They always say San Francisco is a feast for the senses. By that, I’m sure they mean the scent of sourdough mingling in the briny breeze at Fisherman’s Wharf and that screen-saver view from Coit Tower, not the uremic reek on Mission Street and the cacophonous capitalistic hum of the Financial District.
But they don’t know the half of it. If you’re seeking to really delve into the realm of the senses, both by deprivation and heightened awareness, then this is the city for you.
Hewing to the ethos of addition by subtraction, you can spend a good part of a day in San Francisco in the dark – literally. Not crepescular dimness; I’m talking blackout dark. The blackness of nullity. All to give you a greater understanding and, perhaps, appreciation of one’s seemingly less-employed senses.
You can sacrifice sight at a restaurant called Opaque to focus on taste, that most difficult to describe but truly piquant sense, aided and abetted by its sensory partner, smell.
You can be plunged into pupil-expanding darkness at a concert venue called Audium, where 176 speakers send something of an aural tsunami swirling about, sounds so sharp and penetrating it’s as if you’re hearing viscerally, not merely by stimulation of the stereocilia inside the cochlea.
And you can venture to the dark side once more at the Exploratorium, where you step inside the blacked-out geodesic Tactile Dome and navigate through a crazy maze purely by touch, perhaps our most underused sense but the only means to suss out how to crawl, slide, climb and stumble your way toward the light.
San Francisco, which likes to consider itself a trendsetter, has a long history of light-deprivation “experiences.” The Tactile Dome opened in 1971, and Audium has been around almost as long. Opaque, which adopted its “dining in the dark” concept from restaurants in Berlin and Paris (ironically, “The City of Light”), has proved so successful that offshoots have opened in Los Angeles and San Diego.
This popularity should not surprise. Senses, after all, make up the very essence of life. They are something we are constantly told to “come to,” as if it is, as Kant famously posited, where all knowledge begins. But we tend to rely too much on sight, the Gladys Knight to the other senses’ Pips, to guide the way. It is a visionary concept, then, to temporarily blot out this dominant sense and let these understudy senses take a star turn in the spotless spotlight.
We formed something of a conga line at the thick black velvet curtain separating the pitch-dark dining room of Opaque, near Civic Center Square, from the lit bar and reception area.
Per the instructions of Jennifer, our visually impaired waitress, I stood directly behind her and put my hands upon her shoulders. Behind me, hands resting on my shoulders, was my dining companion, a gastronomic savant known as The Palate. We took tiny steps, almost shuffling along, parted several curtains until the last sliver of light faded. I couldn’t help but think of that most politically incorrect of expressions, “the blind leading the blind,” but didn’t dare say it.
Navigating the dark is no problem for Jennifer. She has worked at Opaque for five years, knows the layout by memory and, with a firm hand and kind words, has helped hundreds of disoriented sighted people through this sensory chamber. She seated us with care, guided our hands to the cutlery and linen napkin, explained entrees on the prix fixe menu ($100 a head) and then vanished to bring us water. (Kim, hostess out front, said the restaurant employs only visually impaired servers, serving as sherpas for the sighted, because “once you get in there, your eyes will never adjust.”)
The Palate and I, being the first reservation of the night, sat there in silence staring at each other across the table after she left. Well, I presumed he was looking at me, or in my general direction, because, actually, it was like staring into a void. That’s how dark it was. I fumbled around, grabbed my salad fork and brought it millimeters away from my face. Couldn’t see it. The room was black, all right, but not devoid of color. Those phosphenes – you know, bright floating dots you see when you close your eyes – were there even with eyes open.
I brought The Palate to this dinner not just because he’s one of my best buds, but because his taste buds are famously refined. He often can name-that-ingredient in one bite, so his purpose was to serve as guinea pig and order the “mystery menu” – essentially forking into a surprise with every bite. Me? I chickened out and ordered the roast chicken, salad and banana-almond cake for dessert.
The Palate’s only concern was ordering a wine that would pair with his mystery meat. Not to worry, Kim the hostess said, “We can do mystery wine for you, too. We take into account any allergies with mystery food.”
I would not get off easily, though. The first two courses would be a mystery appetizer and mystery soup. Even before that challenge, there was the problem of orientation. Jennifer instructed us that she would place plates on the table’s corner, near my right elbow, for me to move to the center. For The Palate, it would be on the left.
Our first foray was the basket of bread. We were told that the butter dish was nestled inside the wicker (at least it felt like wicker) container. I reached to the center, patted the basket’s lip before plunging my fingers into a cool, creamy concoction.
“I found the butter,” I told The Palate, discreetly wiping my hand on the linen napkin under the table.
(I caught myself: Why was I being so furtive? No one could see me.)
The adventure was just beginning. When the mystery appetizer came, I nearly knocked it off the plate. It was rounded, slick, thumbnail-sized with something sticky on top. I bit in first.
