Maryanne Amacher is a sound artist whose city-to-city installations engulf listeners in ecstatic noise. Here, guitarist Alan Licht offers a personal appreciation of New Music’s best-kept secret. This article originally appeared in The Wire 181 (March 1999).
Recently I saw Peter Bogdanovich introduce a screening of Orson Welle’s Chimes at Midnight in New York. Bogdanovich explained that Welles had once told him, “The problem with films is that they’re canned, they come in a can!” Bogdanovich asked what he meant, “Well,” Welles replied, “anything that comes in a can can’t be very fresh.”
I think the electronic composer Maryanne Amacher would agree with him. Her new CD, Sound Characters (Making The Third Ear), presents an unusual paradox: how can a fantastic recorded listening experience also be a hopelessly inadequate representation of an artist’s work with sound? As a sound artist with a reputation for overwhelming volume, precise speaker placement, and site-specific environmental and architectural installations, Amacher has never released a full-length recording before. Until now the only pieces of her on record were her contributions to the Asphodel label’s Throne of/Swarm Of Drones trilogy of compilations. Yet despite her invisibility as a recording artist, Maryanne Amacher is an experimental music veteran, whose presence has been an important influence on artists working in related soundworlds.
“Maryanne is one of the best kept secrets of the Cage/Tudor scene,” says Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky. “She was one of the first people of that set to really deal with heavy bass, electronic bass, crazy bass.” Rhys Chatham is also quick to sing her praises. Meeting her at Morton Subotnick’s studio when he was still in his teens, she “became a kind of role model for me of what a composer should be,” he remarks. “I’ve always been inspired by Maryanne, and her work had a profound influence of the music I made in the 70s and 80's:
Amacher’s first major work dates back to 1967’s City
Links series, which continues (in theory) to the present day.
In 22 separate pieces, sounds from one or more distant urban
environments were transmitted in real-time via telelinks to an
exhibition space as a continuous sound installation. All kinds of
locales were used, harbours, steel mills, factories, airports, etc.
In City Links 15, sounds from New York, Boston and Paris
were mixed in a live broadcast at WBAI in New York and then further
transmitted to Radio France Musique in Paris – Long before the
internet made such intercontinental practices common. “I was
particularly interested in the experience of ‘Synchronicity’,
hearing spaces distant from each other at the same time, which we
do not experience in our lives,” she explains, noting that quite
often a “flurry of activity” would occur in two different places at
the same time. One example is the piece No More Miles, in which she
placed a microphone in a Budget Rent-A-Car unit in an indoor arcade
in Minneapolis, which was the acoustic double of the exhibitions
space’s acoustics: voices, footsteps and other sounds completely
matched those heard in the gallery. Visiting the gallery, you would
hear the sounds produced by the installation as though people were
moving and talking around you, like, “ghosts in the otherwise
silent space She took the idea further by installing a microphone
on a window overlooking the ocean at the New England Fish Exchange
in Boston Harbour, transmitting the sound into her home studio
continuously, sometimes using it as an element in other
performances or exhibitions of City Links. “I would come
in and it would be different according to different weather and
changes,” Amacher told interview Leah Durner in 1989. “I learned a
lot about shapes and I realised why I was doing this: in regular
music you don’t have any models to learn about spatial aspects of
music. Usually the performers are on stage, or the music’s on a
record, and you don’t really hear things far away or close up: you
don’t hear things appearing or disappearing, and all the shapes
that emerge from this.” She lived with the live transmission for
three years. “I actually miss coming home to it,” she says now,
some 20 years later.
In 1973-74 Maryanne Amacher worked with John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, collaborating on a ten hour piece. Called Empty Words/Close Up, it joined his spoken and sung text based on Thoreau with her sound environment based on the acoustic properties of Walden Pond. “I remember going out there in the middle of the night with our tape recorders,” she recalls. She also composed the storm environment for Cage’s multimedia Lecture On The Weather, based on texts from Thoreau’s journals, and many works for Cunningham’s dance pieces from 1974 to 1980. Rhys Chatham recalled one piece “scored as a duet between the high tones generated by our nervous systems, which we hear inside our heads, and an external sinewave frequency between 15,000 and 17,000 cycles per second. Amacher would bring the external sinewave in and out of the edge of consciousness to create a breathtaking new kind of harmony. Unfortunately, most of the audience heard the piece as 45 minutes of silence! She performed the same piece at the Kitchen to an audience of about one hundred hardened New Music fans. I would guess that about 15 out of the 100 people in attendance were able to fully appreciate what she was doing.”
In the 80’s Amacher began working on Music For Sound-Joined Rooms, for which she spent weeks on location studying the architectural specific buildings, and then created sonic and visual events for each hallway, room, staircase, etc. As she explains, utilising multiple speaker configurations created “the effect that sounds originate from specific locations and heights rather than from the loudspeakers”. By travelling through the building, an aural narrative emerged. Maryanne continued this idea in Mini Sound Series, which modified the Sound-Joined Rooms concepts to a format based on that of a TV mini-series. It involved a long running concert series over a four or five week period, “an evolving sound work ‘to be continued’ as opposed to a continuous installation or a traditional concert setting”.
