Extremities: Maryanne Amacher

Perception

Frank J. Oteri: You formulate ideas in your studio before they ever have a life as a work in the space they are intended for. What sort of process generates the decisions that you make here about the pitch content, let’s say? We talked about pitches and they’re all done beforehand. Are there systems at play that generate the pitch content?

Maryanne Amacher: Well, I’m concerned with various tunings. That’s one thing.

Frank J. Oteri: Microtonal scales?

Maryanne Amacher: Sure. And I’m very interested in what are called second order effects in psychoacoustics, which are not the ear phenomena when you tune very close—when you do it with unison it has to be binaural or else you just get beats—but when the beats disappear and you get closer and closer to the 3rd or the 5th or whatever interval and it turns into a shape. I’ve always been very preoccupied with these different shapes, and of course I have particular frequencies I like, too. But it’s the shapes, when it gets really slow and huge, and you’re not hearing the beats but it is a beat frequency that’s producing the shape. It’s something that I’ve experienced, again, only because I work experientially.

I used to move from studio to studio always trying to tune these oscillators to get these things. [Sigh] They would drift and it was making me crazy. Once I got locked into the Queens studio all weekend and it was 98 degrees. After that I thought I was never going to do this kind of work again until I had my own setup.

Shortly after that it was great to read this article in Scientific American called “Auditory Beats in the Brain” [October 1973]. The author, biophysicist Gerald Oster, did many experiments and people experienced these different shapes as spirals… They perceived them in the experiments he made. It was really helpful to me. I later met him in New York.

Frank J. Oteri: Now, in terms of perception, most of the music around us these days—whether it’s commercial popular music or classical music, jazz, or even most experimental music—is created within a pitch grid of twelve-tone equal temperament and anything else is somehow alien. The ear can hear so much more than that, yet if you’re not acclimated to it, you might perceive anything else as indistinguishable or as being out of tune. Anyone should be able to hear a just interval like a pure 5th, a pure 3rd, or a natural 7th, an extraordinarily beautiful interval which hadn’t existed in most music until contemporary composers started using it again. How important for you is audience perception? Is it important to you that they hear what you’re hearing?

Maryanne Amacher: I’m not sure we always hear the same things, but I think what I was just talking about with pattern modulation, when you get these shapes, I think everyone experiences that. I don’t know if it’s so much a matter of everyone experiencing what I’m experiencing. But I would like it, whatever it is, to be vivid and have a kind of reality to it. It’s not based on some kind of habit. These are vivid experiences. Yours might be different than mine… I don’t think I could do it with two speakers. I don’t even like to do it with multi-speakers, with 15 speakers all around because all this direct sound loses a kind of magic.

Frank J. Oteri: In a book about John Cage that you contributed an essay to, you brought up something that I thought was so interesting about how music is packaged. We have this notion that everybody has to have the same experience of a pop song or a Mozart recording. You have a big audience that comes to hear a performance and they all should be hearing the same thing, but in fact no one hears the exact same thing. Each person is different and does not hear things the same way. As you said, a work of art, a painting, or a sculpture, is a singularity, only one of it exists. You might reproduce it in a book, but it’s not the work. Whereas with music, we have a notion that it’s reproducible. There can be 1,000 copies of a recording of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or the latest Ricky Martin pop single, and they’re exactly the same. But the reality is much subtler than that. Each person has his or her own music and that is something that hasn’t really been addressed in the history of music.

Maryanne Amacher: I have no doubt that will be one part of music in the future. Today with all the customization and tailoring, you no longer have to necessarily think about music for millions. Music can be for millions, but it can actually be tailored for a specific individual. Just yesterday a chemist at UCLA who used techniques from nanotechnology took yeast cells and made a nanodevice which he used to discover that the cells produce sounds. It’s not proven yet. These were just yeast cells, which were supposedly emitting a frequency that could be heard. The frequency was about a C-sharp or D one octave about middle C. They’re very hopeful that if it’s proven, it could be very beneficial for health purposes. This connection of music to certain cells is basically what I talked about in the article about Cage. The person creating the music may eventually be able to create certain movements in the cells themselves. Living Sound, Patent Pending, which I made in 1980, was one of the projections.

Not too long ago there was a microbiologist in San Diego and he spilled this sample on a CD, a music CD. He didn’t realize it right away and he tried to put it in the player and of course it didn’t play. Because he was very clever he worked out this whole idea—which I can’t explain well right now—of the genetic detecting of the protein molecules, which is an expensive operation. These machines are like $300,000 in each lab. He was able to do that, maybe not quite as exact, but using this crazy technique and an ink jet printer that he got at a garage sale for $20. He wasn’t talking about it producing sounds, see that’s the catch.

