Annea Lockwood

Photo by Heuchan Hobbs

Interview 8/23/11 with Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Annea Lockwood is a New York based composer and installation artist who has been making work internationally since the 1960s. Drawing inspiration from John Cage among others Lockwood frequently uses found sounds and is well known for her Sound Maps (1982-2005) series including the Hudson and the Danube. Other well known works of Lockwood's include the Piano Transplants (1969-72) in which she variously burned, drowned, beached and buried defunct pianos, and Glass Concert (1967), in which a variety of complex sounds were drawn from industrial glass products and shards, and then presented as an audio-visual theater piece.
Much more information and documentation is available on her website. Check out the "compositions" page for sound clips.

Download an excerpt from Annea's Sound Map of the Housatonic River 2010

Photo by Ruth Anderson

Heather: Tell us about your background as an artist: where are you from, how did you begin making work, what kind of work did you begin making?

Annea: I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand; I lived for about 12 years in England then moved to the US in 1973. I have been a composer all my life, starting to notate tunes etc., taught by my mother, at around 6 and went on to do a degree in music in Christchurch (1960) writing instrumental and vocal pieces, further studies at the Royal College of Music in London (‘61 - ‘63), and ended up studying electronic music and acoustic composition with the German composer Gottfried Michael Koenig (‘63 - ’64) in Cologne and in Holland.
When I was in Cologne I wrote a setting of several of Kafka’s Parables for voice and small ensemble (‘Aspects of a Parable’), but that was my last instrumental composition for many years. A couple of years after returning to London I started exploring resonances from glass in the ‘Glass Concerts’ (1967 - 72) and my focus shifted radically towards sound per se.

Heather: Who were your early mentors or inspirations?

Annea: Koenig’s teaching gave me a really solid foundation, conceptually and practically. He was not only an important composer in the area of early computer music, but a superb and encouraging teacher. But I discovered that serialism was not natural ground for me. I went to the Darmstadt Ferienkurs für Neue Musik in ‘62 and ‘63 and encountered LaMonte Young, and from there, John Cage who became by far the most mind-opening inspiration of those years, as he was for many other people of course. My copy of ‘Silence’ is thoroughly marked up! The practice of “letting each sound have its own life”, which I followed for many years as fundamental to my work, stems from reading/hearing/playing Cage and also Feldman.

Heather: What interested you in sound and how does sound feature in your work?

Annea: I joke that I started out interested in sound as a child because I have poor eyesight, but in fact my mother had composed music for theatre/dance productions she created in her ‘30s, and with my father, constantly listened to classical music. We were taken to concerts at a young age, and the city’s musical establishment encouraged my becoming a professional musician, as it did many other young players. So I have always been excited by sound in many forms.

Heather: What keeps you interested in sound

Annea: Sound is my natural habitat, simply. A number of aspects remain fascinating to me: its immateriality; the power with which it affects the body; the way sound reflects something of the being of its source: a river’s nature comes through in its sound, as does a player’s vitality.
And I most love unpredictability in sound.
Sound is my way of learning about the physical world.

Heather: Your work often has an environmental aspect or theme. Can you describe your relationship with environmentalism and how you use sound to explore nature?

Annea: I’ve been a member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology for several years and am very interested in the critical issues being raised in the field concerning disappearing soundscapes, acoustic markers of habitat change, urban noise levels etc., but I have not been involved in any formal studies in the field. My work with environmental sound is a personal exploration of my environment, and of a phenomenon, moving water particularly, as in my three river sound maps. A river’s soundscape reveals the water’s energy, directly, and the way it is shaping its environment, indirectly. For example, two hydrophone recordings I made while working on the Danube in Austria showed me that the energy of a current can fluctuate between ebbing and racing within a short time frame - minutes - contradicting the impression of steady pace which my eyes received and creating lovely musical phrasing. (Sound is a very direct medium, full of information.) One of these recordings was made in order to catch the intense hissing sound of smaller rocks/gravel sluicing downstream, a sound which can sometimes be heard by putting the handle of an oar to your ears, or through the bottom of a light wooden boat. Listening to it I am hearing the sound of geophysical change in real time.

