Maryanne Amacher (1943-2009)

Amacher1953.jpg[For emendation to the above dates, see updates below.] The music world lost one of its most bizarre characters today, and I say that with the utmost affection. Maryanne Amacher was an amazing composer of sound installations, who occasionally taught courses at Bard. I first encountered her in 1980 at New Music America in Minneapolis. She had, as was her wont, fitted an entire house with loudspeakers, and the staff was in a state of jitters because at opening time she was still obsessively running around and changing things. She was a tireless perfectionist. Years later I interviewed her for my history of American music. A Stockhausen student, she was absolutely inscrutable, so intuitive that pinning facts down was an insult to her spirit. My first ten questions having elicited no specific information, I finally asked whether her original sound sources were acoustic or electronic in origin. Her perplexed answer: “I really can’t say.” She was vagueness personified. Yet she was an incredible artist, and my son thought she was the best electronic music teacher Bard had. She typically wore bright red overalls and aviator goggles, and I’d be astonished if her wiry frame weighed 90 pounds. After one semester with her, one of my colleagues – an artistic and sympathetic soul, but I understood his frustration – said, “I feel like I’m on the set of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” She lived in a huge old house in Kingston that was cluttered wall to wall with papers, tapes, and technical equipment, among which one walked gingerly through narrow paths. You closed doors carefully, too, for fear the entire soggy house would fall down. But she was some kind of genius, and her spatially intricate sound installations, better appreciated in Europe than here, had to be heard live: there is no way to adequately document them on recording. As with La Monte Young, you felt that her ears were picking up things yours couldn’t. She lived for her art. I heard a few weeks ago that she’d had a stroke, then from Pauline Oliveros that she was in a nursing home, and today she passed away. I do hope her work is well documented, because it is absolutely inimitable. We will never hear her like again.

UPDATE: A commenter mentions that the archival website for Maryanne gives her birthdate as 1938. Grove Dictionary gives it as 1943, but gets the town wrong (Kane, PA, not Kates). Maryanne’s autobiography on the website gives no birthdate. What now?
SECOND UPDATE: Apparently she was born in 1938 – see comments. The above photo is said to date from 1953, on what authority I’m not sure.


  1. Joe Kubera says

    What awful news. Maryanne was amazing, her music, her life…
    I was bemused at a feature in some gossip mag heralding the “Most Intriguing Person of the Year.” It’s always some boring pop-culture hero. Now, Maryanne…there’s the real deal, someone who actually deserved the title, year after year.
    So sorry to hear the news.

  2. says

    I was lucky in commissioning her, what probably is her masterwork: TEO! with which she won the Golden Nica in Arts Electronica in 2005. For this commission Maryanne was invited by Andrew Caleya Chettny, curator of my Oasis Sonoro project at the esplanade of the Palace of Fine arts in Mexico City 2004-2007. TEO! Was released last year by Tzadik, and as you say, documented work looses lots of the magic she created in each space filling it up with fantastic frequencies emitted and received buy the listeners ears. Never the less the record is totally worth experiencing, and let me tell you, I am certain, you have never listened to anything like that before.
    To have met her changed my life forever. I will miss her always, as well as I will be always grateful for everything she taught. She will always live in her few recorded works and on the mind of all of us that where lucky and brave enough to have experienced her work personally. Long live Maryanne!

  3. says

    Pauline just wrote me. Sad news indeed. I’ve know Maryanne for almost 40 years, since the days in Buffalo where she would spend hours daily, sitting behind the Ampex 350 and 440 consoles (do you remember Joe?) wearing her earphones. Her hair was always a god-awful mess in those hippie days. “Peter, listen to these two machines with my tape-you won’t believe your ears that they could sound so vastly different.” I didn’t because I couldn’t hear the difference. That was Maryanne, impeccable ears and uncompromising standards right up until the last time I brought her as a visiting artist here at the SAIC. The end result was never quite right for her, but to everyone else the work was stunning. Kyle, when I went to see her piece in Minneapolis during New Music America ’80 (Dennis Russell-Davies had given up his house for her installation) she said, “Oh Peter, you should have come yesterday it was working much better than today, I had to shut it down so that I could re-work it.” Can’t imagine that Dennis’s house was ever again the same, but no doubt much the better for having her there.

