The Experimental Music of Maryanne Amacher and Philip Corner
BLANK FORMS | SEPTEMBER 28 – SEPTMEBER 30, 2017
The history of time-based art, and particularly performance, is plagued by unverified and missing information, often relying on memory-faded oral descriptions and scant documentation. Blank Forms, an arts nonprofit dedicated to “supporting emerging and underrepresented artists working in a range of time-based and interdisciplinary art practices,” attempts to counteract this precariousness by implementing a multifaceted curatorial, archival, and pedagogical mode of operation. Founded in 2016 by Lawrence Kumpf, formerly Artistic Director of ISSUE Project Room, Blank Forms poses an alternative model for curating and researching time-based art founded on strategies of preservation and contextualization. Spanning dance, music, public art and scholarly seminars, Blank Forms supports its artists from research and archive oriented vantages, offering rich scholarly perspectives in addition to programming infrastructure. In its production of historical knowledge and archival documentation, Blank Forms invests in the longevity of artist projects—including contemporary works—through photographs, essays, recordings, and other interpretive media, supporting artists not only on the night of their programs, but also in their futures as objects of historical and critical inquiry.
This effort was apparent at two recent programs organized by Blank Forms in September. The first concert, an intimate solo piano concert by the Fluxus composer Philip Corner (b. 1939), challenged the artist’s infamous reputation as an iconoclast through a selection of works inspired and written by Erik Satie (1866-1925). Corner is predominantly known for his past destruction of musical instruments, symbolized by Piano Activities (1962) in which a small group methodically and gratuitously destroys a piano, but the Blank Forms concert revealed his reverent relationship to the instrument and its repertoire. The second concert, a restaging of a percussion composition by electroacoustic composer and acoustics researcher Maryanne Amacher (1938 – 2009), showed how easy it is for time-based artworks to become “lost” and the daunting task of “finding” them later. Performed for the first time since its premiere in 1966, Amacher’s Adjacencies is a genre-expanding composition reconstructed from documents discovered while processing Amacher’s personal archive, a project that has been central to Blank Forms’s formation and generated recurring programs and projects that underscore the artistic legacy of an understudied, historically marginalized composer.
While Amacher explored the physical and psychological attributes of musical experience, Corner's interdisciplinary works in dance, conceptual art, and action music reveal the ideological, cultural, and para-musical contexts of sonic art. In its support of works by Amacher and Corner, Blank Forms foregrounds such critical paradigms as fundamental components of each artist’s practice and historical status, providing listeners with a hybridized aesthetic and interpretive experience that goes beyond the production of a singular artwork to engender a deeper engagement with artistic intentions, processes, and evolutions.
* * *
Amacher is best known for spatially and psychologically affective electroacoustic music that explores “sound characters” and other enigmatic sonic objects that are difficult, or perhaps impossible, to identify (some of which Amacher referred to as “ghosts”). In this framework, certain sounds, including both physical inner-ear distortions and psychological combination tones, are not played by the players directly, but rather exist in the ears and minds of the audience as physiological and psychoacoustical phenomena.
The performances of Adjacencies at The Kitchen on September 29th and 30th highlighted how the work was among Amacher’s earliest investigations into harnessing such 'ghostly' sonic encounters in musical composition. The hour-length work casts sound as simultaneously present yet absent, both heard and imagined, by exploring shifting intensities of musical dynamics (i.e., loudness and quietness) and the interstitial spaces between tone and timbre (i.e., pitch and noise). The composition bears an influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who worked in nascent realms of electronic, spatial, and improvised music in the late 1950s and 1960s, and with whom Amacher studied in 1964. However, Amacher moved consciously beyond Stockhausen by attending to the psychology of sound and listening as a compositional strategy, rather than focusing entirely on the theoretical space of score or physical space of the site. Adjacencies was most engaging in moments of sustained gestures and sonic textures that appeared to morph while also staying acoustically static, such as a tapping of fingers on a bass drum or the methodical circular scraping of a bicycle wheel, which were premonitions of Amacher’s interest in droning continuity and microsonic development.
Adjacencies is scored for two percussionists and two sound engineers using a modified version of Stockhausen’s graphic notation system. Visually similar to his genre-defining solo percussion piece, Zyklus (1958), the score for Adjacencies uses abstracted images and verbal instructions to dictate specific instruments, actions, and techniques to be used by performers, but allows for individual interpretation of gestures and resulting sounds. For example, performers may be instructed to roll a specific mallet on a certain cymbal in a particular manner, but the exact sound produced will be unique to each performance, and highly informed by performer intuitions. On September 30th the percussionists, Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg of the percussion music quartet Yarn/Wire, played a variety of acoustic sounds that were amplified with over twenty microphones. The two engineers, Daniel Neumann and Woody Sullender, controlled the amplification levels and spatial distribution of sound within the theater's four-speaker system, using hand-prepared notes that mirrored the percussion scores. The sounds of electrified gongs, marimbas, and snare drums, as well as extra-musical objects such as bike wheels and industrial steel canisters, relayed around listeners during the performance, both concealing their sources and highlighting how Adjacencies was composed within spatial parameters, in addition to those of time, timbre, and dynamics.
