Extremities: Maryanne Amacher

Extremities: Maryanne Amacher

April 16, 2004—4-5 p.m. Kingston, New York Videotaped by Randy Nordschow Transcribed by Molly Sheridan and Randy Nordschow As someone whose entry point into the vast world of musical repertoire has mostly been through collecting records and since the most unusual and unique things are usually the hardest ones to hear live, Maryanne Amacher has… Read more »

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Maryanne Amacher Photo by Randy Nordschow

Maryanne Amacher
Photo by Randy Nordschow

April 16, 2004—4-5 p.m.
Kingston, New York
Videotaped by Randy Nordschow
Transcribed by Molly Sheridan and Randy Nordschow
As someone whose entry point into the vast world of musical repertoire has mostly been through collecting records and since the most unusual and unique things are usually the hardest ones to hear live, Maryanne Amacher has always been something of an enigma to me.

A composer of vast, space-specific sonic panoramas at crushingly loud volumes, Amacher defies containment and commodification. When Tzadik finally released a CD of her music, I finally thought I was able to experience it. But actually, I hadn’t. Two speakers can’t really convey what she is doing in space and as an apartment dweller the kinds of volumes she demands would inevitably lead to an eviction.

Yet through listening and reading her essays on various subjects, especially her fascinating contribution to a panel on Cage’s influence where she spoke about creating a music that is somehow liberated from time, I felt compelled to talk to her.
We spent only about an hour in conversation—the unfortunate time constraints of a reality based on schedules—but it felt like it could have gone on forever. And, in some ways, it will…


The Role of Music

Frank J. Oteri: The work you do inhabits its own unique realm that is sometimes quite at odds with most of the presentational aspects we take for granted with most music: it’s really not meant to be listened to the same way in time, in space or in volume…So, how you feel about describing your work as music? How does it fit in with the history of music of the past and how it points to the music of the future?
Maryanne Amacher: Well that’s a difficult question [laughs]. Are you thinking of concert music?
Frank J. Oteri: I’m thinking of the role that music has had in society, the relationship people have to is as listeners, the context of concerts, recordings, how it’s assimilated, how it’s taught, how it’s learned, how it’s acculturated in different societies… What you’re doing seems to be somehow beyond that. Obviously it uses sound, tone, and timbre, but it’s doing something else.
Maryanne Amacher: I think I know how I can discuss that with you, but first I’m wondering if you’re thinking more of concerts because occasionally people react and say, “Oh, this is a real experience…” because of the staging and presentation. I guess it’s also because of the music, but I’m interested in making a very different situation for people. From the very beginning, I wanted to do experiential work. I was working with electronic means, therefore I could sit and observe various things. I could try to understand more about what was happening to my ears, to my body, all over.
I think I do music because I’m trying to understand. The ear-tones that I played for you are referred to as otoacoustic emissions. I heard those very early on when I was beginning to work, so I wanted to create a kind of music where the listener actually has vivid experiences of contributing this other sonic dimension to the music—the music that their ears are making. I’ve become very involved with situations like that. My approach is more like in science. This is not to say that music is not emotional and everything else. I sit and listen and I hear things, then I discover how I can expand them or increase them and try to understand them. I think of them as perceptual geographies actually. “Ways of Hearing”—how we hear things far away; how we hear things close. How suddenly in your head there almost is sound, continuing and continuing. It’s particularly effective after very strong sections with enormously long fades, but it has to be done in such a way that the sonic shapes are lingering in your mind afterwards.
I believe a lot of music, particularly as it developed from the past, was really a rearrangement of the figures of other men’s music—I’m not talking about sampling—but it’s just snatching little things and doing your own personalized sequence in time. Whereas, I think my tendency was to become much more involved in the so-called physics—I don’t like the word psychoacoustics—both of music and how our perceptual experience changes when sounds are just traveling around here and it sounds like it’s miles away, when it seems like it’s only in your head…
Frank J. Oteri: You studied with Stockhausen and he was certainly a forerunner of the work you do. He was one of the pioneers of having multiple speakers and later, he did a work that was an entire house, every room had different music happening on it.
Maryanne Amacher: I think I was fortunate in that the first electronic music I heard was in Cologne on multiple speakers. Being a fan of Varèse, I immediately connected to imagining the spacialization of sound, and then to have had the wonderful opportunity to study a little bit with Stockhausen, it was just incredible.
Frank J. Oteri: But at the same time, there’s something so human about the music that you’re creating and how people’s ears are responding. It’s so fundamentally human in some ways even though it’s all created with machines, with electronics. There’s something wonderfully contradictory and beautiful about that. This is somehow a music that could only be created in our lifetime. Maybe you could get strings or the human voice to do this…
Maryanne Amacher: Of course.
Frank J. Oteri: But that’s not what you do. Is that something you’d be interested in doing?
Maryanne Amacher: Well, of course I could but the advantage for me is I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re machines or computers but I think what was of value was the possibility of being able to work this way, that you do sound explorentally—you could sit and listen and observe things, observe shapes.
There is a situation when you have architecture as I’m describing it—physical architecture, these larger spaces. It is a very communal thing and because of the dimensions of the space itself connecting to the music in the way it does, it creates a very liberating experience. I mean, people dance. It’s very different than if you’re in a small place or particularly if you’re keeping your seat.
Frank J. Oteri: There’s something sort of imprisoning about sitting in a concert hall and having to be quiet.
Maryanne Amacher: Well it’s not even that. I think it’s known that you actually experience sound better when you move, which also connects to dancing.
Frank J. Oteri: When you were playing your work for us you said make sure to move all around.
Maryanne Amacher: Yeah, and it’s fun to move your head and to kind of dance.