  4. Micah Silver says

    A remembrance to share, from a friend and recent producer of her work:
    I met Maryanne Amacher in 2003 at Diapason Gallery for Sound in NYC where I was working at the time. We immediately hit it off and spent the rest of the night in Korea-town eating ox-bone soup and talking about everything. Between then and now our relationship developed from a supportive late-night phone friendship to a three year collaboration on a commission at EMPAC and more recently in caretaking for her and her work after she became ill.
    Maryanne remains the most challenging person I’ve ever encountered. She existed in a world of thought and being that few would dare to even fancy and she challenged us all to be there with her, to dream further and wider and to fly higher. She arrived at this place of depth and time, for entirely rational reasons— she simply wanted to and did follow her flexible and deep mind, ever deeper into a life without compromise.
    She had her own and intuitive, rare, sense of time—she used the I-Ching several times a day — considering and questioning the insights of the oracle, and then perhaps disappearing for a week or more, feeling it an inauspicious time to move a project or a conversation forward. She wanted to be so light — almost only light — and like Icarus, I think her death was from flying too close. But it was her capacity to take this risk, to place herself in the headlights of her own being, that inspired so many to go deeper, to go brighter.
    She didn’t maintain a consistent presence in any single music or art community but rather collected a large group of supporters and close friends globally, many of whom had the privilege of these inspiring overnight phone calls, Glenn Gould-style, wide ranging, and tangential, finding fuel for the imagination everywhere. In producing her work at EMPAC, I think I spent more time talking with her about recent developments at NASA and the physical beauty of various particle colliders, than music itself. She had a kind of antagonism with sound as much as she was a master — I think somehow, with her extreme puritanical approach to thought, it was nearly an improbable act to adequately capture her inner world as art. But she did it. We all felt it. There was an uncanny, indescribable element to her pieces. Anyone who knew her personally can attest that her embodiment, her effusive being was a clue to her secrets (and she had secrets). As an audience member, watching her behind an enormous mixing console, slowly rocking, conjuring, bringing sound into being— her presence helped, even from twenty yards we could feel that something special was happening.
    Maryanne lived as a myth for most of the music world: a bomber hat, snowsuit-wearing exotic living alone in Kingston, occasionally presenting indescribably powerful work in geographically dispersed locations, initiating conversations that simply would never happen with someone else. The nature of her pieces has made them resistant to all manner of comprehensive documentation. There are a few CDs available, but she would only share these, personally, with people after loads of preamble and disclaimer. To say her work is “site specific” doesn’t really capture what she was after — nor does the idea of “immersion”, which she deplored. Her pieces were the result of extensive perceptual research, which she conducted with extreme care, precision, and method.
    Many people think that she was extremely irrational — after watching her work at EMPAC, I came to the conclusion that her extremity was the result of a diligent rationality coupled to her intuition. She was a scientist. I don’t think Maryanne believed her work was mystical, or “beyond normal life” in any way — I think she simply took life and the normal possibilities of the senses seriously enough to investigate them deeply and as completely as her piece of consciousness allowed. I wish twenty years ago she had been tenured somewhere and given a lab. My impression is that this is what she wanted, much more than to be some kind of famous artist, occasionally getting commissions large enough to support her next work. She derided the “gigging musician”, for better or worse, and ultimately to her own financial distress.
    She was impoverished. It’s important that people know that. Maryanne was a rare bird of abnormal brilliance and dedication. It is worth, upon her death, for us all to think about how we can change the structures around us (and by chain reaction our society) to embrace and support people like her. Why was