“Is it a … grape? With frosting?” I asked.
The Palate snorted, ate his in one bite.
“Cherry tomato,” he said, a bit bored, “with goat cheese.”
The Palate would surely be more challenged in the next course, salad for me, a “mystery” for him. I stabbed at the balsamic-coated lettuce leaves; it was hit or miss whether my fork would emerge with any produce impaled on the tines. The Palate took one bite and declared, “Easy. Calamari with, hmm, I think on a bed of … peas?”
Upon Jennifer’s return, she broke the news to The Palate that those were mushrooms, not peas. I couldn’t see The Palate’s face, of course, but his audible exhalation told me he was frustrated his taste buds had betrayed him.
This guess-the-dish parlor game, intriguing as it was, threatened to detract from the pleasure to be derived from concentrating solely on taste. I don’t know about The Palate – he was too busy trying to regain his self-esteem – but, to me, the food seemed to almost sizzle on my tongue. The tang of the balsamic dressing was acute, its scent sharp enough to singe my nose hairs. Even the bread (sourdough, of course; this is San Francisco) seemingly had a rougher texture than when chewed while sighted – or maybe I just became more aware.
The soup course, thankfully, came in tiny pitchers with spouts and handles, lest one’s dry-cleaning bill skyrocket by trying to spoon out the viscous liquid. And viscous it was. The Palate, tentative now, seemed stumped and gave a guess: “Squash soup?” When Jennifer returned, I took a sip and had no clue, but it felt grainy on my tongue, vaguely sweet, certainly something plant-based.
“Split pea?” I ventured. “You’re correct!” she exclaimed.
By this point, at least two other parties had been seated somewhere near us. It sounded like a table of three to my left and fairly close at that, given their high decibel level. Do people talk louder in the dark or something?
No time to muse on that. Jennifer brought the entree, including the “mystery wine,” and I could hear The Palate sniff at the plate. Then he sipped the wine. “Red,” he said. I could hear his knife sawing away – “Hey, they already put it in bite-sized pieces, that’s nice” – and then the grinding of his molars. “Oh, it’s some type of steak,” he said. “Definitely steak.” I, meanwhile, was chasing my chicken in roasted garlic cream around the plate, trying to cut the darn thing.
Jennifer laughed at The Palate’s guess of steak, saying, “I’ll whisper it in your ear so other tables won’t hear.”
“No way,” The Palate gasped. (It was pork.)
Fortunately for The Palate’s self-esteem, he was dead-on with his dessert prediction: espresso panna cotta, with chocolate sauce.
At meal’s end, Jennifer helped us to our feet and we repeated the conga line back to daylight. You know how people use the phrase “blinding light?” Well, it was like that. It took a good five minutes for my eyes to re-adjust. By that time, I had already signed the bill, $268, with tip, a tad extravagant but worth the experience. The Palate, however, said they robbed me, well, blind.
That nondescript building on Bush Street, the one with wood-paneled facade? You know, that place that used to be a bakery and doughnut shop?
Some serious sound experimentation goes on there under the cover of darkness every Friday and Saturday nights.
For more than 40 years, musician and “sound choreographer” Stan Shaff has been experimenting with the aural vicissitudes of music and sounds, from sweeping and soaring to dissonant and atonal. It’s Philip Glass minimalism meets radio sound effects, with a dash of Hans Zimmer sonic bombast thrown in.
No, it’s more than that. Its effects depend greatly on the where within the space itself you are hearing it. With 176 speakers, white on black and arranged around, above and below the circular space that seats 49, you feel like you are aboard a spacecraft about to lift off. This was even before the lights were extinguished. Dave Shaff, son of Stan, warned the sellout audience that, if they suffer any “anxiety” in the dark, “follow the illuminated arrows along the floor.” A few in the crowd chuckled but, later, Stan will say that, in Audium’s early years, he’d always see a couple of people bolt for the doors in the first five minutes of the hourlong program.
“There are some deep reasons for the reactions people have, having to do with dreams, memories and fantasies,” Dave said in the preamble. “Some people liken it to an audio waking dream. But you can draw your own conclusions. Oh, and cellphones: Turn them off. We need total darkness.”
Darkness did not fall all at once, as at Opaque. Rather, it was a gradual dimming until blackness prevailed.
Our sonic journey began subtly, almost noiselessly. Plops, like drops in a water bucket, came at you from all directions. I, instinctively, turned my head toward the sound, a futile gesture. I eventually just let the soothing sound seep into me. But then it built quickly, with percussive force, drums like horse hooves in mid-stampede. You felt it as much as heard it. But before the piece could devolve into an aural assault, the tone softened once more, caesuras filling spaces. Back once more, sounds perhaps meant to represent a rainstorm. But, no, it must be waves, because the singsong voices of toddlers at play chimed in from your right, then seemed to swoosh across the room and hit from above. And what was it now, horns from the floor? Playing a dirgelike melody?
