Maryanne Amacher’s GLIA at Kammer Klang

Thursday 6 June 2019

The last ever Kammer Klang was a celebration in their typical brilliant and daring style. Two nights of talks and films about Maryanne Amacher at the ICA, culimating with a live performance of GLIA for seven musicians and tape.

Although Amacher died only ten years ago, this gig was an act of rediscovery – she only rarely composed for live musicians and these few works are seldom performed. Before the concert, a talk by Bill Dietz and Amy Cimini gave the long backstory to GLIA in which the challenges in performing Amacher’s music became all too evident. Beside the trademark loud, harsh electronic sounds of her fixed media and installation works, her notation for the musicians was often vague, allusive rather than instructive, in need of rehearsal with the composer (at one session, she shouted “Coltrane!” at the musicians, by way of explanation). Fortunately, several of the musicians on the night had played the premiere of the piece back in 2005 and Dietz, who controlled the sound diffusion, had collaborated with Amacher.

GLIA is a massive (70? 75 minutes?) block of sound that nevertheless falls into several distinct segments. The musicians sat at one end of the room, installed on a wedge of low platforms that rose in the centre to make a kind of pyramid. (Why? It was Amacher’s idea.) The audience were invited to mill around four loudspeakers marking out a large square in the centre of the room. Earplugs were handed out. After a surprisingly harmonious opening of synth tones and wavelike surges in the instruments, the visceral punch came.

The electronic sounds weren’t loud, as such, but seemed to replicate the effects of hearing overly loud sounds: high pitched and closely spaced, designed to set off the middle ear with the crunching, pulsating distortion that typically signals your hearing is in imminent danger. It creates an unnervingly physical dimension to the act of listening, an awareness that the music will not let you ignore. The small ensemble of strings, flutes and reeds acted as a supplement to the electronic sound, sometimes adding background coloration and shade, other times becoming a kind of harmonic filter. At a couple of points in the piece, two musicians left their platform and circulated with the punters, playing accordion and piccolo, to more directly enhance the physical effects being experienced.

Despite being at the end of years of research, development and interim compositions, GLIA was clearly not a culmination of Amacher’s work but just the latest stage of a work in progress. It’s hard to imagine that the piece would not have undergone further revisions and refinements had she continued with it. The musicians, from Ensemble Contrechamps and Zwischent√∂ne, played heroically but their instruments could have really used some amplification, if only out of consideration for their physical wellbeing. At times they needed to make every effort just to affect the overall sound, even if being heard wasn’t the prime consideration. Spatial effects are a large part of the piece, but encouraging the audience to move around detracted a bit from the sound’s impact, and so many bodies in the room would have had a deadening effect on some of the more subtle acoustic effects (another reason why amplification may have helped).

The ending, however, was just about perfect, in its simplicity and effect. A long, long, long fadeout from near-deafening to silence, the only change being in volume as the ear picked up a gradual spectrum of timbres and overtones and then lost them again, fainter until each one seemed like it would be the last.