    no organization or government capable of keeping her above the poverty line? There could have been a lot more work. Poverty is a full-time job.
    Maryanne was an early adopter and then rejector of “sound installation” — moving quickly into the idea of “mini sound series” or “sound screenings”, feeling that the installation context didn’t provide the focused, collective attention necessary to entrain oneself to experience the work. For someone so dependent on technology, specifically high-end loudspeakers, she was entirely uninterested in the sound the speakers make when hearing them directly. She made great effort, and had success with developing an approach to “structure borne sound”, hiding speakers in acoustically coupled locations beyond the presentation space (or inside an enormous plastic lion, as was the case in Berlin recently), and by firing speakers into walls and floors rather than straight into the air. She talked about what she was doing as experimental acoustics and justifiably critiqued the “official” field as being in its infancy, relying on faulty tools of measurement rather than extensive first-person phenomenological research. At EMPAC she was using about 40 channels of audio, only about 4 were actually inside the theater! The rest were as far as three levels beneath, with carefully measured apertures created by doors, air vents, and so forth. She spent a full month at one point, moving one speaker at a time, slowly creating constellations of sound sources that could create sound masses, shapes, gestures, that were “her work” much moreso than the sound material itself.
    For someone whose pieces often were in the 90-100 dB range (read: rock concert loud), her work was not about the shocking authority of loudness. This is a misunderstanding. Similarly, I think it’s a misunderstanding to place her in relationship to”drone” or “noise” or “acousmatic music” or”sound art”. She was doing her own thing — she studied with Stockhausen but never followed a rigid compositional system for anything. I believe she was one of a small handful of composer-artists who have truly defined their own terms for their work and I hope we can grant her the respect to attempt to understand her, first, on her own terms.
    If you listen into her music, beyond the surface of loudness and constancy, I think one finds that it is extremely melodramatic and even romantic! It’s the inner life of the sound, the motions in timbre, the arrival and departures of shapes, sound characters, and the “after sound” — the sense of sound that exists after hers is gone.
    She critiqued many as “pushing around other men’s notes” — she used the same sound materials for many many pieces. It wasn’t about the “notes” for her. And let’s not forget that she was a women in the dorky- machismo ghetto of experimental electronic music and perhaps was operating out-of frame in that regard. Let’s allow Maryanne her own model, and understand her on her own terms. She deserves it and so do we.
    When Maryanne became ill, she had no structure in place to take care of her or her work. Early on she named her friend Robert The and I as her “power of attorney”, neither of us fully understood what this even meant. She gave us some marching orders. Since late July, Robert and I have been working together closely to make sure that an archive is amassed and created to make public detailed information about her work. We’ll be making a public announcement in a month or two detailing what will transpire over the next two years, but for those concerned, please know that we have, already, stabilized her materials and plan to make everything available online, for free. We’re hoping to launch this comprehensive archive along with several other initiatives in the fall of 2011 to make sure that Maryanne’s work is placed not as a footnote, but as a milestone.
    Yesterday I arrived at the hospital about twenty minutes after she passed. In the room there was a stillness that was so still it was impossible to see. I opened a window. It was the most beautiful day in a month. My guess is she’s flying around CERN, hanging out in the Hadron Collider or maybe she finally made it to the Himalayas. God, I’ll miss her.
    KG replies: Thanks for the really in-depth portrait.

