The Death of Maryanne Amacher

(Originally published in Chicago Art Criticism)


Until recently one could take a unique solace, that alone on a hill in upstate New York a mad thinker was hard at work manufacturing sounds never heard before, and wild futuristic theories previously unthunk. One didn’t need to know what exactly the sonic research was, how the madness manifested specifically, or the current state of the musical art; all one needed to know was that the visceral imagination would go on plodding sans distraction, and that some sort of abstract formulation of auditory utopia was in the making. Maryanne Amacher’s eccentric, modernist sound art slipped under the radar of a music society moving in a much different trajectory. Up on the hill, the forging of a new ideology towards music took shape within the music itself. Symbolically speaking, the recent death of Maryanne Amacher is the rapid decline of an era of avant-garde utopianism in music. As one of the early pioneers of modern electronic music, Maryanne Amacher represented a certain school of thought arising out of post-war America, which was blatantly fascinated with technological advances as a method out of historical compositional problems. This type of mid-century avant-garde music had numerous expressions, most prominently music concrete, which spread from France to Japan and as far as ‘Persia’, to American minimalism. Composers previously trained on acoustic instruments rapidly eschewed their backgrounds on the basis of its orthodoxy, and identified early computers, modular synthesis, impulse generators, tape, and other state of the art technologies as the blatant inversion of stagnation in musical imagination. Karlheinz Stockausen was arguably the first to formalize electronics as an answer to a problem in music history, and the first to create a formalized ideology rooted in an electronic music that could potentially answer these problems. For Stockhausen electronics were the first clean slate for music, as sounds could be ‘built’ and constructed more truthfully in accord with the composer’s pure imagination— and with such a blank slate the previous aesthetic world would rapidly disintegrate. Electronic material always manifests out of ideas not-so-freely floating around technological innovation and clever constructions within technique. Stockhausen’s was an ideological paradigm and a utopic program — one which Amacher studied, interpreted, and reconstructed.

Much of Stockhausen’s experiments were idiosyncratic of his vision — he more or less invented the impulse generator as a way to manipulate tone from the most basic of constituents - short clicks (fractions of a second) arranged in endless permutations to give the impression of variably continuous tone or rhythm. But these experiments were always the by-product of a mind visualizing something far greater. Compared to Stockhausen’s vivid imagination of musical potential, the actual manifestations of that music were paltry. It’s no wonder that what lingered from these experiments would bifurcate into wild, purely rhetorical futuristic ideology on the one hand, and the confluence of physical materials like impulse generators, software, and endless streams of effects units, on the other. The difference between such an imagination and the material manifestations was too great to breach. Music today as a whole unquestionably gravitates towards the pure material side of this split, and perhaps the mobilization of a contemporary avant-garde music (or lack thereof) suffers from the degradation of an idealism bound up in its material.

Maryanne Amacher’s life work can be understood as an imperfect synthesis of these two unbreachable sides. Compositionally speaking, Amacher clearly identified with Stockhausen’s, Cage’s, and LaMonte Young’s observation that the history of western music was dominated by the themes of Time, and tone, and that the obsession with working these 'materials' wasn't enough to overcome the impasse. Though all dealt with the issue in their own way, Amacher clearly intended to use technological advances as a way out of time-based music. LaMonte Young likewise used technological innovations to build a more complete experience of time through the listening body. But whereas LaMonte Young’s music was vehicular for a countercultural spiritual mysticism, Amacher’s project lay in the fundamental experience of body and sonority itself. She simply could not develop a cohesive metaphysic, though she tried. Her naively obscure writing provoked images of a society running on nothing other than auditory impressions and the ability to freely spray sound. Simply put, she believed in a sound art for the everyday. Maryanne Amacher’s sound art was a modernist expression, where nothing but material sensation is recorded, if only to show the illusion and process of that same sensation. It was a type of 'absolute music'.

Sound art as a field only arises out of an abandonment of time. Tonality and space became tools for the composer to either escape from history or resolve the impasse of time-based composition. Maryanne Amacher was regularly vehement in her abstract writings about trying to get away from the “what follows what next” fetters of composition, which was perceived as stifling. Though she did not develop a metaphysical ideal, she did have a very materialist, (almost naively so) and futurist vision of the world as a set of sensational sounds, almost purely empirical in nature. She advised students to read JG Ballard’s Vermillion Sands because of its projection of a future society where sound can be sprayed liberally and freely out of the most banal everyday devices. The current state of technology was never good enough for her, and she provoked discontent in her readers by lambasting the stiffness of loudspeakers and their inability to dynamically present sound.

In accordance with these ideas, Amacher worked resolutely as an installation artist, eschewing anything which couldn’t resolve the viewers listening body in space. This program infamously postured a denial of recording formats. The futurist ideology of a live music emanating in everyone’s body was absolute. Maryanne Amacher’s ideals of a live music never wavered or buckled under pressure, even as so many pleaded with her to release recorded music. There was nothing casual about it. Early on she was reliant on a more intellectual form of interactive space, probably best represented by her Citylinks project, where she relayed into a gallery space sounds from various environments in diverse cities via phone lines. In distinction to the hopes that these environmental sounds would mix generatively, she later began to work more intuitively with visceral sound. In her Music For Sound Joined Rooms, and Mini-SoundSeries, Amacher began to use sound literally as a physical substance by passing it through structures, in effect transforming entire buildings into active loudspeakers themselves. And of course, Maryanne Amacher is probably best known for her strange, beautiful, and completely singular use of psychoacoustics that provoked listeners’ ears to make their own sounds, a sensational effect that needed to be experienced live to be understood. Maryanne Amacher was truly a master of her material, and anyone who experienced one of her rare performances was simply awed by things she could do to their bodies with sound, in ways most music producers could not come close to. Compared to Amacher’s visceral, multi-dimensional sound, even the most aggressive noise music seems childishly one-dimensional and weak.

But as legendary as her performances were, and regardless of how sublime the physical experience was (and that is the only word which can even remotely represent it) her art was simply not what the field of more recent sound art was interested in, and her state of art fell into degradation through marginalization. There was no utopian infrastructure to support her fantasy. Artists like Florian Hecker to a degree reanimate the psychoacoustic, sensational interests that Maryanne Amacher so ardently posited as the future of sound. But the art of Florian Hecker is more like a laboratory for commenting on the values of such mid-century composers. Although the laboratory must test the sounds of the ideal, it is a far distance away from believing in them. Maryanne Amacher was the best example of an artist who dreams the dream and lives its sensations. Maryanne Amacher’s ‘third ear music’ was an original Nietzschean terror of art and science. The dream is now over and we are now in the throes of analyzing it historically. Maryanne Amacher’s death represents the continual end of this collective dream of sensation.