Monday, 23 November 2009

Extreme Noise Ecstasy

I was sad to read of the death last month of Maryanne Amacher, the remarkable sound artist and electronic music composer. She is part of a significant lineage of women who have found their voice through electronic music, from Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire through Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue and Kaffe Matthews. Not to mention composers such as Kaija Saariaho who incorporate elements of electronic sound (or approximations of its tonalities) into their ‘spectralist’ compostitions. There seems to be something about the dissection of the grain of sound, the manipulation of its uncovered matter which is particularly appealing to a female creative sensibility. Amacher’s work also explored the experience of sound within particular spaces, whether they were the rooms of an old house or the multiple passages of a tunnel system. She was interested in the way in which sound could be moved around the space, or in which its various facets could be discovered by listeners moving about between its carefully placed sources. Wide variances in dynamic range characterised her music, creating different kinds of psychoacoustic effects. She often pitched her sounds to activate the ‘third ear’, in an equivalent of the pictorial trompe ‘oeil effect (trompe l’oreilles?) Listened to in the right kind of space, this would result in sounds appearing to generate directly from within the ears (or even the spaces between).

I’ve never had the fortune to experience one of Amacher’s installations. She didn’t make it to David Toop’s major sound art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 2000 (Sonic Boom), perhaps because any true representation of her work would have reached out and devoured any other exhibits within its radius. Perhaps I heard something of its psychological effect when I saw a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Bird and Person Dyning at the CMN tours Feedback concert a few years ago. This piece, like many of Lucier’s, is halfway between music and a scientific enquiry into the nature of sound and its effect on the human mind. Putting a microphone to a mechanical model of a chirping bird, he then took another portable mike and moved through the concert space, searching for acoustic feedback ‘shadows’ of the original sound. It’s very difficult to describe, but the sounds seemed to suddenly appear just to the left of your ear, or just behind your shoulder or over your head. It was an uncanny but utterly captivating experience. Similarly, when I went to see Karlheinz Stockhausen presenting his classical electronic piece Kontakte (in this version without the piano and percussion accompaniement) he mixed the different sounds around the space of the old Billingsgate Fish Market (in which he’d arranged speakers to surround the audience and provide three ‘storeys’ between floor and ceiling) so that you could follow them and take a flight (as he jovially encouraged us to do at the start). It’s interesting to note that Amacher studied at Dartington College in Totnes, Devon, a place which has recently also seen residences by Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros (you can still catch the Hear and Now radio 3 documentary on Oliveros and James Tenney on the BBC’s listen again facility until next Saturday).

I can only imagine the effect that one of Amacher’s installations would have based on such experiences. But you can get some idea from a couple of releases on John Zorn’s Tdzadik label, Sound Characters volumes 1 and 2. The effect of these recordings is unlike any other. Again, they have to be played loud, and it would be great to hear them in different spaces (the Spacex Gallery here in Exeter would be good). The music is far from the ambient wash often associated with electronic music, although its occasionally extreme dynamics don’t have the aura of assault you find in a noise musician like Merzbow. At times it sounds like a flock of metallic starlings (one of Amacher’s rare previous recordings was for a compilation called ‘Swarm of Drones’); at others the seismic impact of an aerial bombardment heard from deep within a bunker (the Tower). Synaptic Island does sound like the kind of oceanic drift of the more ambient varieties of electronica, but it has a real feeling of density, of a sound mass. It has a long fade out into silence, until the sounds that you are hearing are probably now only playing in your head. And in case you had drifted off, the following Synaptic Island track (part of a Synaptic archipelago?) has the most astonishing concatenation of sounds. The deep rumbling ruptures and thunderclaps of collapsing metal suddenly give way to a high pitched liquid mobile of sounds in a sudden transition which still makes me jump out of my skin every time I hear it. There are liquid explosions like high-pressure jets of magma being shot out of some violently cracked open fissure, which are drowned out in a waterfall of white noise. The sudden transitions between the lowest audible tones and the highest remind a little of Ligeti’s Atmospheres, the music used for the journey beyond the infinite in 2001 A Space Odyssey. The joyful sense of cacophany also reminds me of some of the pieces made with (and by) schoolchildren on the Daphne Oram Oramics CD. I really hope that someone puts on a commemorative exhibition in this country. Meanwhile, you can see Maryanne playing her music before an appreciative Thurston Moore, who sincerely declares it to be ‘the best music I ever heard’. Further extracts from this film (including Moore’s interview with Amacher) can be found over at Ecstatic Peace. The website of The Wire magazine has also put up Alan Licht's 1999 piece, written around the release of the first Sound Characters cd.

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