Among the musicians we listen to and love, few are visionaries and fewer still prove to be prophets. Two weeks ago the American artist Maryanne Amacher died, leaving a legacy that I believe will shape how we make and hear music in the future.
"Make the space your instrument!" she exhorted me more than once during my brief studies with her. When I asked her about the connection between her music and her teacher Stockhausen's Musik für ein Haus (1968), she told me, "He was networking music from room to room with wires. My music is architectural. Music can have a direct relationship with architecture by using surfaces—walls, floors, doors, and anything else solid—and space—which, by the way, is never 'empty'—as a resonator or filter." With careful speaker placement, she added, solid surfaces can amplify and even synthesize certain frequencies; as a corollary, she lamented how most music, even electronic music, is presented frontally, "just like a concert of classical music. There are speakers all around you; they call it surround sound, and nothing comes from the floor or ceiling!"
Amacher wanted sound to move, and not just by ping-ponging left to right in headphones. As Portland artist-composer Seth Nehil remarked days after her passing: "Maryanne Amacher insisted on treating her sound as a living thing." Criticizing one of my pieces, she wondered, "Why should a sound always have the same density when it moves? Our bodies, our muscles change—expand and contract—as they move. Sound can do that, too." She added with a narrow smile, "If you know how."
A perpetual explorer, Amacher foresaw neuroanatomy as the next frontier in music; in an interview, she declared an interest in how "our ears act as instruments in responding to music, sounding their own tones in addition to the music in the room, like another instrument joining the orchestra."
I can still see her, stooped and swaying, while a prime example of neuroanatomic music, her "Head Rhythm 1/Plaything 2," blasted out of the speakers. Her lone, long blond dreadlock swayed too, a ropelike cable invisibly plugged into a cosmic power grid. "You've got to move around," she insisted amid the jabbing needles of high-pitched tones. "Let your ears make the music."
Once I asked her what it was like in the 1960s and early '70s when "woman composer" was assumed to be an oxymoron. Was it a struggle to be taken seriously? "Oh sure," she cooed, waving my earnest question aside, "but I had my ideas. And I knew my ideas were good."
A group of Amacher's friends and students have begun to document her work at www.maryanneamacher.org.