One unfortunate thing about electronics is that it has tended to divert our attention away from acoustics. Technical standards for quality recordings are higher every season, but I hear little improvement in playback techniques. Composers sometimes spend months perfecting prerecorded tapes for some performance, and then make crucial acoustical decisions about loudspeaker placement and level setting in only a few casual minutes. In live performances which combine amplified guitars or organs with unamplified winds or strings, the acoustical problem of getting a good blend with these two types of sound are often not solved very well. One hears a lot of discussion about the quality of various playback systems, but the acoustical problem of whether a certain playback system is right for a certain kind of music in a certain kind of space is often overlooked.
Maryanne Amacher (pronounced a-ma-shay) is acutely aware of both acoustics and electronics, and that is the main reason why the tapes and oscillators she played with the Cunningham Dance Company on December 3 worked so well. Working at extremely soft volume levels, Amacher made her electronic and prerecorded sounds diffuse into the Roundabout Theater so smoothly that I was never quite sure where they were coming from.
As I listened, I surmised that the loudspeakers had to be at varying distances from me. One seemed to be in front of the stage. I figured the others were up pretty high along the side walls somewhere. It turned out that there were two underneath the stage and two way back on the rear wall. I suppose a good acoustician might have figured that out, but it was not something that one would normally perceive.
This soft, almost directionless musical space which Amacher created was the critical factor in her music, which she calls ‘Labyrinth Gives Way to Skin,’ but the sounds themselves were of interest too. The most prominent were very low frequencies with indistinct pitches, which sometimes reminded me of distant jet planes. They faded in gradually, shifted and turned for a while, and then faded out again, only to come back later on. Sometimes there seemed to be two or three of them at once.
Against these sounds were more distinct motifs. One sounded like a distant cooing dove. Another was a short rising whistle which could also have been a bird. For a long while a short tone repeated itself every few seconds, reminding me of a distant train whistle. At other times I thought I was hearing distant wind or distant crickets. But the airplane-like humming always dominated.
It is not just carelessness which has led me to use the word ‘distant’ so many times in these paragraphs. It is the only word which explains the feeling of such soft music, and every image seems to require ‘distant’ as a modifier. And along with the distance came a difficulty in discerning the exact nature of every sound. While listening, I suspected that most of the music was on tape, and that a few of the birdlike sounds had been actually recorded outdoors, but that most of the sounds were synthetic. Later I learned that I had been all wrong. Almost all of the sounds had been recorded from real life. A few were electronic, but those were produced by oscillators, and were not on the tape at all. And I learned that the tape also contained some standard instrumental sounds, which I had never suspected at all.
This indiscernible quality in Amacher’s sound no doubt had something to do with the fine effect it had on the dance. It was the least obtrusive accompaniment I have ever heard with a Cunningham performance. Much of the time the sound of the dancers’ feet was louder than the music. Yet the soft sounds were doing their work, adding a gentleness, a sensitivity, and an occasional hint of outdoors to the otherwise abstract dancing, and Amacher was sensitive to the general level of activity going on in the choreography at the same time.
Of course most of the audience would not have been conscious of these things, I don’t think. After all, they were there primarily to watch the dancing. My own focus was on the music, not only because that is my field, but also because I had been wanting to hear Amacher’s work for some time. She is one electronic composer whom all the other electronic composers seem to admire, and now I can understand why. Currently affiliated with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T., she keeps well abreast of scientific research related to sound and perceptions. And her music reflects that kind of awareness.