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Audio Aesthetics a Bit Removed From the Standard Do-Re-Mi

March 28, 2010

On a craggy outcrop in the Marina, the sounds of the sea become art. “The Wave Organ,” a sprawling waterfront sound-art installation created with materials from a demolished cemetery, has been quietly performing an oceanic symphony since 1986. Pausing to cup an ear to one of many protruding pipes amid the installation’s sun-blanched granite and marble terraces, you hear a strange liquid music. It alternately whispers like wind passing through conch shells, gurgles like an old man laughing and assaults the senses with cataclysmic thunderclaps.

Meanwhile, “Audium,” a sonic experience held in a specially built theater in the Lower Pacific Heights, engages differently with the melody of water. Waves, a stream and a dripping faucet are among the sounds heard by audience members as they listen to the hourlong performance. It takes place almost entirely in the dark, as 176 speakers embedded in the walls, ceilings and floors emit various acoustic and electronic noises controlled live by the composer and co-founder of “Audium,” Stanley Shaff.

With today’s culture placing a far stronger emphasis on sight than hearing (the oversize eyes and shrunken ears of the Na’vis in James Cameron’s “Avatar” emphasize the trend), we ought to pay closer attention to experiences that ask us to engage our auditory powers in unusual ways.

The Bay Area has been a hub for sound-art experiments since the 1960s. Composers like Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley carried out many sonic investigations under the auspices of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an electronic studio that gained prominence in the ’60s.

Since then, sound art has flourished here, thanks partly to a lively experimental music scene, the presence of renowned audio companies like Meyer Sound and institutional support from universities and museums. Yet the medium frequently goes unnoticed. While these projects have to compete for audiences with myriad other less esoteric cultural happenings, the relative marginality of sound art may be inherent in the art form itself.

In these cases the issue partly stems from the way “Audium” and “The Wave Organ” are implemented and operated. Created in 1960 by Mr. Shaff and Doug McEachern, an equipment designer, “Audium” has been in its present location since 1975. Mr. Shaff and Mr. McEachern don’t advertise their work, having always relied on word of mouth. The theater’s understated storefront presence further keeps the project hidden from view. According to Mr. Shaff, the show, which plays each week on Friday and Saturday nights, typically attracts around 25 people.

The out-of-the-way setting of “The Wave Organ,” at the end of the breakwater forming the Marina Yacht Harbor, similarly contributes to its under-the-radar status. The Exploratorium, the science museum that commissioned the work in the early 1980s from the artists Peter Richards and George Gonzales, loosely estimates that about 300 people visit the installation each week. The day I attended, my friend and I were the only people around.

Certain aesthetic challenges can prevent many sound-art works from reaching bigger audiences. “Audium” and “The Wave Organ” point to two issues facing the medium.

Like “The Wave Organ,” many sound-art installations interact with existing environments. The Bay Area sound artist Bill Fontana is known for creating such works. His “Spiraling Echoes” sound sculpture, set in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall last year, used ultrasonic beams to project sounds, like twittering birds and clanging bells, off the architectural elements. This November Mr. Fontana is creating an installation for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that will use sensors and speakers to explore corners of the building.

“Sculpture Garden Carillon,” a continuing sound-art installation by Joseph del Pesco and Helena Keeffe at the Oakland Museum of California, emits gonglike noises. The artists recorded their material by striking 12 of the museum’s outdoor sculptures, using a fleece-covered mallet. Passers-by on the street can hear the sounds on the hour while the galleries are closed for renovation. (The museum reopens on May 1.)

As inventive as some of these works are, they have to compete with many other distractions. It’s possible to walk right through a sound-art installation without even realizing it.

Projects created for tailor-made spaces, like “Audium,” come with different challenges. With a soundscape that harks back to the musique concrète tradition of the mid-20th century and its retro-looking domed auditorium, “Audium” feels like a throwback. The attempt to isolate hearing from the other senses creates an entirely personal experience that can be both transporting and meditative. But the insularity of this approach can make listening to sounds in the dark seem more like a 1960s-style psychedelic experiment than a cutting-edge art happening.

Despite the challenges of the form, the Bay Area’s role in nurturing sound-art projects shows its spirit of experimentation. “Audium” occupies one of the world’s very few purpose-built spaces for sound art, and “The Wave Organ” makes use of the Bay Area’s resplendent natural topography in an unparalleled way.

These works teach us to listen more closely to sounds that we often take for granted. “I think of liquid as an audio archetype of life,” Mr. Shaff said. “It is the most fundamental of all of life’s sounds.”



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