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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
Music

Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews

Edited by Amy Cimini and Bill Dietz
Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews
(Blank Forms, 2020)

The main and fundamental way to experience the work of any composer is to listen to their music. That’s obvious. But in the case of Maryanne Amacher, that’s almost impossible. Her discography, which in quantity never amounted to more than a handful of releases, now only shows the Blank Forms 2019 release of Petra and an earlier collection (1999) on Tzadik, Sound Characters, as currently in print. Just these two recordings capture the bulk of the audio records of her work.

But then, recordings, as valuable as they are, weren’t really right for Amacher. As she told musician and artist Barbara Golden during a December, 1985 interview on KPFA radio in Berkeley, "Because this project that I’m doing right now, it does involve staging sound throughout a house … it’s very difficult, because I don’t like to hear much of my music, even in a room, out of two speakers."

Amacher was discussing her Sound House installation, which was at the time ongoing at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, and the transcript of that interview is just one piece of the invaluable content in this book from Blank Forms Editions, which was published in December of last year in a limited hardcover run (paperback publication is pending). Blank Forms has been prominent in preserving and expanding Amacher’s legacy, not just through publications but via a three-day presentation in Philadelphia, in April of 2019, “Maryanne Amacher: Perceptual Geometries.” Produced 10 years after her death, that was an “interpretive architectural installation.” And though Martin Mull’s joke “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” comes to mind, it does pin down Amacher’s essence: she was an architect who used sound.

Though in the interview Golden and Amacher talk about classical piano music, Debussy, Mozart, and Stockhausen, thinking of Amacher as a composer—despite her own journey through music composition and the lovely, two-piano piece Petra—obscures her presence. Even after John Cage, the natural tendency is to consider organized sound as an act of music composition. But Amacher, though following Cage’s paths of giving much of the results over to chance and leaving the listener with the responsibility to determine what is and is not music, was not really a composer, and her own words reinforce this. Her main mediums were time, which is common to music, but also space and distance, especially enclosed spaces (like rooms in a house) and the distance between those and farther, public spaces. She didn’t organize sound, she transmitted it.

Projects like City-Links (1967–81) and In City, realized in places like Buffalo, Boston, and Minneapolis, used remote microphones and analog transmission to pull sound from various distant locations and feed it into a space for listening. With these, and Sound House, Amacher writes about two elements, the means of transmission (often phone lines) and the mixing board through which signals from remote sources would be combined, balanced, and retransmitted. This is all in her own words—the book includes press releases for her work she wrote herself, the public facing statement straight from the artist’s mouth—and while this book is indeed a mere, though substantial, introduction to her legacy (her archives are now at the New York Public Library), and doesn’t necessarily create a definitive place for her work, it does reveal a new perspective. Through that, her ideas and achievements become so much clearer. They appear simple, in fact, in the way that avant-garde art takes one simple idea and runs it through permutation after permutation, creating complexity and great beauty.

The clarity, beauty, and fundamental simplicity—and also utter sincerity—of her ideas and work make her intuitively comprehensible. There is a sub rosa but clear humanism to her thoughts that embraces the unknown and fascinating complexities that come from working with real life, real time sound materials. If I put a microphone in a park, what will I hear? Letting the answer take care of itself is marvelous, but not what composers normally do. Amacher is as much a listener as her audiences are.

Nor do composers normally not present you with their work. Even Cage, as much as he was working to get away from personal expression through music, and the emotional and intellectual confusion that could create, was still putting his own work in front of the public. Amacher, in contrast, was giving her audience windows into the world around them, places that, though they could not be present in, they could experience in real time, connections with distant points and distant people. Using sound meant something more intimate than what remote cameras can provide, and handling the mixing meant that she was adding her own skills and sensibilities to the process. She made architectures with sound, and invited you into her marvelous spaces.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues