On Amacher

posted: 05 November, 2009
This is an odd blog, being that I rarely post anything to it - recently I've had little to say apart from announcements or unstructured reflections on death or semi-liquid travel reports.  Well, here I go again: I'm writing something messy, belatedly, after the death of Maryanne Amacher.

It's easy to make statements like "it changed my life", etc. -- and I'm prone to hyperbole anyway -- but I never articulated my thoughts after I experienced Amacher's music and in retrospect, it really was some sort of turning point for me.


I saw her at the INSTAL festival in Glasgow, 2007, as the final act of a dense 3-day sound festival. I remember that I almost skipped it because someone spilled a beer on me right before she played and I was sticky and grumpy.  But I stuck around because for years I enjoyed the Tzadik disc Sound Characters (though I really only played it whenever I wanted to freak myself out [or irritate friends]). Some of the tracks had this insane effect on my head when turned up to a very loud volume -- and I knew that the CD format couldn't contain the frequencies that her live work conveyed.
There are many ways to describe the experience of listening to Maryanne Amacher live (assuming you were in an environment where the sound system can handle her frequencies) but really, it's the type of the thing that defies language.  Let me use another cliché - Amacher's music touches a nerve, quite literally, as it stimulates tiny inner ear bones with a spectrum of sounds unavailable in other forms of music.

The effect is simultaneously narcotic, mystical, and terrifying.  With parts of my body oscillating for the first (and only) time in my life, it felt like her music was literally pouring out of my head.  She balanced the shrill, higher frequency pieces with dense sheets of earthy, physical sound, and with the audience encouraged to move about, the sensation was constantly in flux.  It sort of hurt - but it was also like reaching some higher plane of consciousness.

And it was FUN -- her music was lively, geuinely expressive, and invitingly complex.  Everyone in the audience danced about and talked with each other while it was happening -- I'm still not really sure what actual "volume" the music was at.  If you placed fingers in your ears even slightly, to block the "special" frequencies, what remained was barely louder than a clock radio. 

My ears buzzed for ages afterwards - actually, I'm not sure if they ever stopped buzzing.  I left thinking that it was the most powerful sound experience of my life - and it was, honestly.  I think that this was the furthest exploration of pure sound I have ever experienced - and I wonder how many other even approached the type of research she was doing. 

Everything since has been different.  I'm not just talking about the ringing; it's more like discovering there's a whole other dimension to sound.  Obviously it's easy to retract back into everyday existence, which is like permanently sleeping.  But whenever I have played live music I've been somewhat more conscious of my own body and my location in relation to the sound.  Movement changes eveything and I think Amacher's live performance exaggerated these characteristics, like a permanent doppler effect.

Music is complicated and there are many aspects that have drawn me to it throughout my life.  The side of sound explored by Maryanne Amacher throughout her long and (depressingly underappreciated) career is only one side, but it was an important one nonetheless (and probably what distinguishes those of us who are naturally curious about sound as a physical/liminal experience from people who just like nice songs and melodies).  After seeing Amacher I felt like my purpose had changed.  I think I became more interested in form and construction, and less absolute about things.  The old John Fail really wanted to rip apart the seams of the world's musical fabric, but I think Amacher showed me that it's all in my head anyway. And to some extent, she had already gone as far as possible in that direction.

I was immensely saddened when I heard of her death, for purely selfish reasons - I wanted to somehow experience her work again, with my partner and anyone else who wasn't there the first time.  Of course I realise that her work can be performed again, being that it was largely recording and/or software-based.  But in 50 years of composing -- blurring the lines between art practice and research -- she took the human ability to experience sound and space to uncharted heights of innovation.  If anyone will actually pick up from where she left off remains to be seen.  The next year's INSTAL featured Marginal Consort, who had an equally strong impact on me (though in a different way) but I'll save that for another post someday.

Amazingly, there's a video clip from the performance online, but trust me -- YouTube does not convey the experience, not even slightly.  Which is why I'm not even going to link to it here.

New York Times obituary of Maryanne Amacher [nytimes.com]
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