Saturday, October 24, 2009
Maryanne Amacher (viva)
About a week ago I was up late into the night, reading the liner notes to Maryanne Amacher's two CDs, Sound Characters and Sound Characters 2 (Teo!). I was filled with conflicted emotions, hearing her sounds and voice. I was reminded of her brilliance as a composer and thinker. Her crystalline intelligence shines through these works, but so does a kind of cracked, other-wordly perception. The most recent CD struck me as especially bizarre, her writing littered with unlikely exclamation! points!! and a passionate, eccentric, expanded awareness of cosmological events. At the same time, the music sounds heavily processed and smeared with digital artifacts - the warbled interpolation of extreme pitch shifting and other software-driven manipulations. I was (and am) filled with both deep admiration and sadness encountering this work. I remembered how instrumental she was in my acceptance into the Bard MFA program and her visible excitement in listening to the grinding, piercing noise of my CD Uva, which was included in my application. Maryanne remained a teacher and mentor during my time at Bard and, for a year or so after, I could expect occasional late night phone calls... This summer, I heard about her poor health, and I couldn't help but wonder about her well-being, and those shelves of decaying reel-to-reel tapes on the second floor of her falling-apart house in Kingston, NY.
That night, I had a dream about Maryanne - we were engaged in a collaboration, sharing ideas and sounds, deep conversations. In the morning, it passed through my thoughts "Maybe she's dying..." Yesterday, I learned that Maryanne Amacher has passed away at the age of 71.
Maryanne didn't compromise on anything. She never had money. She rarely paid attention to her body, forgetting to eat or sleep while composing. Her overgrown, decrepit house was the subject of vandalism, seen by neighborhood kids as a "witches house". And no wonder! Strange, spooky sounds drifted from the windows at 4am, deer wandered through the yard eating foliage, squirrels invaded and finally overtook the entire 3rd floor of her gothic house.
Most especially, Maryanne didn't compromise on her music. For many years, she refused to release her music on LP or CD, claiming that the sounds coming out of those "wretched boxes" could only be a faint approximation of her work. While working on an installation, she would spend months in an exhibition space, moving speakers one inch to the left or right - literally playing the architecture.
Maryanne always thought at the edges of the possible. She imaginined a use of DVDs to release 6 hour compositions, with long silences between sounds - allowing the listener an entirely different relationship with the music, one that she considered more organic, more alive. She was waiting for the next step in audio fidelity to master her many unreleased compositions. She theorized that a 196k sampling rate actually begins to mirror the speed of neurons, producing a huge leap in clarity and vividness of the sounds.
Reading the liner notes for Teo!, you can feel her struggle with the decision to release this work. The sounds may be created and contained in recorded media, but they are NOT recorded works. They are produced for specific sites and situations, designed to respond to living spaces, breathing acoustics, dynamic surroundings. She asks the listener to imagine these sounds streaming out of 48 speakers, in geometric configurations, surrounded by the traffic and noise of a busy Mexico City plaza. This, of course, is an impossibility, and we are left with a flattened, contained representation of the work, not the work itself.
During my last year at Bard, after the vandalism of Maryanne's home, I had a fantasy of archiving all those endangered reel-to-reel tapes. These are artifacts which deserve to be stored in a temperature-controlled room at MIT, or in the basement of the NY Public Library. Maryanne was an absolute pioneer in the field of sound installation, a "guru" of electronic music, and a composer of astounding skill and vision. This work must not be lost to the squirrels and rain! But I soon realized what a task it would be. It would require living in Kingston for at least a year, carefully baking each tape (to keep the magnetic coating from separating from the plastic and falling in a pile of dust on the floor) before digital transfer. It would require grant writing, and the support of some major institution. Most especially, it would have required the help and support of Maryanne herself - something which could not be counted on, as I learned when publishing her 1977 paper on "Perceptual Geography" in the pages of FO A RM 3. I'm not sure what has happened or will happen to the Amacher archives.
In the end, perhaps this all makes sense. Maryanne Amacher insisted on treating her sound as a living thing. The experience is the art, not some mass-produced product. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to experience one of her brilliant, beautiful installations. Like all living things, those too have passed away.