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.


Nicholas Szczepanik said...

I just want to say how powerful this entry was for me. It really left a lasting impression on me and the little knowledge I have about Amacher's incredible installations.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Seth.

Steven said...

thank you, mr. nehil, for your wonderful post here. i unfortunately never had the chance to meet or see any of ms. amacher's work while she was with us, and only know her through her two (excellent) cd's. thus, i am in the position of those that did not get to experience her work as a living living thing.

i can only hope an archive can come quickly, due to what is noted above. even if we have to wait years, i would hope the pieces eventually are made available in a format that would be okay by ms. amacher. her two cd's have been more influential to me than most artists who devote their entire career to the recorded mediums.

thanks once again for sharing your experience of maryanne amacher. i would like to support any effort to keep her work in tact. please post any information if it becomes available. may she rest in peace.

steven flato

Seth Nehil said...

It seems my worries were somewhat unfounded. This from Micah Silver on Kyle Gann's blog:
"When Maryanne became ill, she had no structure in place to take care of her or her work. Early on she named her friend Robert The and I as her "power of attorney", neither of us fully understood what this even meant. She gave us some marching orders. Since late July, Robert and I have been working together closely to make sure that an archive is amassed and created to make public detailed information about her work. We'll be making a public announcement in a month or two detailing what will transpire over the next two years, but for those concerned, please know that we have, already, stabilized her materials and plan to make everything available online, for free. We're hoping to launch this comprehensive archive along with several other initiatives in the fall of 2011 to make sure that Maryanne?s work is placed not as a footnote, but as a milestone."

More info can be found at

Maryanne has been in my thoughts all day. Her work is such an amazing example of total integrity.