The performance began with a soft bow-scraping and desultory plucking of strings on a table harp, which offered a consistent noisy sub-layer punctuated by atonal filigree (in a post-serial musical style). The work’s spatial component was quickly ascertained as sound spread over the room, surrounding the audience in a manner reinforcing that the performers were not only the percussionists on stage (ostensibly the people ‘making sound’) but also the table-sat engineers who organized sound signals in the mixing board, and ultimately in the cavernous black box space. Each engineer was paired with a percussionist, a fragmented quartet, and despite the impression that the duos played independently, each followed their parts on clockwork, at times signaling to each other inaudibly and syncing dramatically with a collaborative action that revealed the work’s underlying structure.
The piece’s subtle opening was followed by a loud gong strike and sustained soft-mallet cymbal washes. An unidentifiable deep bass, sounding like an electronic hum, persisted after the gong strike and appeared to vibrate ceaselessly within the room. The source, at first unknown, appears in retrospect to have been one of several amplification techniques that comprised the work, presenting the extended resonant frequencies of the gong, especially those on the threshold of audibility, in an unnaturally loud dynamic register. This process recurred throughout the work, resulting in novel moments where soft sounds, which would have been totally unheard by the audience, were amplified to the levels of more impactful noises. Accordingly, sounds naturally masked by louder gestures were paired and equalized in dynamics despite being extreme opposites, like softened flitting of the marimba’s surface heard over a hard gong strike. The exploration of noise as a counterpoint to pitch was a recurring theme, such as a dragging of rubber mallets on the metallic underside of a marimba, which produced surprising and otherworldly whale-like groans.
Amplification was also a key component of the composition, allowing the instruments to be transformed in intensity and spatial origin, producing a discrepancy between what was seen and heard. Amplification not only intensifies the volume and timbre of sound, but also confuses one’s perception of its position in the acoustic environment. The term “adjacencies” highlights listening as relativistic and ecological process, and foregrounds the composition’s relational structuring of score, performer, and audience. Indeed, an insightful program essay by UCSD musicologist Amy Cimini, an Amacher scholar and recurring Blank Forms contributor, deftly described the manners in which “Adjacencies casts sounds, instruments, bodies, ears, and built space into a delicate microdrama of shifting proximities,” an entropic space sublimating the composition into a broad field of sonic activity.
However, the mechanics of amplification equally presented problems for the performers. Adjacencies depends on a shifting of strike intensities (i.e., soft, medium, or hard) and loudness levels (i.e., quiet, moderate, and loud), a delicate interplay that posed a challenge for the sound engineers and percussionists, who were responsible for monitoring and adjusting their levels as suggested by the score, while also avoiding an electrical overload in the multichannel system. At moments in the performance, disparities of natural and artificial loudness (a core aspect of the piece) placed apparent physical strains on the speakers, resulting in searing pops, electrical flares, and, in turn, a slight discomfort among the audience. One listener overheard was grateful that they were able to sit through Adjacencies until its ending, despite their urge to flee the theater during intensely loud and disorienting moments. Such moments were uncommon, but phenomenally real, underscoring the affective powers of Amacher’s music from physical, psychological, and psychoacoustical perspectives. Nonetheless, the performers faced an incredibly daunting task of restructuring a work last played in 1966, and their exquisite realization likely secured Adjacencies within percussion music repertoire.
* * *
Continuing his legacy of challenging musical form, Corner performed a selection of new and canonical piano works at the San Damiano Mission in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a chilled Thursday, September 29th. The concert followed the pianist's much anticipated appearance at the Guggenheim Museum to realize Satie’s infamous Vexations (ca. 1893), a meditative composition to be performed 840 times successively. Corner first performed the work during a 1963 realization organized by John Cage, and with the Blank Forms program, Corner continued to show his regard for Satie as a life-long artistic influence. In addition to performing short works by Satie, Corner premiered his own piano composition, 2 chords of the Rose+Cross by Satie… as a revelation (2017), a lengthy composition that utilized dyadic chords, sparse arpeggios, and substantial silence. The work alchemized warm fluid tone-clouds, sourced from Satie's own austere Sonneries de la Rose+Croix (1892), with ambient noise from the church and street to recontextualize, and perhaps absolve, Corner’s destructive past.
