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No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE - Maryanne Amacher

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Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time - In Berkeley

The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

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Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

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No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE
Maryanne Amacher

November 27,1985

On Saturdays I like to sleep late — if possible, till seven or eight in the evening. Usually I spend Friday night gallery-crawling with my shady art journalism cronies, and I don't get in till as late as nine or ten p.m. The tawdry thrills associated with checking out the latest and strangest in the world of creative expression has the effect of draining me of every ounce of energy, so there's nothing else to do after getting home but put in a good twenty hours with the sheets and pillow. If it’s a nice day outside, sometimes I sleep right through to Sunday.

So it was literally a rude awakening the other night, around six- thirty on Saturday, when the phone rang. A woman's voice on the other end. It was the chief. I might have known.

“Anderson, that you? You sound a little groggy."

"I was taking a nap,” I said.  "Big evening coming up."

”Big evening, huh? Well, cancel it. Something hot just came in over the teletype.”

"What," I growled, rubbing one eye, "the symphony's gone on strike again? Have the copyboy cover it. I've got better things to do with my time,” stifled a yawn.

She wasn't listening to me.

"Word is that something's about to happen over on Capp Street in San Francisco. A foundation has taken over a residence, covered it in corrugated tin, and is running an artist-in-residence program out of it -­and they're running this program openly.”

I scoffed. "What do you mean, openly? They'll let anyone just walk right in off the street?"

"You got it, Charley,” she said. "There's no admission. Anybody with shoes can walk in there and see what there is to see. And hear.”


"The woman who opens there tonight is a composer. She's presenting a piece using the entire house as an environmental setting. Get this — they're calling it a reception. It's scheduled for nine. I wouldn't be surprised if there's wine and Calistoga water. Now, if you're not interested, I think I could always get Delancy over at the aleatoric art desk to—“

I was already pulling my pants on — a hard thing to do when you're on the phone. ''Never mind Delancy" I said. "You've hooked me again. Gimme the address. I guess.” I sighed, "my big Saturday night can wait."

The address she gave me was 65 Capp Street, not far from the corner of Mission and 16th. I found a parking spot almost smack at the intersection, but as I climbed out of my 48 Studebaker, adjusting my fedora in the sideview mirror, I had the feeling the chief had goofed up this time. Across the street there was some kind of franchise pizza parlor, and I could spot four little rundown taquerias from where I was standing. Inner-city youths with ghetto blasters were hanging out waiting for a bus. This sure didn't look like the sort of area where an arts foundation could get away with bringing off a major experimental­artist-in-residence caper. Then again, the last time the chief had been wrong was sometime in 1959. If she said there was a modern-music happening going down in the vicinity, I felt it behooved me to give the terrain the once-over. I lit an Old Gold and started hoofing it down 16th.

Things started shaping up right away. I came across something called the Victoria Theater; according to the playbill, they were offering a live stage musical adapted from The Little Prince, starring John Phillip Law. Further down the block, Studio Rhinoceros was advertising in bright lights on the marquee The Newest AIDS Play. Grim, grim. It was starting to look as though late-twentieth-century culture was establishing a beachhead in the area.
Capp Street was more like an alley than a street; on one side, cyclone-fenced parking lots, on the other, fine-looking old row houses. One dwelling looked somehow different from the others. I gazed at it thoughtfully. Maybe it was the way someone had covered the entire exterior in corrugated tin — yes, that was it!  It did make the place stand out. And the growing crowd of well-dressed Anglos in front told me that I had reached 65 Capp even before I got a gander at the number on the front door.
I bellied up to the side of the house (the front door was closed) with the rest of the thrill-seekers and checked my Bulova. Nine on the nose. I looked at the door again, then at the people standing around. Quite the crew. Some of the women were got up to look like  Morticia on The Addams Family and about half of the men wore leather jackets that must have cost a thousand bucks a pop. It was cold. I looked at the door again. After I had been staring at it for a while, it opened and a woman stuck her head out.

"We'll be starting in about five minutes,” she said.

"My watch says nine-oh-five,” someone said plaintively. He was shivering.

The woman checked her own timepiece. "Mine says nine-oh-one. In any case, we'll be opening in five minutes,” and she closed the door.

What was this, The Wizard of Oz? But sure enough, after my Bulova had ticked 300 times the door opened again and people started to move inside. I wedged myself into the flow and entered, almost tripping on the first step of the inside landing.

It was dark. There were press releases on a little table. I grabbed one; so did everybody else. I looked around for some light to read it by, but there wasn't any. I seemed to be in a kind of living room; there was a divan, a couple of chairs, and not much else. In one corner someone had set up a battery of slide projectors that were blasting images disjointedly against walls and corners and ceiling. People were holding their press releases in front of the projectors in order to read them. (One person was actually filling out a racing form.) It seemed to me like an undignified way to get information. I decided to check the lay of the land first, then find some better means of getting the low-down on just what was going on here.
A big line of people was already clotting its way through a passage­way on the other side of the room. "Wine and Calistoga water,” the chief had said. I squeezed my way through, past what looked to be a darkened kitchen lit only by tiny candles on the countertops, into a back room where some poor guy was standing behind a table pouring drinks from a bottle of wine, a bottle of Chartreuse, and a bottle of water with bubbles in it. Callstoga, it said on the label. The chief had called it again.

I flashed my press credentials at the guy behind the table; he looked surly, but he spoke up quick. "What'll you have?” It's a byword with these types that you never keep a reporter waiting.

"Gimme a rye,” I said.

"Sorry, we don't have any rye. Would you care for some Chartreuse?"

I blanched. "No rye? Then gimme a Calistoga water. Put a squeeze of lime in it, and don't be stingy.”

