Her Work
The Maryanne Amacher Foundation

Her Work

Maryanne Amacher in Oakland, Calif., in 1993.
Maryanne Amacher in Oakland, Calif., in 1993.

By her own account, Amacher’s work is best represented by three multimedia installation series produced in the United States, Europe, and Japan between the late 1960s and her death in 2009. In these major works—City Links (1967-1980), Music for Sound Joined Room, and the Mini Sound Series—Amacher refashioned composition as a dramatically staged creative undertaking in experimental acoustics. She was fascinated with the physicality of sound, the way it propagated in space, and the unexpected ways that it provoked images and sensations in the “mind’s ear.” Her approach was slow, deliberate, and empirical. She would spend hours listening to a seemingly unchanging tone or making minute adjustments to loudspeaker placement. For Amacher, these things were not details or minutiae: they were the very heart of her work, the equivalent to the painstaking working out of themes or harmonic progressions in traditional music.

In City Links, Amacher transmitted live sonic feeds from multiple cities (or multiple sites in the same city) via high-quality telephone lines and mixed these sources live during exhibitions, concert presentations, or radio broadcasts. In City (1967), a 28 hour live mix, connected eight locations around Buffalo via phone lines to WBFO. The program was recognized by the Institute for Education by Radio and Television for its innovative, experimental approach to radio’s role in fostering social community. In City Links, Amacher reflected upon the changing sense of place created by the general public’s access to air travel and telecommunications. Work titles often reflected these themes (e.g. No More Miles and Tone of Place). It was a prescient tremor of the “network culture” thematics to come in recent media art. Through 1979, she realized 21 iterations of her City Links series, many of which were collaborations with visual artists and/or architects. They took the form of installations, performances, and combinations of both.

The second work group is a site-specific series called Music for Sound-Joined Rooms. In these works, Amacher used idiosyncratic speaker placements (facing walls or the floor of her installation space) to send sound through the solid medium of built space before allowing it to circulate in air, creating multiple, overlapping acoustics. Opposed to the usual air-borne transmission of sound waves (the single carrier medium for all traditional Western music), she referred to this practice in her writing as structure-borne transmission. In such works, the architectural site of the installation itself became the physical medium of the work, shaping and coloring the sounds as they propagated through it. The first piece in this series was Living Sound: Patent Pending (1980), presented as part of the Walker Art Center’s New Music America programming. Amacher described it as follows:

The house, on a hill in St. Paul with its panoramic view of Minneapolis, was lit by tall quartz spots, as if a movie set. The time: midnight. [In the] music room, where two grand pianos had been, was now an “emergent music laboratory,” there were 21 petri dishes with something growing in them — the musicians and instruments of the future. DNA photos and biochemical diagrams were placed on music stands. Meanwhile, the entire house was full of a spectacular sound — incredible loud and unbelievably dense — sound, circulating throughout the rooms, out the doors and windows, down the hill, past sedate Victorian mansions. It seems to contain the energy of all frequency ranges at once, yet never approached white noise. [Listeners] felt themselves pushed, as if by acoustic pressure, out into the garden, where the entire house was heard, sounding, as a gigantic instrument.

Finally, Amacher’s Mini Sound Series is comprised of a group of multimedia installations based on the television miniseries format. In the Mini Sound Series, an ensemble of “sound characters” distinguished by unique timbral, gestural, and contour profiles interact and develop in relation to each other over several days or weeks, following dramatic narrative techniques drawn from television and other popular forms. Mini Sound Series was an important departure from the conventions of endless-duration sound installation practices, which Amacher found to be asking overly diffuse attention of the listener. Instead, Amacher explains, the Mini Sound Series allows, “people to return and identify certain characters, having gotten to know them in [previous] features.” Uniting all of these works is a holistic concern with the entire network of processes that comprise the experience of music—in her own words, such a set of processes emphasizes that, in Amacher’s words, “how certain sounds are to be perceived in a sonic world becomes as important as the sounds themselves.”

As the spatial “staging” in both Music for Sound Joined Rooms and Mini Sound Series became increasingly critical to the work series’ articulation, Amacher began developing visual components that function to both heighten the overall aesthetic experience of a visitor and to also guide them through the series of rooms that would frame a given work. These visual components were comprised largely of original videos and slide projections, but also include scrolls, 3D-images, objects, and texts.