I just made my first work in this futurist projection, which is really just quite fun. I didn’t have anything else, so I put my blood on the CD, and of course I put some sound. I called it Interactive Precursor, First Protein Modulation; I can show it to you.

Frank J. Oteri: Yeah, at some point maybe.

Maryanne Amacher: But then I thought more and more about it. Won’t it be fantastic because everyone says, “Oh, CDs. We’re just going to get everything from streaming live.” So this will be a great use for a CD. Then, you know, you can mix different things like our bloods and so on and see how that interacts with the music [laughs].

Frank J. Oteri: When we first came over and you were playing us your work, we heard it in a whole different way. In terms of the physical nature of different people responding to sound in different ways and it being a personalized experience for everybody, you discovered something very early on that’s been a very key part of your vocabulary, and this is this music for the “third ear.” As I listened I actually felt something. I felt my ear vibrating. It was startling. I felt it listening to the disc before, but I never felt it as strongly as I did this afternoon. It was a very intense physical experience. I think the only other time I’d ever felt it was when music had been too loud and it was painful. It’s something we’re actually taught to avoid. But this wasn’t painful. This was something else. It was actually rather the opposite of painful. It felt like my ears were being tickled. It is a very, very interesting phenomenon. How did you first stumble upon these sounds? How do you use them? Why do they do that? How did you get my ears to do that?

Maryanne Amacher: First of all it’s another one of those things that I observed very early. It was all part of this notion of perceptual geographies. In 1977, the theory was proven—even though this was postulated by Thomas Gold in 1948—that the ear actually emits sound as well as receives it. So there are laboratories all over the world dedicated to this. Now see, this is what I think is funny about music—none of us know this. What in the world are we doing? I mean really to compose consciously. I’ve been trying half of my life to get this program where I can really know that if I choose a second combination of tones that this low D-sharp is going to have a certain kind of timbre that my ear is making, a certain quality, rather than if I choose another one. I really want to know this, because this same low D-sharp of 77hz will sound from many different intervals. You know it’s a bit obscured by the timbres, right? But our ears are doing this all the time. So these things can be reinforced or they can be enhanced for a more vivid experience in the music you create.

Frank J. Oteri: You played us a QuickTime file of an organist playing the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, with video of what it was doing to someone’s ear. The more voices that were added to that famous chord in the beginning, the more things started appearing in the ear as a response. So if this has been a part of all the music we hear, why is it that until I heard your music this afternoon, I wasn’t aware of it?

Maryanne Amacher: It’s just so strange about music. [laughs] I don’t know. I guess that’s what fascinates me with it because this is a very fundamental thing. And, not only that, in laboratories they test hearing this way and they test babies and you can actually listen to another person’s ear, even. These are called otoacoustic emissions or SOAEs. If you’re in a quiet enough place some people actually are able to hear the sound that’s coming out of another person and this is not stimulated by sound.

Frank J. Oteri: But this has never been part of the vocabulary. This is not part of the vocabulary of music in any culture, or at least not the conscious vocabulary as far as I know…

Maryanne Amacher: Not so true, I mean look at all the Tibetan and Mongolian people singing to make those results. I’m sure they know what they want to make and they have conscious effects. Maybe they don’t think about it the same way. It’s even speculated that in really vivid performances of, you know, concertos or what have you, people are bringing out some of these qualities. What’s exciting for me is because all this has sort of been subliminally experienced in our music, because of the complexity of the overtones and everything, it’s exciting to think of the kind of energy that could be released when it’s not suppressed anymore. Imagine an audience in a concert hall just creating this music that’s a part of the string quartet at the same time.

Frank J. Oteri: So there are certain combinations of frequencies and timbres that will do this?

Maryanne Amacher: Well, what I just played for you for example, is something that I just make intuitively. I don’t know actually what’s going on because you could listen to that, not that you’d want to, but you could listen to it for 24 hours or something and you’d still get the effect. The other kind of choice is what are called first, second, and third order difference tones. Now, we’re getting these all the time in electronic music and sometimes it sounds like you know a funny modulation or funny garble and you think it’s timbre. It’s not—your ear is doing that. Your ear is making a lot of these funny sounds. It’s not necessarily the electronics at all. But you know it’s quite a challenge because you would habituate. You would get the experience and then suddenly, you would become desensitized to it. You would know it. Part of the craft is how you would remove this if you chose to do that.

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