Edited by Amy Cimini and Bill Dietz
Blank Forms, 2021
Dedicated to presenting and preserving experimental time-based work, the non-profit arts organization Blank Forms has fulfilled its mission most lovingly and exhaustively with experimental composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher (1938–2009). Blank Forms celebrated its 2016 inauguration with a seminar and listening session dedicated to her work and has devoted over 10 percent of its programming to reviving notated works, studying her career, and presenting guided access to audio documentation of works otherwise unpublished. At the culmination of these years of groundwork, 2020 saw the placement of Amacher’s archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the publication of Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews under the Blank Forms imprint. The latter writings—selected and contextualized by composer Bill Dietz and historical musicologist Amy Cimini—are drawn almost exclusively from those previously unpublished archival materials, spanning excerpted scores, correspondence with the artist’s mentor and collaborator John Cage, grant proposals (too frequently, rejected), and notes from her self-guided research.
If Dietz and Cimini’s introductory thesis—that Amacher’s rejection of the status quo in music constituted a social utopianism—is a little overstated, it is nonetheless apt to assert that Amacher was an artist before her time in all the vision and frustrated ambition that the characterization suggests. Amacher eschewed the familiar contexts of concert presentation and recorded music to work instead with serialized sound installations that rewarded careful listening with rich, sensorial experience. As a student, Amacher studied under the avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007), and his influence is present in the Punctualist explorations of her early instrumental compositions, as well as in her ongoing investigation of spatial sound.
But Amacher largely left the world of instrumentalized and notated composition in 1967. Driven by the conviction that conventional music (“horse rhythms”) underutilized the human ability to hear, she forged new areas of technical auditory research in recorded, transmitted, and synthesized sound. Evading the limitation of music to “ONE-PLACE situations ALL THE TIME,” the performance series of “City Links” (ca. 1967–1981) drew on live transmission of sound from diverse sites, which Amacher then mixed and layered with the native sounds of the architecture in which she was performing. One such “link” connected Pier 6 in the Boston Harbor to Amacher’s studio at MIT from 1973 to 1976. Through this serial experiment, Amacher attempted to activate the spatial mapping that the human ear can naturally interpret from audible information. Even more astounding was Amacher’s investigative work with a phenomenon she dubbed “ear tones,” known in the medical community as otoacoustic emissions—sounds emitted by the ear in response to specific musical intervals. In a paper presented at MIT’s Radcliffe Institute in 1977, Amacher explored the possibility of music to create a “perceptual geography” in “the interplay of aural and interaural sonic imaging.” Selected Writings highlights this research in several lengthy excerpts from Amacher’s personal “‘Additional Tones’ Workbook,” pages which read like a lab report with method, procedure, and discussion. The results of such experiments allowed Amacher to play everything from the native melodic contours of instruments, to the inner ears of her listeners, to architecture itself.
Upon first read, Amacher’s manifestos and textual proposals may come across as fantastic lyricism; for example, in a short text on her composition Remainder (1976) for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Amacher writes, “At about 15 c/s the labyrinth gives way to skin as the chief organ of vibratory sensibility for the human body.” She continues, “Tone-of-place, ‘experienced,’ ‘heard,’ through skin, detected by unnamed sensibilities.” If this description sounds imaginatively opaque, think again; Amacher is quite literally describing skin as a sensory organ for sound, and anyone who has quaked to the embodied pulse of a deep base will understand what she means. Amacher’s staged activations of her audience were poetic, psychological, and, perhaps, even spiritual—but always based in real and painstaking technique. As Amacher stated in a 1988 interview included in the book, “What all this stuff really is—it’s nothing mystical—is just that the real physics of sound is hidden from everyone. People don’t deal with it because music is so tied up with all these fantasies.” Her work was rooted in pseudo-scientific research and continual innovation, which ran fatefully ahead of scientific discovery. Her 1977 presentation on “perceptual geographies” and “ear tones” pre-dated the scientific demonstration of this phenomenon by David T. Kemp in 1978; and it was this earliness that also cast suspicion upon the legitimacy of her work. While we cannot know the reason for Amacher’s many rejected funding proposals, the very scale and speculative nature of her methods perhaps thwarted their realization.
In working ahead of technological advances in sound, Amacher left a relative dearth of recordings when compared to her intense activity across an almost 50 year career. When Amacher’s early experiments in sound environments were being carried out, recording formats lacked the dynamic range to render the levels at which she was composing. Only the invention of digital formats in the 1980s rendered Amacher’s vision at all possible, if unfunded. This limited public access to recordings is the most significant handicap to the Selected Writings. Nonetheless, it remains an incredible reference text, dramatically expanding the available literature on a significant yet little-known artist and offering insight into the realist poetics and technical rigor of Amacher’s work.