Aural Architecture

Frank J. Oteri: Some of the words you’ve used to describe your work are: architecture, choreography, and neurobiology. You’re really using sound architecturally. That’s sort of a different construction. Music historically and culturally seems to exist as a social behavior that occurs over time. What my ears are hearing seems more like a sonic architecture occurring in space rather than developing over time.
Maryanne Amacher: I actually do think of it more as an aural architecture. I think of it quite literally in terms of architecture itself. When I’m able to have the opportunity to make a large installation, I learn the acoustics of the place, and I can work in more than one room: I may have 6, I may have 4, I may have 7 rooms, or the entire structure. All of that began not because I had a fixed notion. Really it began because I hated loudspeakers. I was working in electronic media, so it was quite a contradictory thing. I was always interested in the spatial aspects of sound. I discovered that maybe if I put the speaker in there [points to the kitchen]—the way that you heard it from another room became much more rewarding. I could make a virtual meta-space, so you wouldn’t get the sense of these [gestures to a nearby loudspeaker] boxes.
Frank J. Oteri: In terms of the space that you’re creating for a listener, to some extent the listener creates his or her own space because there’s no predetermined path. If you have sound coming out of 6 rooms…
Maryanne Amacher: No, it’s like a sonic choreography. I have to think of the scenario, otherwise everyone would just walk around and the experience would not be vivid. Usually on a large work, I work there for three weeks. It’s like creating a narrative. I realized that there were sonic characters and they could appear and interact with each other.
It’s very interesting how people walk in a main space. How do they know something is part of the composition? Maybe you pass out something and half the people don’t read it. I might have something in a distant room that draws them to it. I’m always performing between these rooms. I still maintain that I like the intensity of this directness of performing, even though the installation is all the work that went in beforehand.
Frank J. Oteri: So what constitutes a performance? What is a performance?
Maryanne Amacher: It’s just me mixing. Of course there are visual elements, and the performance with the people, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m mixing live and I’m connecting with an audience rather than just having this on a hard drive.
Frank J. Oteri: And the mixing that you’re doing, you’re responding to the audience as they are there, so there is an element of improvisation to it, if you would? How much of it is predetermined?
Maryanne Amacher: See that’s when you get into this funny area. [laughs] Music is crazy… it’s insane. Of course I’m improvising. But I’m not improvising the notes.
Frank J. Oteri: Right. The notes are there, prerecorded.
Maryanne Amacher: Yes, or else I might be making them with samplers or something, but I’m not having the notes come out of my head. What I’m doing is, again, dealing with these perceptual degrees, degrees of sensitivity, degrees of intensity, and things like that. Not the notes because you can play something a million different ways.
Frank J. Oteri: In a weird sort of way you’re almost doing what a conductor does with an orchestra. Bringing out the woodwinds in a certain passage, etc…
Maryanne Amacher: Yes. I never thought of it that way, but it is like that because the basic music is in a way very raw. It’s nothing without the oomph. I mean I’ve come back from these works to where we’re sitting now and it takes me over a month to be able to even hear. I have learned what I’ve been able to learn because I have worked in these situations.


