portrait #06 Maryanne Amacher

A portrait by Elisabeth Schimana & Lena Tikhonova [2013]

IMAfiction #06 13 Maryanne Amacher from IMA on Vimeo.

interviews and field recordings: Elisabeth Schimana | camera and filmediting: Elena Tikhonova | filmediting assistant: Olga Pohankova | music: Maryanne Amacher | sound editing: Elisabeth Schimana, Robert Eder | filmed in Vienna, Berlin and Kingston N.Y. | film format: 16:9 | language: English / German | subtitel: German / English | duration: 30 min

supported by niederösterreich kultur, bm:ukk, maecenia, ars electronica, singuhr-hörgalerie und The Maryanne Amacher Archive

Perceptual Geographies Helga de la Motte-Haber

Maryanne Amacher’s work is sometimes mistakenly taken for installation art. Kyle Gann referred to her in his book American Music in the Twentieth Century (1995, p. 284) as “one of the best installation artists.” Admittedly, she herself provoked this in an interview in 1988 (cf. Straebel, 2008, p. 36). What in fact she had meant was the technical arrangement of microphones. No More Miles – An Acoustic Twin (1974) was, however, a proper installation that took place at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis). In a reverberant exhibition space visitors were confronted, beside light and image (significantly, Man Ray’s photo Driver), with the sound of ‘ghost voices and footsteps’, which were being transmitted from a remote car rental agency. Amacher’s works can be classified as sound art, yet, like a piece of music, each usually has a beginning and an end.

As a composer, she was committed to the interaction of space, time, and sound which had taken on a particular importance in New Music. In 1967 she began the series City Links, and through 1980 she created a chain of works in which sonic events were transmitted from remote environments in real-time. In 1967 she mixed sounds transmitted from eight locations in Buffalo to create a 28-hour-long radio piece. She used the spaces where sounds originated like a gigantic synthesizer for an electroacoustic composition. In doing so, she focused on dimensions such as spatial depth or the localization of sounds, and thus on musical parameters through which simultaneously occurring events can be differentiated. Every traditional orchestra also produces such effects simply in the positioning of its instruments. Normally, this is only of secondary importance, but in electroacoustic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge for instance, it comes to serve as an extension of musical materials. Amacher’s use of the expression ‘Trio’ in Intelligent Life (1979) alludes to her genuinely musical understanding. In the New York harbor, the jazz musician George Lewis blew his trombone into a nearby microphone. This sound, along with the sounds of the harbor in the distance, was transmitted to Amacher’s studio, where John Cage read a text. All of this was transmitted to and mixed live at a concert in The Kitchen in New York. Three spaces and three musicians were the players. A theoretical reference point for Amacher was the concept of synchronicity as developed by Carl Gustav Jung in 1930. This concept was well received in the USA, particularly due to Jung’s friendship with Daisetz Suzuki. Jung conceived synchronicity (as opposed to mere synchrony) as a complementary principle to causality. Acausal, synchronously occurring events are seen as meaningfully connected even though their relationship cannot be explained by cause and effect. Synchronicity is a principle for understanding the world that offers meaningful explanations even beyond rationality – in the face of pure chance. In the beginning, Amacher defined synchronicity as the simultaneous hearing of distantly separated spaces, but already there was an emphasis on an aspect that was to play a role in her later work: the shift in consciousness that takes place when one listens beyond one’s own walls.

