Annea Lockwood - Musician, New Zealand
“Affective Sound Maps”
LS: A great part of your musical works and of your performances shows an explicit interest towards environmental sounds and elements, and I always thought of a deep, interesting and personal approach of yours to the definition of art as “the imitation of nature in her manner of operation”, which also John Cage liked to quote. Just to name a few, I’m thinking about the Piano Transplants , the sound maps of the rivers, and the recent score for Jitterbug . Can you tell us about your personal way of relating to the environment, to the landscape, and to nature? When and where did it begin, how did it develop, and has it changed nowadays?
AL: I was lucky to have been born in Christchurch, NZ, the daughter of a father whose passion was mountaineering, so we spent a lot of time up in the NZ Alps, which is a deep, if intangible, learning. That’s where my fascination with rivers originated also. You learn to love the power of natural forces and the complex rhythms of their sounds. And as with many of us, I want to intensify my sense of connection with rocks, rivers, bugs, mountains, everything around me – my sense of ‘non-separation’. Mountains are still a source of well-being for me, of spaciousness, proportion and release. I spend summers up in NW Montana where I can hike in the Rockies and swim in a large lake. The rest of the year I’m near New York City, up the Hudson River, and the two places balance each other very well.
The harmful legacy of sheep farming practices, in the form of erosion, was very obvious in the high country; my parents often remarked on it. It seemed rooted in that old, damaging belief in human dominion over the land; without working it out consciously, I wanted to resist that view of things. Through exploring the sounds created by natural phenomena and processes, I think I am trying to embed myself in the antidote, awareness of non-separation, much as my father did through his love of the mountains.
Between 1968 and 1982 I took to placing ruined piano in various sites in a series of installations called The Piano Transplants. These, with the exception of Piano Burning, sprang from my love of incongruity and displacement, but also allowed people to watch the gradual dismembering of strong and intricate human constructions by the soft power of plants (Piano Garden) and water (Piano Drowning and the beached piano installations).
LS: The rivers, with their symbolic and physical qualities, occupy a special place in your work. As you wrote, an aural scan of a river is very different from a visual scan. In your Sound Maps , the conceptual approach, the sensuous intimate experience of listening, and a sort of narrative seem to merge without discontinuities, immersing the listener in a deep experience which reveals new possibilities every time.
Where did the interest for mapping rivers’ sound came from, and does it have any relation with their visual representations (especially through photography, and video) and with specific texts that you met?
AL: Rivers were a beautiful and unpredictable element of those NZ landscapes. Braided rivers would change channels frequently; it was always interesting to see which was the new main channel in one particular river, the Waimakariri, for example. Rain upstream could send down a big surge of water , so river crossings often required roping up. So the environment was clearly alive and enticing.
You ask if this interest is related to visual representations of water. As I think about this, I realize that most of the images on our walls in both houses, incorporate water in some way and my studio has only water – posters, photographs. The house in Montana is on the lakeshore; contemplating the constantly moving water surface is our evening entertainment. But my deepest contact is through my ears. Recording and composing with environmental sound is an intimate way of exploring this aliveness – a big reason why I use minimal processing, generally, and practically none with the rivers. I want to feel the energy flow of a river through its sound, as directly and fully as possible, and to enable other listeners to also feel that immersion, so processing tends to function as an interpretive screen, I find, and can get in the way.
I gravitate towards visual artists who create detailed studies of water surfaces without obvious manipulation. I found Roni Horn’s images of the Thames, in her show, Still Water (the River Thames, for Example), with her unsettling footnotes, compelling, ambiguous. Often dark in their associations, they lingered in my mind suggestively for years and may have surfaced while I was working on the Danube some years later, when I interviewed Gizela Ivkovíc about the destruction of the Danube bridges at Novi Sad, Serbia, during the 1999 NATO bombings. That river’s human history has a dark side, as you would expect of a great natural frontier, and the way people think about the river today is of course rooted in that history. An experience in Mohács, southern Hungary, sensitised me to this aspect much more, yet it was really indirect. I was listening to a terrific gypsy trio in a bar on the river bank, and wandered over to the railing to look at the river in moonlight, very black, shining, when the band invited a singer up and she launched into I think the saddest song I’ve ever heard, a Serbian love song. That combination, the impenetrable blackness of the water, the song, brought home to me how there is this sorrowful aspect of the river, how it has been used for human violence, hence my questions to Geza Ivkovíc.