All this intense interest in site-specific sound doesn’t readily conform to the notion of popping a CD into a Discman. A concert I saw at the Performing Garage in New York several years ago featured more than a dozen speakers placed carefully around the room, producing a two hour hurricane of sound that filled not only the space but the listener’s skull, to the extent that the sound actually seemed to be pouring out of your ears. More recently Amacher performed with Glenn Branca, Rudolph Grey and Z’ev at New York’s Knitting Factory, whose speaker system was hardly up to the challenge of dealing with her extreme samples.
With these experiences of her music in mind, I trekked to Maryanne’s home in upstate New York to listen to the Sound Characters CD. In my little corner of the world, its release is highly anticipated – I’m hoping it will give her the same kind of audience that other heretofore overlooked people like Tony Conrad or Loren MazzaCane Connors are starting to enjoy. The first thing I hear is piercing, cycling high-pitched melodies that immediately cause musical vibrations inside my ears. Maryanne calls this “Third Ear Music”, which “stimulates our ears to ‘sound’ their own tones and melodic shapes” – The same literally earsplitting experience I’d had at the Performing Garage. Next, I thought I heard a truck coming down the street; I soon realised it was a wave of electronics crashing over the still cycling first set of tones. Trembling, I knew that this music was too massive to really be experienced in a living room. It’s like having King Kong for a pet – it resists captivity at every level. By the same token, the music filled me with a sense of wonder and awe I have experienced only a handful of times in the presence of pure sound. The CD played on, with excerpts from the Sound-Joined Rooms series remixed to two channel stereo. Maastunnel Sound Characters (originally presented in a three storey tunnel in Rotterdam) features sustained tones in the midst of a maelstrom of electronic sound.
One of its most interesting features is the extended fade, which
Amacher says is intended to give the listener a kind of aural
afterimage. “I had an hour long version of it originally,” she
notes. And how long was its fade? “About 40 minutes.”
The unimaginably confrontational Synaptic Island has metallic sounds skidding into each other, with white noise blasting in and out of the mix. Even Merzbow (which it slightly resembles) feels puny next to it. Dense Boogie 1 and Chorale 1also create the third ear. Maryanne keeps calling Chorale “stupid”. Well, it is a very straightforward, repetitive set of tones that sounds like a modern connection pumped up to the max. Then all these strange low tones are triggered inside my skull, which change slightly as I walk around the room or move my head. In effect I’m hearing two stereo mixes simultaneously – one set of tones coming through the speakers, and another, separate set of tones emitted by my own ears. In LaMonte Young’s New York Dream House I’ve also had the experience of hearing shifting sound while moving around the room, but nothing like this. (Incidentally, Amacher has yet to visit Young’s sound environment.) Maryanne is careful to point out in her sleevenotes that your ears and speakers will not be damaged by third ear sounds, and that they cannot be experienced on headphones. She says the third ear sounds are present in all music, even a Beethoven symphony, but are suppressed in the ear by other timbres which mask them (but are “usually registered subliminally”). In essence using this psychoacoustic component as a basis for composition is a logical progression from the overtone based music of Young, Phill Niblock, Arnold Dreyblatt, et al.
When the CD ends, I ask Maryanne what her early influences were. It transpires that, years before, she’d put her ear next to a cymbal and wanted to investigate what made up the wash of sound that it produced. She laments the fact when the pieces on the CD were performed in their original locations, people “were dancing, they were running around, they were making out” and that listening in her comparatively small studio space is “like being in jail”. She insists that the music is supposed to “make you feel good” and is very aware of the difficult of listening to it in a domestic setting. After one of her installations, Amacher cannot listen to her work at home for at least a month. Unlike most ‘noise’ musicians, the ineffable roar of her pieces is not an expression of rage, pain nor despair – it’s ecstatic and celebratory.
Later, I Listen to Sound Characters again on my own home stereo. Alas, the intensity of the experience I had upstate was greatly diminished. The third ear sounds were still audible, but not quite as persistent as they were earlier. Much of the electronics, which were so oppressive and monolithic before, now seemed contained and compressed, affording an interesting perspective on sound reproduction. The real question is, if not recordings, what does Amacher want the final legacy of her work to be? She mentioned getting a building, a permanent space for her and other sound artists to exhibit in. A logical, if not entirely realistic solution to the problem of creating an enduring presentation of her work.
The line of my own personal listening history, which zigzags from the Velvet Underground and Metal Machine Music, to LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, to Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, to Japanese noise and Xenakis, ends with Maryanne Amacher. In terms of sheer sonic power, her music renders all of them redundant. And whatever its shortcomings as a document of her real aims, Sound Characters stands as one of the most devastating aural artefacts of this or any decade.