So ‘A Sound Map of the Danube’, for example, is an exploration of the nature of the river as unfolds through varying terrain, of the riparian environments it shapes, and of people’s connection to rivers in general and my own.

Heather: You describe yourself as a composer but you have made many works that involve strong visual components in performance and you have also made a number of installations. How does your experience and education as a musical composer inform your visual sense and how does your visual sense inform your music?

Annea: ... in all those works there’s a certain economy in the visual style which is also true of the way I work with sound, I believe. Beyond that, there’s variety in the way the sound and the visual relate: in ‘Thousand Year Dreaming’, a work for mixed ensemble and slide projections of images from the Lascaux caves, those images came to mind quickly as I started conceiving the piece and so became as fundamentally integrated into the work as are the didjeridus and other instruments. They embody visually the primal energy the piece seeks to create in the bodies of listeners.

The three Sound Maps, on the other hand, incorporate large maps of those rivers, but these are for information, to orient a listener. Each site in the mix is numbered on the maps, with accompanying information about when it can be heard, when it was recorded and sometimes identification of the primary sound in the take, e.g. 1.07:31 (time) 28 (site number) Devín (Slovakia), two barges passing: ‘Enok’ and ‘Ramsau’, Oct 22 ’02, 11am. There are no images of the river on or near the Map and no video, to insure that the focus is aural.

And finally, in ‘Piano Burning’ the visuals stole the scene quickly. I used to place an old mic in the piano to record the burning, but gave that up after the first couple of burnings because the beauty of the visuals became the strongest element by far.

Heather: How do you see sound art operating within culture of where you operate - the music and art scene?

Annea: Music is ubiquitous in human societies, a fundamental form of communication I think, so it’s not surprising that it’s become electronically ubiquitous in our own culture generally, and within the music and art scene as ‘sound art’. This is drawing artists from other media, such as visual and kinetic media into making their own sound an integral part of their art, and people like me into incorporating visual elements and, sometimes, movement into musical works. Just as we don’t experience our environment through one sense at a time, many of us no longer express our ideas through one sensory channel at a time. This is not new, but now the technical tools needed to work across disciplines are so accessible and affordable that it’s becoming more widespread, which is excellent.

Heather: What challenges have you faced in the field?

Annea: The challenges I’ve faced are of my own making, the biggest being gradually allowing my aesthetic preferences (such as minimal manipulation of my field recordings), and my circumstances to narrow my practice. For example I used to improvise regularly while I was in England and again when I first came to the States, and loved performing, so I made a number of performance works for myself throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then in the early ‘80s I began to be asked for instrumental and vocal pieces, areas I hadn’t been interested in since the late ‘60s. Feeling that I’d limited myself I took these invitations as an opportunity to broaden my practice again and jumped back in, but by then I was teaching full time, and so I started cutting back on performing. Instead I found writing for other performers and working on prerecorded electroacoustic pieces worked better with my teaching schedule. Retiring from teaching freed me to undertake extended installations such as ‘A Sound Map of the Danube’ (2001-5) That’s how I’m still working, ten years after retiring from teaching - composing scores for others and prerecorded electroacoustic works, but now I’m questioning the limitations of that choice.

Heather: What are you working on right now?

Annea: I’ve just been working on a collaborative site-specific installation with Fitz Patton, a sound designer and composer whose idea it was, and Stephen Matysik, a programmer, at the i-Park Artists Enclave, in Connecticut. We hope to expand the work and take it elsewhere. It utilises various sensors (accelerometers for wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, light) and hydrophones to reveal something of the aquatic, invisible soundworld of a pond and something of conditions in the invisible upper canopy of large trees nearby.

Heather: What words of advice would you give other aspiring women in sound?

Annea: Persist.