MARYANNE AMACHER: SOUND CHARACTERS (MAKING THE THIRD EAR) (TZADIK, 1999)

One of only two albums by the late American electroacoustic composer. Maryanne Amacher was mainly preoccupied with the unique aural characteristics of spaces (i.e., site-specific sound installations), but she also worked with the stimulation of “otoacoustic emissions” — that is, creating and combining sounds in such a way that, when played back over loudspeakers, the listener’s inner ears actually produce other sounds in response. (This really is a thing.)

Four of the pieces here illustrate that latter phenomenon, and it is weird and amazing. At a low volume, they sound like little music boxes, with high, interlocking metallic tones… but bump the level up just a bit, and your ears start acting like little speakers. It’s almost as though tiny invisible speakers are floating around your head, pumping out different sounds than the ones coming out of your stereo. Probably the most effective of these pieces is “Chorale I,” where the recorded music is made up of slow patterns of different durations (but with a common pulse), which gradually go in and out of phase with each other, and which are simultaneously subjected to a continuous, linear changes in relative balance and equalization; the sounds “out of my ears” change in unpredictable ways throughout its duration, creating a kind of antiphonal relationship between me and my stereo. COOL!!!

The other tracks are stereo reworkings of what Amacher calls “sound characters” from her installations. Rather than just reproduce the original work (which usually involved multiple channels and unusual speaker arrangements) or recordings from the installations in situ, she’s sort of reimagined them in a way that’s more suited to the context of a CD being played over a stereo. Seemingly static, they work much like a sculpture in a gallery; as you move around the gallery (or your listening environment), they reveal different facets and textures (visual or aural). In other words, they kind of demand motion on the listener’s part, which is a neat idea (to me, anyway). The final track (“A Step Into It, Imagining 1000 Years”) is drawn from an installation she made in the Krems Minoritenkirche; with drones that evoke male voices, it definitely evokes the atmosphere of an 11th-century church.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Remembering how in grad school I engaged in several lengthy and impassioned arguments over the delineation between “sound art” and “music.” Still don’t have an answer for that, though mostly because I’ve come to believe it’s a distinction more meaningful to grant agencies than to artists (i.e., I don’t care to make the distinction myself).
  2. Interesting document of a time when listening to long-form albums over stereo speakers was the norm, and you could kind of expect folks to “hear” the work in the intended way without much effort (beyond the directive to not use headphones). (Read: I’m including a link to the album below for consistency, but unless you hook yr device up to an amp & speakers, you’re not gonna understand this at all.)
  3. Finish up that grant application for your own piece on Appalachian sounds.

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