  5. Laetitia Sonami says

    Thank you Micah for such a moving and exacting account of Maryanne. A couple of years ago she told me that she felt all her life work / ideas resided in her writings, that her music was secondary (at that point though she was especially discouraged / disgusted that it was impossible to get decent venues to install her music). And she was concerned that some of her writings had been damaged by water. Do you have plans to release some of her writings? Was she able to preserve them?

  6. says

    Maryanne was one of those remarkable people to come out of the steamy cauldron of the 1960’s. Altho I physically suffered her music, I was continually impressed by her spirit, her imagination, and her mystery. We’re losing them all, one by one. And the horizon seems bleak. We are all minimized.

  7. seth cluett says

    there really aren’t words for this, but…
    i think what made her a great teacher is that she had an ability to act on your ideas. they’d leave the precious place of authorship and enter into conversation in a way that made it less about ownership of a thought and more about what is at stake in having that thought. how can we work it to its utmost extreme? (my words, not hers – she wouldn’t have thought it was extreme – ideas are balloons that fill and never pop – it’s not her problem that balloon-material hasn’t advanced enough to contain her breath)
    for me it was structure borne sound… i had an germ of an idea to record the sound of buildings being occupied over days/weeks/months, similar to some work i’d done with glacier data only with people/buildings. the banality of the recordings was discouraging me. her pushing led me to geophones (used mostly the people who map and observe oil fields), she pushed the idea to a place where i found an answer. she knew who was working on something that would benefit artists even if they didn’t themselves.
    i miss her already.

  8. says

    Thanks to KG for this blog and Micah Silver for his comprehensive and moving obituary on Maryanne. I was contemplating doing the same thing today, and will indeed write something substantial but Micah’s heartfelt piece really says everything…
    I have known Maryanne since she Joined the MEV group in the winter 1971? along with Anthony Braxton and Serge Tcherepnin on a tour of midwestern colleges… a tour that marked my own musical life for ever.
    Blessed in early august, to have have heard her voice over the telephone, weak and powerful as it was between Rome and her hospital bed – I carry this little piece of Maryanne around with me all the time now – She said she was going “home next week. She did go home but not to her house on Marius st. Kingston and as she left I am sure she heard some sound of such luminous unnameable beauty – that no ordinary human could ever imagine – just as she did in life, every day of her life.

  9. Liz Phillips says

    Thank you Micah–a wonderful remembrance–
    I met Maryanne, perhaps first in 1970 in a house of inflatable pillows in Connecticut of the architecture school graduates from Yale, Pulsa. There was a fine piano there and she was practicing. This was before her performance in Harvard Square after Cage’s silence . This Harvard event day was organized by Ivan Tcherepnin and Nam June Paik as part of Nam June’s video and John Cage’s 50th birthday. We all made work and I drove, made an installation and travelled with this party for many days. I still play that video for my class as their first introduction to sound/interactive media.
    With Maryanne we heard, did, and experienced many amazing science and art phenonmena, sound always as material. I always quote Maryanne when confronted with inferior speakers

  10. Liz Phillips says

    This comment was sent before finished….lost in cyberspace.
    Perhaps it was the ether—that maryanne wanted to invent, those perfume type bottles that sprayed sound masses just where you wanted them.
    Thanks Kyle and Micah. I never thought I could sit shiva and mourn online! LIZ

  11. Anne Tcherepnin says

    Maryanne was so special…there is an empty place in my heart now…we all loved her so much……

  12. says

    Thank you Kyle and Micah
    All the very best on the work & efforts at Kingston;
    I wish I could offer any useful help.
    Possibly could help set up something(s) for that Amacher future …
    Take care and I also miss here already.
    Sending positive wave North towards Kingston and you …

  13. says

    Maryanne has been very much on my mind lately. I will treasure forever her lessons (too many to list), blunt criticism (“You’re good with that software but are you actually making anything right now? Or just messing around?”), advice (“Make the space your instrument.”) and hortatory, oracular wisdom (“Sound can be much more than sound!”).
    And I want to echo Laetitia’s comment about Maryanne’s writings. A couple summers ago after I told Maryanne about my former career as a copy-jockey and editor, several late night phone calls ensued; she went line by line through one of her essays, emending and explaining. I asked a few questions to clarify a point here and there but I mostly listened, soaking in her singular cosmogony of hearing, performance, and sound.

  14. Alene Valkanas says

    How very, very sad. Maryanne is unforgettable. I recall her visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, her performance and interview with a music critic. She calmly stated that the beat of our time is the swish of the sounds of the highways not the clippety clip of the horses of yore. She was a warm and wonderful original.