Frank J. Oteri: You formulate ideas in your studio before they ever have a life as a work in the space they are intended for. What sort of process generates the decisions that you make here about the pitch content, let’s say? We talked about pitches and they’re all done beforehand. Are there systems at play that generate the pitch content?
Maryanne Amacher: Well, I’m concerned with various tunings. That’s one thing.
Frank J. Oteri: Microtonal scales?
Maryanne Amacher: Sure. And I’m very interested in what are called second order effects in psychoacoustics, which are not the ear phenomena when you tune very close—when you do it with unison it has to be binaural or else you just get beats—but when the beats disappear and you get closer and closer to the 3rd or the 5th or whatever interval and it turns into a shape. I’ve always been very preoccupied with these different shapes, and of course I have particular frequencies I like, too. But it’s the shapes, when it gets really slow and huge, and you’re not hearing the beats but it is a beat frequency that’s producing the shape. It’s something that I’ve experienced, again, only because I work experientially.
I used to move from studio to studio always trying to tune these oscillators to get these things. [Sigh] They would drift and it was making me crazy. Once I got locked into the Queens studio all weekend and it was 98 degrees. After that I thought I was never going to do this kind of work again until I had my own setup.
Shortly after that it was great to read this article in Scientific American called “Auditory Beats in the Brain” [October 1973]. The author, biophysicist Gerald Oster, did many experiments and people experienced these different shapes as spirals… They perceived them in the experiments he made. It was really helpful to me. I later met him in New York.
Frank J. Oteri: Now, in terms of perception, most of the music around us these days—whether it’s commercial popular music or classical music, jazz, or even most experimental music—is created within a pitch grid of twelve-tone equal temperament and anything else is somehow alien. The ear can hear so much more than that, yet if you’re not acclimated to it, you might perceive anything else as indistinguishable or as being out of tune. Anyone should be able to hear a just interval like a pure 5th, a pure 3rd, or a natural 7th, an extraordinarily beautiful interval which hadn’t existed in most music until contemporary composers started using it again. How important for you is audience perception? Is it important to you that they hear what you’re hearing?
Maryanne Amacher: I’m not sure we always hear the same things, but I think what I was just talking about with pattern modulation, when you get these shapes, I think everyone experiences that. I don’t know if it’s so much a matter of everyone experiencing what I’m experiencing. But I would like it, whatever it is, to be vivid and have a kind of reality to it. It’s not based on some kind of habit. These are vivid experiences. Yours might be different than mine… I don’t think I could do it with two speakers. I don’t even like to do it with multi-speakers, with 15 speakers all around because all this direct sound loses a kind of magic.
Frank J. Oteri: In a book about John Cage that you contributed an essay to, you brought up something that I thought was so interesting about how music is packaged. We have this notion that everybody has to have the same experience of a pop song or a Mozart recording. You have a big audience that comes to hear a performance and they all should be hearing the same thing, but in fact no one hears the exact same thing. Each person is different and does not hear things the same way. As you said, a work of art, a painting, or a sculpture, is a singularity, only one of it exists. You might reproduce it in a book, but it’s not the work. Whereas with music, we have a notion that it’s reproducible. There can be 1,000 copies of a recording of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or the latest Ricky Martin pop single, and they’re exactly the same. But the reality is much subtler than that. Each person has his or her own music and that is something that hasn’t really been addressed in the history of music.
Maryanne Amacher: I have no doubt that will be one part of music in the future. Today with all the customization and tailoring, you no longer have to necessarily think about music for millions. Music can be for millions, but it can actually be tailored for a specific individual. Just yesterday a chemist at UCLA who used techniques from nanotechnology took yeast cells and made a nanodevice which he used to discover that the cells produce sounds. It’s not proven yet. These were just yeast cells, which were supposedly emitting a frequency that could be heard. The frequency was about a C-sharp or D one octave about middle C. They’re very hopeful that if it’s proven, it could be very beneficial for health purposes. This connection of music to certain cells is basically what I talked about in the article about Cage. The person creating the music may eventually be able to create certain movements in the cells themselves. Living Sound, Patent Pending, which I made in 1980, was one of the projections.
Not too long ago there was a microbiologist in San Diego and he spilled this sample on a CD, a music CD. He didn’t realize it right away and he tried to put it in the player and of course it didn’t play. Because he was very clever he worked out this whole idea—which I can’t explain well right now—of the genetic detecting of the protein molecules, which is an expensive operation. These machines are like $300,000 in each lab. He was able to do that, maybe not quite as exact, but using this crazy technique and an ink jet printer that he got at a garage sale for $20. He wasn’t talking about it producing sounds, see that’s the catch.
