Amy Cimini on Maryanne Amacher’s Adjacencies

In an early 1960s letter, Maryanne Amacher tells her parents that she will become a composer. She will not take paid work for a year and will, instead, devote herself to putting her musical ideas “on paper,” she tells them. Writing from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, she is in the middle of working on a duo for percussion and electronics,  “Adjacencies.” After joining the Creative Associates at the University of Buffalo in 1966,  Amacher will have two performances of “Adjacencies:” a first at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery and a second, days later, at Carnegie Recital Hall. There, “Adjacencies” appeared after three pieces by Anton Webern and was followed by Charles Wourinen’s “Chamber Concerto for Cello and Ten Players.” The massed sounds of Amacher’s glittering metals, roving around the hall between the four points of “Adjacencies’” quadraphonic speaker array would have certainly stood out, far out. 

Fig. 1: A page from “Adjacencies.” The integers designate sounds’ locations in one or more of four speakers. Brackets indicate that sound should be fixed at a single location, while arrows instruct players to project that same sound from additional locations.

The duo calls for a mostly metal battery but also juxtaposes orchestral percussion with household items and industrial junk, including two large metal gas tanks that were to be not only palpated but also struck against one another. Amacher’s percussionists also play harps. Diaphanous glissandi and tremolandi are nearly ubiquitous, as the harps wrap “Adjacenecies’” percussive events in a soft Debussean haze, a gentle but effective source of textural and timbral coherence. Amacher’s stunning graphic notation leads her players in ways of listening to each instrument’s complete frequency range. She divides those ranges into five distinct strata, but leaves techniques for achieving these sounds up to the players. Ways of listening lead, playing techniques should follow. Percussionist and composer Jan Williams recalls rehearsing “Adjacencies” in Buffalo with Amacher, then in her mid-20s. While some of the techniques – like glissandi on timpani were somewhat standard – rehearsal had to be a space of experimentation, of “trying things,” as he put it. And the two percussionists also had to find their way around harps, as well. Amacher knew what sounds she wanted to hear, Williams explained, and asked for the techniques that she thought might produce them. The single extant recording – a rehearsal – begins with sustained, gleaming sighs produced by drawing thin metal fins along a gas tank’s surface, while harp tremolandi quiver in the background. Though her instructions ask her  players to spatialize sounds, in addition to producing them, Amacher ran the mixing board in both performances. As Jan Williams notes, the audiences at Buffalo were large and quite young.” “[Adjacencies],” he added, “would have spoken to this group.” 

Fig. 2: From “Adjacencies” score, here Amacher uses differently filled and shaded rectangles to guide her players through a five-part division of each instrument’s frequency spectrum. These divisions range from “as high and metallic as possible,” “rich high frequencies,” “ordinary high frequencies,” “ordinary low frequencies,” to the “lowest frequency characteristic of the instrument.”

An evocative review of the Carnegie Hall performance speaks of “great tensions built up from accumulations,” offering a suggestive comparison with composer Edgard Varèse. By the late 1920s, Varèse approached writing for percussion ensembles as the assembly of timbrally distinct “sound masses” whose speeds, planes and angles spurred a music drama of interaction, collision, penetration and dispersion. “Adjacencies’” massed sounds certainly draw from this lineage, but it also turns a Euro-American modernism staked on electronics and percussion toward radically different horizons. In the letter to her parents, Amacher suggestively recounts studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Philadelphia before moving to Urbana.  “[He said] I must work very hard,” she tells her parents, “[he said] how much I was needed.” “Adjacencies” offers a suggestive case in point. With important modifications to the spatialization  techniques of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Amacher affords her players a flexibility and responsivity to listeners, instruments, and built space that Stockhausen found himself unable, at that time, to achieve. While Mikrophonie I’s adventures with the tam tam take steps in this direction, “Adjacencies’” far vaster battery holds open, for Amacher, wider-ranging concern for her listeners’ bodily awareness over spectral authenticity alone. A closer look at “Adjacencies’” technical details vivifies both points.   

Rather than move sound – the point-like attacks of much 1960s modernism – around a static perceiver, “Adjacencies” casts sounds, instruments, bodies, ears and built space into a delicate microdrama of shifting proximities. By connecting sounds’ resonant decays with (masked) attacks at new speaker locations, Amacher effects a continuous sounding whose timbre changes as a condition of its movement in quadraphonic space. This, she specifies, is “melody” in “Adjacencies.” Pitches and timbres cohere as “melody,” in this piece, when they are also specified in three-dimensional space.

 Fig. 3: This is Amacher’s graphical notation for spatializing decay, represented by a dark, trellis-like arc followed the descending dotted line. The strike, on the going, sounds at speaker one, but its bright decay should move to speaker two and then four.

In a 1965 Composition Notebook devoted to the topic of “Space,” Amacher explores using the four vertices of the quadraphonic array to create effects along a square’s sides and diagonals, as though imagining  rooms and walls of sound with  variable shapes and densities. For an audience seated in the middle of the speakers’ square, the effect might be to be sometimes inside and sometimes outside a shifting sonic architecture. As in the later Music for Sound Joined Rooms and Mini-Sound Series, “Adjacencies” seems to be the making of a special space, a place the audience could enter and linger. 

Fig. 4: Amacher’s Composition Notebook on “Space” engages in detailed consideration of what kinds of sounds can suppress or emphasize the connections between the quadraphonic square’s four speakers. Sometimes she wants to dramatize a diagonal relation and at others emphasize what she calls “side orientation.” In her notes, for example, she often remarks that harp tremolando create especially powerful diagonal effects.

In a remarkable program note,  Amacher points, through  “Adjacencies,” to concerns that will continue to occupy her for the next fifty years. She writes: 

“I made Audjoins [Adjacencies comes from that series] so that worlds of sound could be joined. They receive each other, interrupt, interact, and bring the unexpected to each other. What previously could not have happened simultaneously in the same place, either because of distance, as in the case of countries, or within one composition because of sound levels in one room, is now possible through electronic means.”

In Amacher’s note, the directionality conveyed by the prefix “ad” describes not just quadraphonic spatialization but suggests further experimentation with sound’s long distance transmission and architectural staging. Amacher will, indeed, formalize these concerns in the three installation series that perhaps best summarize her work: the telematic City-Links series (1967-1980), the scene-like architectural dramas of Music For Sound Joined Rooms (1980-) and the walk-in serialized narratives of the Mini Sound Series (1985-). We hear so much in “Adjacencies,” but not least the tremors of later projects and a long-term commitment to creating, as she put it,  “worlds where the listener might go.”