I looked at the man next to me. Hard to make out, but his eyes were closed. No way he could’ve been sleeping, given the booms, blips and arpeggiated chords. At odd intervals, those children’s voices returned, eerily dreamlike, followed at times by ominous synthesizers. It was unsettling bordering on creepy. Near the piece’s end, though, a tonal pattern emerged and the sound seemed to bring you back into a contented sense of self.
When the lights incrementally came back on, the crowd shuffled out. A few exited quietly, some looking shell-shocked. In the lobby sat Shaff, 87, sipping coffee and offering to debrief anyone who’d listen.
“We literally play the space,” said Shaff, who composed and recorded this particular piece five years ago. What changes from performance to performance is the way Shaff, from an elevated console, manipulates different instrumentation and sound through different speakers placed throughout the venue.
“The space itself, like melody and harmony and rhythm, has a very important notion to add to performance, sound composition and whatever you call it,” he added.
But why play it in darkness?
“The darkness is a very important part,” he said. “That immersive quality. The funny thing is, darkness, one of the first elements of Audium, is beginning to sneak into performance spaces of other musicians. Other groups are beginning to see – or, rather, I should say hear – that the nuance that our hearing potentially captures in darkness helps. You get inside the sound and find subtlety, the coloration you miss normally. Some people really get into it. Some can’t wait to leave.”
Back on the street, the Friday night hubbub of nearby Van Ness Avenue – the revved engines, blaring horns, heavy-bass throbbing cars – didn’t seem nearly so sonically dissonant. Close your eyes, and you could even detect a certain rhythm.
Jake Spund wanted us to know he’d be watching. Well, not in the literal sense, since the Tactile Dome exhibit inside the Exploratorium science museum at Pier 15 is shrouded in darkness. But Jake’s been working here long enough to know that some people freak out inside the domed maze where a keen sense of touch provides the only way out, so he takes pains to reassure beforehand.
“If you have any issues, which is not likely, but if you feel nervous or claustrophobic or feel like you need to come out, I’m here to make sure things go smoothly. Just give me a holler and say, ‘Jake, I want to come out,’ and I’ll get you out. I’ve got you covered.”
The five of us – Boston couple David Bamforth and Giuliana O’Connell; Fort Worth, Texas, mother and daughter Mary Katheryn and Christina Kelley; and your correspondent – have shed our shoes and fears. Spund has given us the dome’s thumbnail history, how designer August Coppola (brother of Francis Ford and father of Nic Cage) built it in 1971 as a sensory experiment. Finally, I let the two other groups go first in a staggered start. Meanwhile, I chatted up Spund.
I asked, skeptically, if people really have freaked out on the five- to seven-minute maze journey.
“From time to time, yeah. Part of the job,” he said. “It usually happens within the first 5 feet. That sudden realization they’ll be going through a confining space in darkness is shocking to them.”
He wished me luck and sent me off.
Plunged into darkness, I turned right, stretched out my arm, felt nubbly plastic. Turned left, spongy fabric. Reached above me, dangling strings of either beads or small chains. Finally, I reached down and to my left and felt … nothing. An opening. I crouched and scuttled through. Then I was on hands and knees, padding on all sides. It felt as if I was heading through a tunnel, and this disturbing Freudian thought struck me: I’m in the womb reliving the birth experience. That sense increased upon reaching the point where I had to slide down a chute and land on a springy, trampolinelike surface. Then I walked, crustaceanlike, until gamely straightening up. But, of course, I proceeded to hit my head on a padded wall or something.
Onward I trudged, feeling all different surfaces. Was it corrugated grating, fishing nets, computer mouse-type rollers, ridges like slatted fencing? Who knows? I kept moving forward, one arm outstretched like a football player stiff-arming a tackler. I climbed until I reached an LED sign on the floor saying, “OUT.” I slid down into what felt like pebbles or marbles and poked my head into the lobby, prairie-doglike, to see what was up.
Spund arched an eyebrow in my direction, checking to see how I survived the journey. I hesitated bringing up my Freudian theory, but, what the heck, I have no filters.
“You may be crazy,” Spund said, “but not because of that. That was the artist’s interpretation. It was meant to be a re-birthing experience, starting in the ‘womb’ when you feel helpless except by touch and then bringing it to fruition into the light.”
Yes, the light. The glorious light. But I also found, after these experiences, I was no longer cursing the darkness, once I’d been enveloped by it.
Sensory San Francisco
1. Audium: 1616 Bush St. Cost: $20. Information: www.audium.org
2. Opaque: Dining in the Dark: 689 McAllister St. Reservations: sf.darkdining.com
3. Tactile Dome at Exploratorium: Pier 15, The Embarcadero. Cost: general admission, plus $15 for Dome. Reservations: 415-528-4444 (select option 5)