I just made my first work in this futurist projection, which is really just quite fun. I didn’t have anything else, so I put my blood on the CD, and of course I put some sound. I called it Interactive Precursor, First Protein Modulation; I can show it to you.
Frank J. Oteri: Yeah, at some point maybe.
Maryanne Amacher: But then I thought more and more about it. Won’t it be fantastic because everyone says, “Oh, CDs. We’re just going to get everything from streaming live.” So this will be a great use for a CD. Then, you know, you can mix different things like our bloods and so on and see how that interacts with the music [laughs].
Frank J. Oteri: When we first came over and you were playing us your work, we heard it in a whole different way. In terms of the physical nature of different people responding to sound in different ways and it being a personalized experience for everybody, you discovered something very early on that’s been a very key part of your vocabulary, and this is this music for the “third ear.” As I listened I actually felt something. I felt my ear vibrating. It was startling. I felt it listening to the disc before, but I never felt it as strongly as I did this afternoon. It was a very intense physical experience. I think the only other time I’d ever felt it was when music had been too loud and it was painful. It’s something we’re actually taught to avoid. But this wasn’t painful. This was something else. It was actually rather the opposite of painful. It felt like my ears were being tickled. It is a very, very interesting phenomenon. How did you first stumble upon these sounds? How do you use them? Why do they do that? How did you get my ears to do that?
Maryanne Amacher: First of all it’s another one of those things that I observed very early. It was all part of this notion of perceptual geographies. In 1977, the theory was proven—even though this was postulated by Thomas Gold in 1948—that the ear actually emits sound as well as receives it. So there are laboratories all over the world dedicated to this. Now see, this is what I think is funny about music—none of us know this. What in the world are we doing? I mean really to compose consciously. I’ve been trying half of my life to get this program where I can really know that if I choose a second combination of tones that this low D-sharp is going to have a certain kind of timbre that my ear is making, a certain quality, rather than if I choose another one. I really want to know this, because this same low D-sharp of 77hz will sound from many different intervals. You know it’s a bit obscured by the timbres, right? But our ears are doing this all the time. So these things can be reinforced or they can be enhanced for a more vivid experience in the music you create.
Frank J. Oteri: You played us a QuickTime file of an organist playing the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, with video of what it was doing to someone’s ear. The more voices that were added to that famous chord in the beginning, the more things started appearing in the ear as a response. So if this has been a part of all the music we hear, why is it that until I heard your music this afternoon, I wasn’t aware of it?
Maryanne Amacher: It’s just so strange about music. [laughs] I don’t know. I guess that’s what fascinates me with it because this is a very fundamental thing. And, not only that, in laboratories they test hearing this way and they test babies and you can actually listen to another person’s ear, even. These are called otoacoustic emissions or SOAEs. If you’re in a quiet enough place some people actually are able to hear the sound that’s coming out of another person and this is not stimulated by sound.
Frank J. Oteri: But this has never been part of the vocabulary. This is not part of the vocabulary of music in any culture, or at least not the conscious vocabulary as far as I know…
Maryanne Amacher: Not so true, I mean look at all the Tibetan and Mongolian people singing to make those results. I’m sure they know what they want to make and they have conscious effects. Maybe they don’t think about it the same way. It’s even speculated that in really vivid performances of, you know, concertos or what have you, people are bringing out some of these qualities. What’s exciting for me is because all this has sort of been subliminally experienced in our music, because of the complexity of the overtones and everything, it’s exciting to think of the kind of energy that could be released when it’s not suppressed anymore. Imagine an audience in a concert hall just creating this music that’s a part of the string quartet at the same time.
Frank J. Oteri: So there are certain combinations of frequencies and timbres that will do this?
Maryanne Amacher: Well, what I just played for you for example, is something that I just make intuitively. I don’t know actually what’s going on because you could listen to that, not that you’d want to, but you could listen to it for 24 hours or something and you’d still get the effect. The other kind of choice is what are called first, second, and third order difference tones. Now, we’re getting these all the time in electronic music and sometimes it sounds like you know a funny modulation or funny garble and you think it’s timbre. It’s not—your ear is doing that. Your ear is making a lot of these funny sounds. It’s not necessarily the electronics at all. But you know it’s quite a challenge because you would habituate. You would get the experience and then suddenly, you would become desensitized to it. You would know it. Part of the craft is how you would remove this if you chose to do that.