And how could I forget Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese painter, the strongest influence on my work with environmental sound for years? Especially the following text from the colophon of The Hundred Views of Mount Fuji: “At the age of seventy-three I finally apprehended something of the true nature of birds, animals, insects, fishes and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefor at the age of eighty-six I shall have made some progress. At ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things; at one hundred I shall have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own.” It is that final passage, “each dot, each line”, each sound “shall surely possess a life of its own” which still inspires me to work further and deeper, more than any other source. I found it at an exhibition of his paintings in Milano, years ago.
LS: You are always very careful about the specificities – physical, conceptual and emotional – of the sounding materials you employ: conventional instruments, objects (like those made of glass), and complex sites. For A Sound Map of the Danube , you decided to incorporate also the voices of people living in contact with the river, to investigate and understand further the river’s qualities, and how they influence humans. Can you tell us about your concern with history, spirituality (I’m also thinking about Duende right now), and other aspects that in your work appear closely related to acoustic expression, be it human, vegetal or mineral? How have the places where you lived influenced your cultural and perceptual approach to sound, to music, and to the performative dimension of your work?
AL: A question came to mind, twenty years after I had recorded the Hudson River, it was the motivating force behind my sound map of the Danube: “What is a river? What is its nature?”, a question I didn’t feel I’d probed far enough with the Sound Map of the Hudson River. As I thought about the Danube, its human history, so rich and so central to European development, I began thinking about river people as being as deeply a part of the river and its ecosystem as are its fish, insects, plants, animals, not separate from it, and I wanted to explore what draws us to rivers so strongly. I sought out people whose lives are closely bound up with the river, and asked them “What does the river mean to you? Could you live without it?” One of the most striking answers came from Michael Fröschl, a cabinet-maker from Grein (Austria):
“This river, which brings a kind of power with it – but also a sort of crazy energy comes from the current – you have to go along with it. I can’t imagine living without the Danube… When I’m not up to things, then two or three hours on the Danube – it’s a completely different world… It’s the best medicine for us.”
The idea of recording rivers in this way came in the late ‘60s, with a reading of the English writer, John Michell’s visionary book, The View Over Atlantis (1969), in which he refers to an old practice of taking people whose minds were disturbed to a river for a whole day at a time. When I found the book I was deeply interested in how sound affects our bodies and minds, as were many of us at the time. It seemed a rather basic, necessary thing for a composer to be aware of, after all, composing being ultimately a two-way experience, and I was looking for a sound source which was inherently complex in every parameter. So this really got me going. Might there be sonic aspects of a riparian environment which affect and attract us? I’ve come to think the combination of continuously varied surface detail, (the tiny sounds of surface action) with an overall and lulling sense of repetition, keeps you stimulated and relaxed, simultaneously.
Exploring all this, I started compiling a River Archive, to which friends contributed recordings and making sound installations based on it, titled Play the Ganges backwards one more time, Sam. Then in 1982 I decided to focus on just one river, along its whole length, the Hudson River, which is beloved by New Yorkers, but largely for its visual beauty. They rarely have an opportunity to hear its sonic nature unless they’re out on the water. With that installation I wanted to convey a sense of the river’s power, again something you can’t feel down in Manhattan unless you’re out on it. I talked with various people living and working on the river, focused in each case on some direct bodily experience of the river, such as a park ranger’s hilarious account of floating a fisherman’s body downstream by wading in very cold November water. Six of these interviews can be heard through headphones, an intimate connection I feel, while the river’s sounds come through the loudspeaker system, filling the larger space.
With A Sound Map of the Danube, I probed deeper into people’s personal, spiritual bonds with that river, and then, for A Sound Map of the Housatonic River I set the human element aside, wanting just to envelop myself in the water’s sound world. But also, unlike the other two rivers, the Housatonic can feel oddly detached from the human communities along its banks, I suspect because of its history of industrial pollution.
LS: How did (and do) you prepare your Sound Map of the rivers projects? For example, can you tell us about your experience in planning and making A Sound Map of the Housatonic River , from the initial documentation, to the traveling process for discovering and recording, to the final mix of the audio track and the documentation provided for the installation and included with the CD?