  15. Bill Brovold says

    Maryanne was one of the most interesting and wonderful people I have ever met. She yelled at me while I fixed leaky plumbing in her house. Then thanked me for being such a good plumber (I am not). The two of us spent Thanksgiving together in 2007 in my apt in Kingston, I made us each Cornish game hens and she said in her sweet quiet voice “Oh we each have our own little turkey”. She came to my son’s graduation party a week before her accident this July and ate like a lumberjack and drank like a sailor, smiling the entire night away. As deep as she was as an artist and thinker, she was also a sweet and simple friend.

  16. Marjorie Vecchio says

    Micah, thank you so, so much for your note above, and to everyone else for your stories and expressions of love, please keep them coming.
    what i’d give for one more 3am phone call…

  17. says

    I’ve been trying to absorb this for the past few days…
    Many thanks to all of you who are sharing.
    Micah’s comments, especially, are thought-provoking and I wish him luck
    (with Robert) with the archiving. It’s not a pretty job (coming from someone who’s the archivist for the Jerry Hunt estate) and it’s often done for the sheer love of the work and/or person being archived. I expect that you’ll have more than a few requests for her writings, since her music was so completely bound to her personal way of working. A chronology may be the first template. Am I correct in thinking that her work “Brückenfindings” – presented in Köln this June – may have been her last work performed?
    I think the comment concerning the lack of financial support for her work may find expression and deepened reasoning in a paper written by someone who Maryanne thought highly of: Thomas Gold. If you read his work, “The Inertia of Scientific Thought,” you will get some idea of what is mistakenly considered important in the scientific world:
    I am certain that we can all extrapolate from these frequently misguided scientific outcomes and place them into other areas of pursuit such as the humanities.
    She was an incredible woman with incredible ears. She not only generated the loud sounds that she was often known for, but beautiful lower volume sound architectures as well. “Close Up” – performed live during Cage’s reading of the complete “Empty Words” – was a life-changing memorable performance. I’ll have to find those tapes around here and finally make a clean, digital copy.
    Much love and huge respect to all of you.

  18. bill brovold says

    To Rod;
    I believe the Bruckenfindings was the last completed piece she did. I saw her a few days after her return from Koln and she mentioned finishing the work at EMPAC to me. Micah would know that for sure.

  19. says

    About her birth year, which is it: 1943 or 1938? Wikipedia and Kyle indicate it’s 1943. But has it as 1938.
    More mystery.
    KG replies: Oh, geez, Richard. In my American music book, in a passage I wrote right after interviewing her, I have her as born 1946 in Kane, PA. But Grove Dictionary says 1943 in *Kates*, PA. Google turns up a Kane, PA, but no Kates. Still, we should stick with Grove until further notice, but that has a different date certainly gives one pause. I wonder if she habitually lied about her age?

  20. Maggi Payne says

    This is such a major loss to the new music community. Maryanne had a brilliant mind, was an incredible composer, and was beyond unique in life and her art. I will miss her. I am so heartened to hear that Robert The and Micah Silver will insure that her works and writings will be archived and carefully preserved.

  21. says

    I am truly shocked by Maryanne’s sudden passing. When I arrived at the University of Illinois she had already left, but she was already legendary. When I finally met her in 1980 (the same “installation” that Kyle describes in Minneapolis) she was like a long-lost sister. We could have talked forever, but alas we did not. She was the kind of person I can’t imagine never seeing again, even though we only saw each other every few years. Every piece of hers I ever heard was gorgeous, and unforgettable. Thank you Micah for your moving words and your attention to this unique woman and her work. As sad as I am to learn this news, I’m glad to learn of her writings, which I did not know existed. I am looking forward to reading them when they become available.

  22. says

    MaryAnne was such an amazing, exacting scientist/ composer. She actually succeeded in playing the right side of my head in polyrhythm with the left – my eardrums were her instrument. If I turned my head, the phenomenon would disappear, and only bare empty music would be heard. The whole body is vibrated. In comparison to most sonic experiences, she was the master at adding another vibratory dimension to sound.
    But what I’ll always be grateful for is she turned me onto cooking chicken in a clay pot, and the surety that all speakers are biased. Even the most expensive.

