The Death of Maryanne Amacher

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 literally within the music itself.

Symbolically speaking, the recent death of Maryanne Amacher is the rapid decline of an era of avant-garde futurism 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 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 explicitly identify electronics as an answer to a problem in music history, and the first to create an 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 from nothing other than the composer’s pure imagination, and with such blank slate the previous world would 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.

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. 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 obsessively dominated by the theme of Time. 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, no matter how hard she tried. Her naively obscure writing provoked images of a society running on nothing other than auditory impressions. Simply put, she believed in a sound art for the everyday. Maryanne Amacher’s sound art was a potent modernist expression, where nothing but material sensation is recorded, if only to show the illusion and process of that same sensation.