Sound Envisioned

Maryanne Amacher's compositions of sound were purposefully ephemeral, revealing the thin line between artist and audience.

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People often talk about the physical presence of Maryanne Amacher when talking about the artist Maryanne Amacher. They will talk about her yellow hair and her long solitary dreadlock that dates from 1962. Or they will mention the red ski suit she wore even in summer, or her aviator hat and goggles, or the way she moved when spotted from a distance — long and gliding — a bright red ghost ship at sea. They will sometimes talk about the great wooden house she inhabited in Kingston, New York — which was littered with objects and sounds — or the fact that she died with no surviving relatives. Artist as goggles, house as body, history as hair.

We want, sometimes, to hold on to the physical body of an artist because art is so elusive. The jumping spluttering paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, are hard to pin down. But the paintings, like prayers, eventually point the viewer away from the canvas and toward the unseen energy that created them.

Maryanne Amacher’s art was especially elusive. Amacher sculpted with sound, that most invisible medium. What is sound anyway? Paint makes a painting — even words can be looked at, and the words produce objects in our minds. Sculpting with sound is like sculpting with time. Is a sound artist like a clock? Maryanne Amacher’s temporal art was site-specific, composed for and in and of rooms, houses, monasteries. Architecture — the place where her sounds were physically located — was essential to the work of Maryanne Amacher. Most of her compositions had to be heard in the places they were made for, creating, as she wrote, “intense and dramatic sound experiences that [could not] be realized in home listening environments.” Her compositions were sonic worlds. When you walked into a Maryanne Amacher composition you entered her story of sound. Walls and floors shaped the tones but so did your body. Your body became architecture. When the listeners left and Amacher went home, the art disappeared. You wonder if it ever existed. The art of Maryanne Amacher was not meant to live beyond its moment, was not meant, even, to live beyond Maryanne Amacher, except as it passed into legend, and into other artists. Recording her music, she used to say, would turn it into “artifacts.” In recordings, the experience was dead.

Nonetheless, Amacher did make some recordings of her work. In 1999, she released an album called Sound Characters (Making the Third Ear). It included, as the subtitle suggests, four compositions for what Maryanne Amacher referred to as “third ear music.” This music, Amacher wrote in the liner notes, turned the ears into instruments, stimulating them to “‘sound’ their own tones and melodic shapes.” Sometimes Amacher called this “listener’s music.”

When played at the right sound level, which is quite high and exciting, the tones in this music will cause your ears to act as neurophonic instruments that emit sounds that will seem to be issuing directly from your head. In concert my audiences discover music streaming out from their head, popping out of their ears, growing inside of them and growing out of them, meeting and converging with the tones in the room … Tones “dance” in the immediate space of their body, around them like a sonic wrap, cascade inside ears, and out to space in front of their eyes … Do not be alarmed! Your ears are not behaving strange or being damaged! … These virtual tones are a natural and very real physical aspect of auditory perception … I want to release this music which is produced by the listener…

There is nothing quite like Maryanne Amacher’s third ear music. It is alarming. Some of her fellow artists never quite believed that their ears were not being damaged. Third ear music invades you, wraps inside your body, your head, your eyes — just like she says. You can’t be sure, after a while, if the sounds you hear are those created by your ears or Maryanne Amacher. You cannot tell if your ears are listening or singing, because they are doing both. Maryanne Amacher was less interested in putting music into you than drawing music out of you.

In her compositions, the body of Maryanne Amacher became all the more ephemeral. Her audience became her body, receiving her sounds and transmitting their own, producing music that Amacher herself could not hear. Maryanne Amacher’s compositions revealed the thin line between artist and audience, the thin line between transmitting and receiving.

As a child, I used to wonder if air were made up of all the exhalations of the living and, if so, whether that meant we were all inhaling each other’s breath. How could we know which breaths were ours, if breathing belonged to us at all? In the art of Maryanne Amacher, the musician is mostly a conjuring force. The music, like breath and air, is already everywhere. • 11 July 2014

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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