Notes unnoticed

Maryanne Amacher captured music her listeners had neglected to hear

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Maryanne Amacher’s music is available on iTunes, which is comically weird. It is difficult to imagine a composer less amenable to current dominant modes of musical consumption being portable, isolated by headphones, digitally compressed into manageable packets.

Amacher released two full-length recordings in her lifetime, and those only reluctantly. She preferred sound in the world, in concrete space, pumped up and stretched out to the point where it buffeted and embraced. Her music would erupt into the world for brief spells, in site-specific, temporary installations, and then disappear, the overtones drifting back into the hum of everyday noise.

Since Amacher’s death last October at 71, the experience of her music has become even more elusive. On Friday, the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology will present a tribute to Amacher, a onetime fellow of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

There will be presentations, round-table discussions, a concert of works dedicated to Amacher — but no music by Amacher. It’s not surprising. At the time of her death, she had barely begun to consider posterity. Her online archive, set up by friends Micah Silver and Robert The, is still fragmentary, with only a handful of descriptions and diagrams. Even with full documentation, re-creating an Amacher piece would be a challenge. Her music was anything but portable.

She filled rooms and buildings with loudspeakers and then let people roam through them in a sea of rumbling drones and piercing scrapes, wrapping the listener in a viscerally loud blanket. She would spend weeks in a place, learning its acoustic quirks, obsessively adjusting the placement of speakers, then, in performance, continuing to fine-tune at the mixing board, forever pursuing the perfect “sonic choreography’’ of sound and space.

The result was music of tremendous impact and built-in transience. For a week in summer 1980, she took over a suburban Minneapolis house vacated by the conductor Dennis Russell Davies; composer Alvin Curran remembered “sounds that moved like mad armies of spectrally filtered ghosts looking for food under every strut and beam and basement drain.’’

She studied with the famous and infamous Karlheinz Stockhausen, who heard sound as transmissions from other worlds. Her first series of works, “CityLinks,’’ used high-quality telephone wires to transplant ambient sonic environments whole, into galleries, auditoriums, radio broadcasts. In pre-Internet days, the experience was disorienting — people refused to believe the sounds were live. (Silver and The are helping with a reinstallation of “CityLinks’’ at New York’s Ludlow 38 gallery this fall.)

In her electronic works, Amacher used high volume not to make an impact, but to envelop. She liked to induce “third ear music,’’ when the components of the ear start producing their own independent auditory vibrations, a sudden contrapuntal voice from within your own head — “as if 1,000 cicadas had settled on the inside of the ear,’’ as critic Peter Watrous described it — a startling reminder of the listener’s individual physicality.

One of her most talked-about works, “CityLinks #4,’’ played primarily to an audience of one: She hung a microphone in the window on Boston’s Pier 6, then ran the live hookup, 24 hours a day, into her MIT studio for over two years.

It is strange to think of Amacher’s immense walls of sound as fragile, but it was music that balanced its giant presence against its essential, fleeting temporariness. We think of recordings as definitive, but Amacher’s music made it clear that they are only echoes. (Of her own CDs, she said that “it sounds like all these spirits are trapped’’ in the speakers.)

We think of music as self-contained, a play of the mind and the emotions; for Amacher, it was plastic, corporeal, malleable, existing in the world whether we listened or not. Her music was a reminder that we can imperfectly reproduce sound, or earnestly reproduce it, but we can never recapture it.

Descriptions of her music make her sound like an eccentric, which she was. (Her house in Kingston, N.Y., was famously decrepit, crammed with equipment and tapes. Composer Kyle Gann, who taught with her at Bard College, in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson, recalled her accessorizing her outfits with aviator goggles.) But the seeming foreignness of her music is less about her eccentricity and more about our own curious relationship with sound.

To encounter a musical conception so deep and consistent and at the same time so completely outside our conditioned ideas about what it means to perform, package, process, and possess music is to wonder what else we’re not hearing when we listen to music — or anything else. Amacher would have thought us eccentric, going through life so unaware of the sound that surrounds us, constant performances that constantly die away without us even noticing. She heard it all and, for the rest of us, helpfully turned up the volume.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

SOUND SHAPES AND EAR DANCES: A Tribute to Maryanne Amacher Presented by the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology

At: Bartos Theater, MIT, Friday