Begun in the 1980s, the multimedia works Music for Sound-Joined Rooms expanded her ideas about nearby sound objects with defined locations and others at unclear distances. Now, the simultaneity of various different acoustic phenomena was intensified by the presence of the listener in the space. Amacher meticulously and painstakingly studied the structures of each presentation space in an effort to create what she called ‘structure-borne sound’, sound which mirrors the site specific acoustic reflections, as opposed to ‘airborne sound’, sound transmitted merely by air waves. Loudspeakers might be mounted to directly face walls in order to make those walls’ acoustic features audible. Amacher created sound scenarios that staged sonic shapes as though they were physical bodies. Furthermore, spaces were connected among each other in this sonic theater. From a mixing console, the composer controlled multiple tape players producing intense, overtone-rich strata that moved through the spaces as polyphonic structures. The architecture was the point of departure. It was visually supershaped in 1987, for example, using stage props borrowed from the Berlin opera house, such as the severed head of Jochanaan from Salome, or a video flashing glimpses of a painting by William Blake. Slide projections of other places, people, and abstract ritual symbols were projected throughout the space. As the visitors moved freely through the space, it was as though they became animated silhouettes within the projections. Theatrical situations arose which incorporated the visitors. Amacher spoke of perceptual geographies: “I create scenarios to enhance perceptual geographies among mind, body and environment” (Tom Hight, 1981, p. 142). The dramatization of space via sound and light sought to integrate the perceiver and to expand his or her sensory experience. Amacher was convinced that new codes for perception were necessary, that perception itself required an evolutionary development. In one of her works, Sound House (1985), she included a copy of Olaf Stapleton’s 1930 book Last and First Men, opened to a page reading: “The third species was particularly developed in hearing and in emotional sensitivity to sound and rhythm.” Amacher was fascinated by biochemical and neurophysiological research. New neuronal processes needed to be stimulated. This also meant that she was attempting to transcend the bounds of perception. The volume of many of her works touched the absolute thresholds of human hearing. This was necessary, on the one hand, to produce virtual acoustic impressions, tones that did not exist in the radiated sounds themselves, but which arise at a given volume as difference tones through the interaction of sound waves. These ‘additional tones’ play a role in Edgard Varèse’s music. Utilizing intense sound pressure, Amacher made it seem as though tones were originating in the ear itself. To achieve this, she conducted precise calculations to generate frequency formations (cf. Rötter, 1987). She also tried to expand the lower perceptual threshold, where the human ear is not able to have sensations because of too low sound pressure, with the so called ‘aftersounds’. Described as ‘quiet’, the music she composed for Merce Cunningham’s ballet Torse (1976) made use of them. High-pitched tones that were no longer acoustically present continued to be perceived for roughly eight seconds, until new tones were introduced. Such after-images are produced both visually and acoustically because the iconic and echoic memory retain traces of direct stimuli beyond the duration of stimulation for a brief period before those traces fade. Such traces always play a role in listening to music. Without them, one wouldn’t be able to weave individual tones into melodies. Amacher explored these after-images much further, pushing the bounds of virtual perceptual experience to the limit.

Amacher’s works were temporary. Existing sound recordings only hint at their original impact. Since she always determined the arrangement of the loudspeakers directly on-site and according to special conditions, this information is lost to us now as well. What remains are not re-performable works, but documents that pose completely new philological and curatorial challenges. They also go beyond those of so-called site-specific works, whereby depending on how careful an artist is in keeping records, reenactment can be possible. Amacher created situations that were designed for specific spaces and require performative completion by the audience. The new aesthetic thinking of such ‘situational aesthetics’ (Victor Burgin) or of an ‘art contextual’ (Jan Swidzinski) existed as early as the 1960s, but did not re-emerge until recently with ‘esthétique relationelle’ (Bourriaud, 1998). There it has become an important subject of reflection on how a temporary art embedded in contexts and situations can be reconciled with gestures of preservation. Especially for sound art compositions, documents, left behind, pose enormous challenges regarding an appropriate presentation. Particularly for Amacher’s work, for which thoughts about the further evolution of cognitive capacities were so characteristic, this addresses indeed a new, but in the artist’s thinking a hardly unfamiliar aspect. It could contribute to the sustainability of the works.

Bourriaud, N. (1998), Esthéthique relationelle, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel
Gann, K. (1997), American Music in the Twentieth Century, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Thomson
Hight, T. (1981), The Arts (Music), Omni 4 (2), p. 32 and p. 142/3
la Motte-Haber de, H. (1992), In den Extremen der Dynamik. Maryanne Amachers Wahrnehmungslandschaften, Positionen 10, p. 33–36
Rötter, G. (1987), Maryanne Amacher: Die Dramatisierung der Musik durch den Raum, Jahrbuch Musikpsychologie 4, p. 97¬–99
Straebel, V. (2008), Zur frühen Geschichte und Typologie der Klangkunst, in: Klangkunst, ed. by U. Tadday, Munich: text und kritik, p. 24¬–46