All-Time Music

Frank J. Oteri: I’d like to get back to your essay in the book about Cage after what you just said about listening to something for 24 hours. This is one of the things that really got me very excited about talking to you and there’s this quote that appears in that same essay that reinforced it. You wrote: “As the possibilities of all-sound music of the future were to Cage, the possibilities of all-time music are to me. In theory, years, weeks, days minutes, seconds will be possible.” So there no longer needs to be this notion of a piece of music, a string quartet that’s half an hour long, or a three-minute pop song, or a two or three-hour opera. Your music seems to exist beyond time; it’s not really about time, at least not in a metrical sense…
Maryanne Amacher: Not that kind of time, it’s more like the time in life when something appears and disappears and maybe you don’t hear it again for a half hour, you may not hear it for an hour. Suddenly a boat appears after five hours and it gets closer and closer, you know, and makes an approach. It’s time like that because we have the means now to do that.
Frank J. Oteri: But when you create a work you don’t think about whether something is going to last 20 minutes or 2 hours? Or do you?
Maryanne Amacher: Well, as a composer I am fascinated by this. I see what I wrote about in that article as really an expansion of even classical music, of phrase structure. We used to call it the elemental line. It’s like you’re trapped, one thing has to come after another. It was always my obsession to get out of the elemental line. I studied medieval metaphysics and I used to try to think of ways of making a macrostructure. Particularly, if you’re trained as a musician you do this or that because this is the right note to play and it’s all based on habit. I did a psycho-analysis of all my musical habits in order to try to stretch them. How you decide what comes after which is another arbitrary thing. It’s more effective with these after-sounds if you let the sound go completely out of the head, which could last eight minutes or longer. You know I once did that in a work with Merce Cunningham. It was such a glorious kind of experience…
Frank J. Oteri: Last season, as part of the all-David Lang concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Alarm Will Sound performed The Passing Measures which lasts for about an hour or so. At the end of the piece, the conductor stopped and didn’t signal it was over, and there was this silence for maybe two minutes.
Maryanne Amacher: …Oh, that’s beautiful…
Frank J. Oteri: After about two minutes somebody finally broke it by starting to clap. But for those two minutes, time stood still. That silence at the end I thought was the most stunning music I had ever heard live in a concert hall. And it was incredible because it wasn’t silence, it was a lingering uncertainty…I love David’s piece but for me the silence was even better than the piece.
Maryanne Amacher: Because you had time, and it is true. There is a part of timing when one thing ends and another thing begins that actually is another thing that as composers we should be probably more conscious of manipulating and controlling.