“Thank you for the [beautiful] silence. There will be much more,” said Corner, offering a clue to the dominant theme of the evening. Silence was indeed prominent at the beginning of the concert, which featured single and solitary chords quietly repeated in succession, the gaps filled with subtle noise from the street and music from the courtyard of a nearby radio station. Silence, however, was eventually displaced (in fact, it had never existed) by chromatic iridescence as the composer released his foot from the dampener pedal, allowing colorful overtones to flourish and disintegrate in the open air above the piano. Much of the composition was formed not upon its recurring chords, as played on the keyboard, but after-the-fact as the tones resonated spatially, giving fleeting impressions of major and minor chords and swaying arpeggios that were not played by Corner on the keyboard. At times, the composition disintegrated clear boundaries between ‘composed’ and ‘found’ sounds, offering a listening environment that was richly material in addition to being highly conceptual.
The composition also evolved with shifting dynamics and tempo changes. Slow passages with an imperceptible rhythm, which pushed Satie’s own investigations of slowness (“lent,” as described by the composer, who also asked the pianists to play "detached but not dry"), were followed by quick and vibrant flourishes. Quiet tones, delicately played as Corner listened with concentration for any lingering tone-clouds to dissipate, were replaced by intensely hammered passages that exacerbated, and ultimately destabilized, the phantom chords. In their wake, the flame-like tonal beds were exchanged for tinny noises that overwhelmed the architecture of the small chapel and caused slight inner-ear distortions, a theme also explored by Amacher, who similarly explored listening as a compositional process.
Near the end of the composition, Corner signaled to an off-stage assistant to playback a taped recording of a past performance of a similarly themed work. The piece, Satie's Rose Cross As A Revelation (1990), was a live recording that contained ambient noise and speech by Corner and the dancer Phoebe Neville. Conversational and poetic phrases in French and German, such as “Leise, bitte” (“Quiet, please”) and philosophical inquiries into the acts of listening, looking, and self-doubling (“Looking at oneself from afar”) echoed a technological mirroring of the composer’s live and recorded gestures. As with Amacher’s Adjacencies, it was difficult to discern the “real” and “taped” performance (and, largely, besides the point).
Prior to his performance, Corner offered what he called a “reverence to the piano,” a sort of playful dance in which the composer stood silently before the instrument, arms outstretched for nearly five minutes. During this time, Corner slowly bent his body forward, bringing in his arms slightly, and eventually kneeled before the instrument as if receiving a blessing. Corner ultimately lowered down his head and gently placed it upon the keyboard, sounding several dissonant tones at once. The action, appearing meditative and restorative, may have been atonement for his prior “irreverence” in Piano Activities. Indeed, the concert ended with numerous renditions of Satie's other works, including the composer's melancholic and airy Gnossiene no.3 (1893), highlighting Corner's own joy as a pianist and also his unmistakable charisma as a performer.
* * *
In its multiple organizational contexts—curatorial, archival, and pedagogical—Blank Forms has manufactured a new and engaging model for producing, as well as preserving, time-based art. This model works especially well for works by artists who rest between disciplinary boundaries. These concerts—in addition to similar programs for artists such as Charlemagne Palestine, Yasuano Tone, Shelley Hirsch, Limpe Fuchs, and Matana Roberts—offered cross-generational perspectives on each artist from both historical and contemporary vantages. For example, Corner’s concert added invaluable artistic and personal context to his relationship to the piano and Satie as a musical inspiration, rather than reinforcing an art historical legend emphasizing a false iconoclasm. Likewise, Amacher’s Adjacencies was renewed, perhaps salvaged, by a year-long collaboration between its performers, researchers, and archivists, providing invaluable insight to a “forgotten” artwork. The re-performance of Adjacencies evidenced that the work deserves a future among those by Stockhausen, Varése, Cowell, Feldman, and Brown. However, the concert—as the names just listed—also highlighted how male domination of music history pushes others aside, conveying an urgency to reassess and account for works once considered “lost” for a variety of reasons, whether those are the frustrations of processing a disorganized archive, or the overwhelming undertows of institutionalized sexism in art and music history.
CHARLES EPPLEY is an art and music historian from Stony Brook University, where he researched interdisciplinary histories of sound in modern and contemporary art. His writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, Rhizome and Hyperallergic. His work can also be found in academic journals such as Leonardo Music Journal, Parallax, and Public Art Dialogue. He has taught courses in Art History, Music, and Media Studies at Pratt Institute, Fordham University, The New School, and Stony Brook University. Charles is the Curator and Managing Editor of Avant.org.