Maryanne Amacher was born in 1938 in Kane, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northwestern part of the state, just south of Erie. Amacher’s formative years were spent in Philadelphia, where she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. As a music major, she studied with composer and theorist Constant Vauclain, George Rochberg, and the prominent German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen during his tenure in Philadelphia in 1964 and 1965.
After her work at UPenn, Amacher went on to hold a series of fellowships at the University of Illinois’ Studio for Experimental Music, MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, SUNY Buffalo, Capp Street Gallery in San Francisco, and many others, including the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program. In the late 1960s, while at SUNY Buffalo, Amacher pioneered what she called “long distance music,” or telematic, site-related works that would later crystallize into her renowned City Links series. During her time as a fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (1972-1976) she began developing her “ear tone” music with the help of Marvin Minsky’s Triadex Muse, a synthesizer and compositional tool utilizing principles of artificial intelligence. Amacher’s “ear tone” music emerged from creative use of combination and difference tones, along with otoacoustic emissions (known, in shorthand, as OAEs), or sounds produced spontaneously within the cochlea. Amacher followed developments and debates in otological research on OAEs and other psychoacoustic phenomena closely. Such independent scholarship was an important stimulus to her career-long research into “ways of hearing” and the creative potentialities of how the ear itself processes sounds both of itself and in situ.
While at MIT, her extensive listening research was also profoundly influenced by a continuous, four year long, live feed from Boston Harbor to her studio via a dedicated phone line. This monophonic (transmitting no spatial information via stereo cues) environmental transmission from the Boston Fish Exchange building helped crystallize another unique focus of her approach to spatialization: that the spectral and dynamic transformation of a sound creates a subtle, but perceptible three-dimensional shape, literally, in space.
After meeting John Cage through Lejaren Hiller at the University of Illinois in 1968, she went on to collaborate with Cage in the mid-1970s on Lecture on the Weather, and composed Close Up, an accompaniment to Cage’s Empty Words (1979). Remainder was commissioned for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company piece Torse, and later the Charles Atlas film of the same name. In the late 1970s and early 1980s she developed presentational models for how her subsequent work should be “staged”: Music for Sound-Joined Rooms and Mini Sound Series.
She spent the 1980s also working on the materials for a multi-part drama originally imagined for TV and Radio simulcast called Intelligent Life. While never fully realized, Intelligent Life reveals much of her thinking on music and the advancement of potentialities for future listeners, transcending the social and physiological limitations of music as we know it.
She worked mostly in international venues throughout the 1990s—primarily in Europe and Japan. In the US she was commissioned to compose a large-scale work for the Kronos Quartet and she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, performed at Woodstock ’94, participated in the Whitney Biennale, and released her first CD on Tzadik.
In the 2000s, she joined the faculty of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. In 2005 she received Ars Electronica’s highest honor, the “Golden Nica.” Her last commission, remaining unfinished, was an evening-length work that combined stereoscopic video and a multi-story audio composition involving roughly forty loudspeakers. She died in Kingston, NY after sustaining a head injury and a subsequent stroke during the summer of 2009.