The Problem with Recordings

Frank J. Oteri: You played us some excerpts and they were these cyclical things that happened and we didn’t hear it in its entirety. Is it important to hear the entire thing?
Maryanne Amacher: Well I don’t know if it is on the CD. It certainly is in the actual hall. Some people relate to CDs better than me. I have a little problem with it.
Frank J. Oteri: Let’s talk then about live performances where people will go and hear this work that exists in four rooms. Does this work then have a beginning, middle, and end? Do people show up at a certain time?
Maryanne Amacher: No, they show up at the beginning. For a while I did another series called the Mini-Sound Series. It got more and more interesting the more I did it in different places because the idea was like television where the story continues the next week, and it was a fascinating involvement with the audience. It was not continuous music. We can make sounds go on for as long as we want. I’m more interested in making appearances and things like that.
The end you spoke of with David’s piece, I’ve experienced that a number of times, I mean with my own work.
Frank J. Oteri: So there is an ending, there’s an actual ending?
Maryanne Amacher: Oh, yes. My first work was doing more or less pure installation work with these City Links pieces in which I brought in remote sounds. I had microphones in different remote environments and brought up those sounds in the gallery or museum or wherever. It also involved performance. The sound was alive and it came through high quality telephone lines—people always thought I was playing a cassette. It was just hard for them to realize at that time that this was actually live sound. It was also very interesting to have more than one location and the kind of simultaneous synchronic things that would happen. You know, there are no laws.
Frank J. Oteri: Well, let’s talk about connecting to the music world. There is this CD out on Tzadik which is fantastic and it’s gotten rave reviews all over the place, yet somehow it doesn’t represent your work. To use a visual analogy, it’s only a photograph of it. We’re living in a society where recordings are the way people’s work gets transmitted. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, yet most of the music I have heard I have not heard live. I’ve heard it because of an LP or a CD or a radio broadcast or from the Web. It’s a blessing and a curse. It means that we can hear more music now than we’ve ever been able to hear anywhere. We have a wider vocabulary, but it’s also limiting because we only get these “photographs” of music…
Maryanne Amacher: Well, I think a lot of music is much more thrilling live. But it doesn’t bother other people making music. It’s just my thing because as I say I can’t even listen to my own studio when I come back from having wonderful architecture where I’m able to make my music. If I were doing just purely beat music, or even those ear effects, that’s only a question of playing them. But my music is so dense and has so many parts that to me it sounds like all these spirits are trapped in these boxes [gestures to a speaker] trying to get out and it sounds very harsh. Right now I’m very excited because I’ve never heard any of my music at the higher sampling rates and I think that will make a difference. It’s never going to be the same as architecture but at least maybe these parts won’t be so trapped and you’ll be hearing some of the dimension.
We were talking earlier about what I’m doing when I’m actually creating and of course I talked about the perceptual things, but it’s a mystery because when I go somewhere, like de Maastunnel in Holand, I had this music that I didn’t understand half of until I worked with it in the place. But why did I make it here? It’s a mystery, so what am I doing? It’s so dense because it has a lot of parts. Maybe my brain just can’t deal with it and I’m imagining the sound that I get when it’s in one of these architectures. I think that’s also what people do that enjoy some of this dense music on CD because they’re imagining, which in itself is very interesting because I would like to dream that I could make music that triggered another music in the listener’s mind. I think to me it’s almost more interesting than the music itself really.
Frank J. Oteri: A few years ago everybody though the hot thing was going to be 5.1 surround sound. Starkland asked a bunch of composers to write new pieces for 5.1 surround sound and they put them out on a CD. Pamela Z did a piece; Meredith Monk did a piece… But, in a way, if two speakers trap ghosts of your sounds in a box, 5.1 gives you three more speakers…
Maryanne Amacher: But still you get the dregs. A lot of people say you need over 20 or something like that. I don’t think I would like that. I wish you could just spray it. Just get into the ions, excite the ions.