Finding something crazy to do on a Friday night in San Francisco isn’t that hard. There are weird bars, year-round “Burner parties” for people still coming down from the Burning Man high, Fernet-Branca everywhere, and an old man named Stan Shaff who performs a mind trip of electro-acoustic sounds for stoners.
Stan, a professory-looking older man, has been operating the weekly electro-acoustic soundscape show at his Bush Street theater in Lower Pacific Heights since the mid-70s. The operation is lean , with just Stan and his wife, who sits in a glass booth handing out tickets in a makeshift lobby that smells like burnt coffee, running things.
With your $20 ticket, you walk into a cement floored art space filled with futuristic sculptures, projectors, tourists, and people wondering what they got themselves into.
Outside, I saw a small group of dudes standing in a half-circle passing around a joint. I, too, lit up, asking if they knew anything about what was about to occur.
“I don’t know, man. I heard it’s like Fantasia for your ears,” said the dude next to me between tokes.
No one inside seemed to have any of the pre-show details I desired. It’s hard to explain an electro-acoustic show to someone other than saying, “You sit down and hear weird sounds."
Minutes before the show, Stan appeared from behind a curtain to make announcements. He asked everyone to turn off their phones, refrain from taking pictures, and to stay quiet. He then got everyone to follow him through a disorientingly-angled hallway that reminded me of the kind of walk cows take before slaughter.
We entered a room that felt like a sound stage from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stan had assembled the space with 35 chairs in a half-circle (resembling an audio-based House of Parliament) surrounded by 174 speakers—arranged perfectly, all in proto-White Stripes red, white, and black. The room was perfectly soundproofed. It was almost like being in outer space: if you screamed, no one would hear you.
As I sat in a folding chair, the lights got lower and lower until it was completely black, and I lost sense of where I was. The sounds were from Stan's studio, intended, as he said, to evoke feelings of childhood. Splashing water, rustling leaves, drums playing frantic beats, bleeps and bloops — this all lasted for a half hour. During that half hour, you’re sitting completely still, almost afraid to move, so as to not offend the person listening in next to you.
During the first half of the show, I had two or three epiphanies. It felt like the first pure moment of introspection I had had in a long time. It was like meditating, but through sensory deprivation mixed with sensory overload. On one hand you can’t see a thing; on the other, you’re overwhelmed with sounds coming from the walls, the ground, and from above. You can hear clicks coming from the command module where Stan planted himself. What is he doing over there? “Nevermind,” my brain told me, “focus on the now." Whatever that means.
I was actually clueing in to whatever the "now" was, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. I felt really good. I was cleaning out my own brain like it was a dirty refrigerator, getting rid of anxieties like old fruit. After a half hour, the lights came up and no one spoke. Everyone was in a trance, and no one realized that they could go out and get coffee for the the intermission. I looked over at the guy who told me it was like Fantasia for the ears, and he looked like he’d gone to Mars and back.
The friend I went with sat in a trance as well. During the five minute intermission neither one of us spoke, and not just because we were stoned. There was giggling from those clearly uncomfortable, awe from others, and a few people just got up and left. I was fully prepared for, if not eagerly awaiting, the next half hour of Audium.
After the second half was said and done, we returned to the lobby, the walls covered in projections of waterfalls, which made me have to pee immediately. Stan guarded the coffee maker, answering questions from his entranced audience. I asked him about the amplifying and subtracting of the senses, trying to to show that I knew what was going on (an attempt to get into his inner circle), but he went on to talk at length about how excited he is that young people are into this kind of thing. Perhaps it’s the pervasiveness of electronic music, or the fact that people like Karlheinz Stockhausen have gone from obscurity to the outer edges of the mainstream thanks to any Music 101 course. Or perhaps people just want a cheap auditory high.
Stan’s soundscapes only work when you find yourself tuning in to your own senses. You’re blind in his space, which amplifies your auditory awareness — everything is louder, clearer, and sometimes downright frightening. You’re mentally forced to deal with yourself and his sounds. To put it simply, the way he manipulates his sounds makes you feel all weird inside, which confuses your brain and forces you to find some sort of mental solace. On that journey, you find a bunch of weird stuff that you either confront or accept. If you reach that zen point, it can be rewarding. If not, it’s probably a totally bizarre experience.