A Challenge to Listening: Maryanne Amacher’s ‘GLIA’ at CTM

by Johanna Hardt // Feb. 10, 2023

American composer Maryanne Amacher refused to record her architecturally-staged soundworks. She believed this would never fully capture the sensory, experiential aspect at the core of her artistic vision. And she was probably correct. While there are a few digital copies of her pieces on Youtube and Spotify, listening to them doesn’t seem quite right. Unlike John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s extensive outputs that remain seminal documents of their achievements and continue to be widely listened to and studied, Amacher’s work is notoriously difficult to access. Her creations, which established her as a significant figure in the realm of late-20th-century experimental music, exist primarily as memories and descriptions, making them some of the most elusive and intangible in the field.

Her refusal is impossible to get around when approaching her work and clearly, says a lot about how she thought about music and how it should be listened to. Further, it means relying on second-hand meditations and interpretations. This requires believing in the productivity of not-knowing. Through her work, we must recognize the positive value of maintaining a certain level of uncertainty in our interactions with the world while opening ourselves to the potential for new and unexpected experiences.

The reconstruction of ‘GLIA’ at Radialsystem during this year’s CTM Festival in Berlin provided such an opportunity. Ensembles Contrechamps and Zwischentöne brought the performance to life under the direction of Bill Dietz, who had collaborated with Amacher for many years and is dedicated to making her world accessible. For approximately 70 minutes, audience members wandered through a dynamic multidimensional sonic environment defined by several loudspeakers and subwoofers, illuminated by soft and warm lighting. At the back, a pyramid-shaped platform served as the stage for seven musicians: Susanne Peters and Dorothee Sporbeck (flute), Maximilian Haft and Akiko Ahrendt (violin), Lucy Railton (cello) and Volker Schindel and Helles Weber (accordion). Less visible across from them was Dietz, who was responsible for electronics and conducting.

Many audience members came prepared with earplugs, anticipating abrasive sounds, but were taken aback by the soft, harmonious opening that lasted for 20 minutes and swept them through the engineered terrain. This segment was followed by the physical discomfort of anticipated potential hearing damage created by high-pitched distortions. Despite this, one made ample attempts to redirect one’s attention to the unamplified acoustic sounds produced by the musicians. Towards the end, when the volume gradually faded, the ear was gently guided by after-sounds, into heightened awareness of a broader spectrum of musical notes.

Our movements and interactions within the space, as well as psychological and physical reactions to the sound, were crucial for the piece. For Amacher, bodies have particular sound propensities. She was intrigued by the architecture of a building. But also by the architecture of the human body. The ear, she learned, does not merely receive sounds but generates them in response to other sounds. This phenomenon is called “otoacoustic emissions” and describes a source of sound unique to each participant. In ‘GLIA,’ we got the feeling our ears were some kind of synthesizer or amplifier, connecting acoustic with electronic elements.

Sound takes on a life of its own in this work, beyond human perception, and with the capacity to affect and shape experiences and environments as an active, generative force. At the same time, it makes us recognize sound as a relational phenomenon, a subjective and culturally-situated experience, shaped by individual perspectives and forming a dynamic interplay between listeners, the environment and other sounds.

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