  23. bill brovold says

    Her nurse told me she was 71.
    KG replies: Well, pretty major mistake on Grove Dictionary’s part, then. But not the first time.

  24. Marjorie Vecchio says

    Maryanne was private about a number of things, including her age and how she interpreted it. Maybe we should do the same; it doesn’t matter anyway – Maryanne was ahead of her time no matter any 5 yr. age difference.
    Keep these excellent stories and anecdotes coming, they add to the archive of this super multi-layered woman who deserves to be better known, better appreciated and densely historically recorded/remembered (and that latter part depends on us.)

  25. Rocco Di Pietro says

    Kyle,Thank you for your article. It was very moving to read what you and the others wrote.I am ready for her now.

  26. says

    Maryanne Amacher, 71, of Marius Street, Kingston died October 22, 2009. A graveside service will be conducted on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. at Montrepose Cemetery, Kingston. Funeral arrangements by Simpson – Gaus Funeral Home, Kingston. Please sign the memorial guestbook at
    KG update: I have just [Monday morning] been informed that these funeral details are incorrect – I will post revised ones as soon as someone informs me of them.

  27. Micah Silver says

    Maryanne Amacher will be buried at Montrepose Cemetary in Kingston NY, this Friday, Nov 6 at 1:30pm. Please send email to if you would like more information. If you will attend, please meet at the main gate at 1:15.

  28. says

    I am so sorry to hear about Maryanne. I met Maryanne in 1989 and I interviewed her many times at her very cold house in Kingston. My article on her “Maryanne Amacher: Architect of Aural Design,” was published in (the now defunt)EAR Magazine, February 1989. The wonderful Carol Tuynman was the editor at EAR at the time. EAR magazine combined critical writing on new music with bold graphic design. (I also published a piece on John Cage’s EUROPERAS 1 and 2 in EAR in April 1988.)
    Maryanne was very generous in sharing materials and ideas with me…she was also was very controlling (let’s not pretty that up!) about the final form of the article.
    It truly was an amazing experience to meet this artist.
    Micah Silver’s comments above about the poverty are very deep…that poverty blocks the creation of new work as well blocking the organization of an archive to leave as a legacy. It would be wonderful if a university/music school would take on the commitment of archiving Maryanne’s work.
    Hey, we are writing the history of music and art in the 20th and 21st centuries.

  29. says

    I’ll never forget the piece Maryanne made for the Cunningham company; we were on tour with it. It was a quiet piece, but what got to me was the grain of the sound, the quality of the sound. To my ears it resembled steel pipe being rolled along the floor of a vast, resonant interior space. Acoustically delicious.
    Maryanne, you will be very much missed.

  30. Caitlyn Bovard says

    I am so sad to not have yet heard the music that came from someone who sounds so unique. I am young in the art of music and slightly even less familiar with Maryanne’s genre. Where can I go to for some enlightenment?

  31. DAB bennett says

    I met Maryanne at her home in Kingston early this mellenium. I was to meet her about fixing the roof or something, I do handyman things sometimes, and she lived in a gothic victorian house situated in the most mysterious and beautiful lot surounded by trees and limestone ledges right in the middle of Kingston but totally hidden! It was a house from a movie , over the top like a crew of scenic artists had worked to make it look scary. It stood slightly apart from a drab neighborhood of nondescript, smaller houses.
    As I remember Maryanne seemed quiet and refined, a little distracted. She was preparing for a European show of some kind and apologized for the clutter which I recognized as the type of dysfunctional organization that some artists create. It is the work that matters like Francis Bacon’s studio or who knows?
    We did not come to any conclusion about the house work and I left on a cordial note saying we’d meet again later but we never did.
    Now, I look forward to listening more than looking.
    That’s my story, mostly about the visual but ….anyway. Also, thanks to Peter Wetzler and Julie Hedrick for introducing me to Maryanne.