AL: I started, as with the other two rivers, by getting hold of very detailed maps, then simply drove up to the headwaters in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, and spent several days tracking and recording the first sounds of its three sources. From there my process is always to work my way downstream, searching out sites which sound vivid, fresh to my ears, and which will contrast well with other sites – keeping the overall flow of the work lively. This way, too, I can see how a river grows and changes as its terrain changes – what I think of as its energy flow. The location of each recorded site is noted on the maps I’m following as precisely as possible, with date and time logged digitally and by hand in a notebook, along with other observations.
This is a slow process; I am learning the river, and in no hurry. I record from the bank, which allows me to record a site in detail, sometimes on different days to capture different conditions, and usually in close-up. Then I start assembling the audio map in my studio, choosing which sites to include, using equalization if necessary, deciding on the duration of each site, which is very much a subjective decision but also with an ear to avoiding falling into patterns of durations – another way to keep the flow alive. Then I work on the transitions from site to site, develop some plans for multi-channel mixing to 4 or 6 channels – the Housatonic is a 4 channel work, the Danube 5.1. This stage is done with an audio engineer, Paul Geluso at Harvestworks, New York.
The final stage is the graphic design and for that I’m very fortunate to have two superb collaborators I’ve worked with since 2005, Baker Vail and Susan Huyser . Integral to each Sound Map is an actual canvas wall map, quite large and detailed, on which the sources, the tributaries, important geographical features are laid down by cartographer, Baker Vail. From there the map goes to the graphic designer, Susan Huyser, who checks it, then inserts a marker for each site. To the side, or below the map itself, she places text information: the entry time of that site in the overall time of the work, (e.g. 0:23, i.e. 23 minutes in), the date and time of recording, anything else of note. All of this is to give listeners a sense of place, of season, of time of day – the chance to imagine context. They track the sites by referring to a small time display, synchronized to the audio, hence the importance of the entry times on the map. People tend to look closely at the map, initially, and then move back and forth between checking the map and just lying back into the flow of sound. Comfortable seats are essential.
LS: What are the current projects you are working on? Can you give us some anticipations about the upcoming events that are listed on your website (www.annealockwood.com/events.htm)?
AL: You ask about current projects. I’m beginning work on a sound installation for summer, 2014 in collaboration with Robert Bielecki, the brilliant sound engineer and designer who has worked with La Monte Young and Laurie Anderson for years. The site is an avenue of trees on an estate, the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, which lies a little north of New York City. The sounds we are using are from sources beyond the human hearing range, infrasound, ultrasound – none human, most geophysical: solar oscillations, gas vents on the volcano Kilauea, hydrothermal vents on the sea floor in the Pacific, earthquakes, ultrasound emitted by stressed trees, bats. The one exception to the range requirement is the incorporation of chorus waves and whistlers, phenomena generated in the upper atmosphere’s Van Allen radiation belts. These are often recorded by ham radio operators. They fall within the human hearing range but are much too beautiful to leave out and, we tell ourselves, audible only via radio antennae.
The concept is that all these phenomena are interconnected, an inaudible web in which we move, and the generating image, for me, is of the trees funneling these energies into the oxygen we breathe as we walk near them.
Upcoming events: well, the Sound Hat, a wearable piece I made back in the ‘60s, is traveling with an exhibition about Better Books, a great bookstore/event place in London during that time. The Hat is a simple wire and ribbon brim hung with little sound makers – plastic discs, table tennis balls, little bamboo tubes, which are audible only to the wearer – a sort of personal chamber music ensemble. In the centre of the brim is a joss stick holder. The exhibition is designed by a very creative curator, Rosemin Keshvani. It started at Flat Time, London, moved on to ZKM, and will open in Trondheim at the Kunstmuseum later this year.
Three of the Piano Transplants will be installed in the UK in late June: the piano on the beach - Eastern Exposure – at the Harwich Festival, Piano Burning and Piano Garden in Bangor, Wales. Piano Garden and the beached piano are designed to stay in place until weather and ocean disassemble them. Piano Burning is a spectacle – the licks of fire moving through an upright are beautiful, over in about four hours and best at night.
Intervista a cura di Francesco Bergamo
Traduzione a cura di Francesco Bergamo