He wasn't. I took the drink from him and sipped it while staring at the two sets of words being projected on either wall. In almost no time I had them pegged: J.G. Ballard on one wall, Olaf Stapledon on the other. The Ballard verbiage had something to do with a house filled with strange music. Which reminded me: Didn't the chief say something about a composer holding forth here tonight? So far all I had come across was a few slide projections, a dark house, and a poorly stocked bar. And a hell of a lot of people.

Because the place was really filling up now. I shouldered my way through the crowd and back to the living room. Wall to wall people, a lot of talk, but no music.

I went into the kitchen — yes, that's what it was. A sink, a refrigerator, cupboards. Very dark. I held the press release in front of one of the little candles, but it was no go. Then I got a bright idea. I took out my Zippo lighter, flared it on and held it up while I checked out the release.

It seemed that I was in the middle of something called SOUND­HOUSE/A Mini Sound Series, laid on by Maryanne Amacher under the auspices of the Capp Street Project. This Project, I learned, makes a practice of turning the place over to an artist for about three months at a stretch. The artist gets free living and working quarters plus five hundred smackers a month for hamburgers and cigarettes; and all he or she has to do in return is have something creative going on in the space by the sixth week of his or her stay. Capp Street takes care of all the publicity, all the leg work. National Endowment money, you see. And God knows what else.

As for Maryanne Amacher, her credentials were all in order. With a background in music, acoustics, and computers, she was described as "a composer, performer, and multi­media artist." She had put on her works in places like the Whitney Museum, in New York, and the Cultura Communa di Roma, in — guess where? She had even collaborated with John Cage. Seeing the name in the press release gave me a pang. Poor old John. If he had only listened to me. Way back in the forties I told him, "John, putting the screwdrivers and chains in the piano wires is all very well and good. But, look, go easy on the microphones attached to your stomach to pick up the gurgling noises. The public isn't ready for it.” But did he listen to me? And now what did he have to show for it? A seat in the American Academy, worldwide stature as a cultural liberator. Empty rewards. He could have had a real career doing TV scores.

Still and all, if the Amacher woman had worked with John, then she had to have something on the ball. I never knew J.C. to suffer fools gladly. But then again, where was the music?

I explored the house some more. In the living room there was a staircase running up one wall. I climbed it and found a raised walkway above the living room from which you could watch the people mingling below. The walkway led to an attic space where two or three people were already making use of the two or three chairs to do a little lounging with their wine. Beyond that, a door led to an open-air deck. More people. Across the fence to one side, a neighbor's kitchen window spilled light past a wooden fire-escape into a high-fenced back yard. Down in the street on the other side, two cars were parked nose to nose while their owners fumbled with jumper cables. An outside stairway led to a side entrance just opposite the kitchen.

I went back to the living room, and suddenly the entire house was filled with an angry electronic sound that seemed to come from everywhere. Only then did I notice the large speakers positioned here and there about the place. Sound-waves filled the house like a substance. People jostled each other. A woman passed by me with her fingers in her ears, probably heading for the bar. I wondered if the composer was present, or if she had simply set a timer to roll a tape at a certain moment. I maneuvered around the room, rubbernecking; and finally the seas parted to reveal Maryanne Amacher at work.

With long blonde hair brushed back, Lois Lane glasses, and a look of deadly seriousness, she was standing behind a lashed-together console in one corner, turning knobs intently. Lights shone up from the console onto her face. You saw her arms move, and the sound changed intensified, expanded, coalesced. It was like a solemn avalanche of noise. Dispassionately she moved her arms, keeping the avalanche in motion.

By now, the wall projections were completely blocked by people--quotations from great paintings, strange abbreviated scenes, were splattered piecemeal across jackets and skirts. It was absolutely impossible to hold a conversation, but people were shouting into each other's ears anyway. Something about the darkened, flickering house, the unrelenting stream of sound, the confusion of the crowd, started to get to me. I made my way to the staircase and stumbled upwards. I picked my way through the mob on the walkway and passed into the attic space. It was a little better. The people in the chairs might have fallen asleep. The sound was like a murder happening in another room. Just close your eyes and it was less than real...

It would be hard to say just how long the concert went on, but there did eventually come a moment when the sound stopped and the underlayer of crowd-babble made a sudden leap to the fore. I went in back for another water and lime. Maryanne Amacher was there having her picture taken by the light of projectors spilling across her face. A few moments later I saw her circulating around the living room with a drink in her hand, smiling. The babble rose. People were hitting on each other. It was over. I finished my drink and made tracks.

.    .     .

I stopped off at the city room on my way home. The chief was there, bent over the teletype, ready to pounce on any stray news concerning the ongoing struggle of artists to find their voice in the 1980s. Take-out cartons from The Long Life Vegi House were scattered at her feet. I'd lay odds she hadn't slept in days.

"Oh, Anderson, it's you,” she said, looking up "So how did that Capp Street story pan out?"

I went to my desk and got a bottle of rye out of the bottom drawer. I found some Dixie cups by the water cooler and poured us each a drink. We took a healthy swallow. It might not be carbonated water, but it was my kind of booze.

"You were right again. chief,” I said quietly. ''It was more than just a concert. It was a real experience. And a little frightening at that. I'll say one thing for Maryanne Amacher: she doesn't mess around. She laid some sound on those people that they're not likely to forget soon.”

“And the foundation itself,” the chief pursued. "What's the gaff on that?"

"They're on the level,” I told her, "and they're doing a hell of a job. Artists like the Amacher woman don't stand a chance in hell of doing any serious work unless projects like Capp Street foot the bill and provide a little breathing room.” I poured myself another drink; she was still working on hers. "If it ever comes up as a bond issue, they've got my vote.”



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