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  • The Encircling SelfIn Memory of Maryanne Amacher
  • Paul Kaiser (bio)

Much of my work is collaborative, and usually successfully so. But this series of reflections, which was written with much difficulty over a period of about eight months, came to me in the painful aftermath of a failed collaboration with an old friend, the composer Maryanne Amacher (1938–2009), who died less than a year after I’d broken off working with her.

Within a very small circle of electronic musicians and aficionados, Maryanne had long been a cult figure, and I was well aware of the genius ascribed to her when we first met, though (as I’ll relate) it turned out to be exceedingly difficult for me to see her gifts manifested in actual pieces. Though part of the obstacle was undoubtedly Maryanne herself, it’s also true that it’s often hard coming to terms with the kinds of time-based work that elude recording: they leave behind memories that fade too quickly and summaries that ask you to rely too much on faith.

In what follows I’ve tried to make sense of Maryanne’s complicated personality and difficult work, which were so tightly interwoven as to make impossible the formalist insistence that the best judgment of art ignores biography and circumstance. It’s the very possibility of judgment that proved so difficult for me here, though I was certain that the usual yes/no, thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach was inexcusably lazy, made worse by the politically correct avoidance of the uncomfortable aspects of key questions. And so I tried picking my way through difficult terrain, made no easier by the preconceptions, biases, and large swathes of ignorance that I kept encountering not only in my subject but also in myself.

As you’ll see, this took me on an odd route indeed, which after several false starts finally began here:

What’s in the Box?

My first lesson in plot analysis and in self-inflicted fate came in the unlikely form of a vampire movie that I saw at about age ten. [End Page 10]

The lesson I learned doesn’t depend on the circumstances in which I learned it, but since the scene stands out so clearly in my memory, I might mention that this was on a late afternoon in 1966 or 1967. It took place in the Marine Guards’ living quarters, which was across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, where my father worked as a diplomat. On Saturday afternoons, my brother and I used to go over to hang out with the Marines, enlisted men whom we looked up to with a good deal of awe, though in fact they were determinedly regular American guys with next to nothing macho or warrior-like about them.

Lacking American television, the Marines made do with the old 16 mm prints that the Pentagon circulated among the military’s far-flung outposts — to isolated places like this one behind the Iron Curtain and to the various embattled bases in Vietnam where these guards had recently survived their mandatory one-year tours of combat duty.

On that particular afternoon, the black-and-white movie was already flickering against their living-room wall, but we’d arrived in time for the scene that has stuck in my mind ever since. One of the Marines, who’d watched the film enough times to have gotten it down cold, pointed intently at a figure in the projection. He told us to keep a close eye on the guy to see where his curiosity would land him.

Evidently a newly arrived guest in Count Dracula’s castle, the poor fellow had heard strange noises in the hall outside his bedroom and had cracked his door open just in time to glimpse the Count’s trusted old servant staggering a bit under the weight of the large pine-wood box he was carrying on his shoulder. Soon he disappeared with the box down a dark stairway, and the guest, curious about what was in that box, went after him.

I don’t have a visual memory of the scene that follows, but I surmise...


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