical motion, and much more come together in changing structures, ranging from lilting, to playful, to meditative.  The space is equipped with a total of 176 speakers, the speakers controlled in groups.  While a computer is in use during performance, the Shaffs still move sound via an analog console.  They also use plenty of synthesizer and midi sounds.

It is difficult for me to arrive at superlatives for this experience.  How does one experience sound?  Partly, I suppose it is in the way that sound attunes to your body.  When we dance to music we bring that sound within so that the body can place the rhythms it will make.  There is that at Audium with the lowest timbres vibrating through the space.  When I listened to coyotes at Bear Valley Visitor Center at night, their howl marked the distant space I could not see.  That was magical.  There is also that at Audium.

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