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Interview with Annea Lockwood

img  Tobias Fischer

Annea Lockwood once called herself a 'river fanatic'. That, she now says, may have been too strong a word. For one, her oeuvre encompasses a lot more than just her work with water, extending from chamber- and vocal music to electro-acoustic compositions, installations and events. Nonetheless, she's happy to admit that she finds "rivers, their power, the way they carve through the landscape, change, sound, the way light plays on their surfaces, the ways they affect human history, endlessly interesting." You can hear this passion in her three Sound Maps of the Hudson, Danube and Housatonic rivers. Each of them is both acoustic representation and artistic interpretation at the same time, a creative, social, political, ecological and sonic discussion of the structures growing around it. This was clearest, perhaps, on the Sound Map of the Danube, on which expansive interviews in many different languages  and the turbulent run of the river from its humble beginnings to a wild release into the Black Sea added a strong sense of narrative and tension to the composition. Compared to the dynamics of the Danube, Lockwood's latest Sound Map of the Housatonic river, released on Ákos Garai's 3LEAVES label, is a far more quiet and subtle work, almost meditatively focused on tiny variations in water movement. But there's more behind this tranquil surface than meets the ear. Ecological and personal topics hide behind a veil of delicacy, opening up bigger questions the more one immerses oneself in it. A Sound Map of the Housatonic River demands time, patience and active emotional engagement from the listener. But once one is in knee-deep, there's no escape from its riveting rapids.

If I understood correctly, the Sound Maps weren't your first pieces to deal with water.
In the 1960s I started assembling a River Archive - recordings of rivers, streams, even springs, made by traveling friends and me, from which I composed installations which were collectively titled "Play the Ganges backwards one more time, Sam". For indoor presentations, I projected images of some of the included rivers, beautiful images taken from old postcards which I found in antique shops around London. For one presentation at The Kitchen in New York, I laid out foam pads on the floor and piped in ozone from a little ozone generator (now illegal of course), to evoke something of the atmosphere around rivers. People lay there for hours. In an outdoor version I placed polyplanar speakers up in trees in a public square in Hartford, Connecticut. People just casually passing through the square would find themselves under a waterfall suddenly – walking around with their heads up searching for the sound sources.

The Sound Maps really came from this work. It seemed natural that the next step would be to study an entire river and its evolution from source to delta.

You've lived in various river-cities over the years. Why you didn't choose one of these rivers for at least one of you sound map projects?
The Hudson, my first Sound Map, was indeed my local river – I still live near it in Peekskill in the Hudson Valley and go for walks along it frequently. In addition, I was commissioned to make that installation by the Hudson River Museum which is in Yonkers, on the river. It’s a curious story actually: I was applying for a job at the Museum and the very savvy personel director looked me over and said "You’re an artist, not an administrator. Why don’t you make us an art proposal?" and the idea of recording an entire river, the Hudson, popped into my head for the first time. I proposed it, they funded it, and I started hiking along the river – recording it was a beautiful way to learn my local river and one which is pivotal to US history. Part of my idea was that while New Yorkers are familiar with the Hudson visually, very few get to hear it or have a real sense of its power, and through a river’s sounds one can develope a feeling of immersion in its being, a sort of intimacy which, for me, is more powerful than its visual impact.

The other two rivers were chosen for very different reasons: The most recent, the small Housatonic River, was proposed to me, then commissioned by Jenny Hersh, who lived at one of the river’s sources and planned to build a museum dedicated to it. The museum has not materialised but meanwhile the Sound Map was completed and I show it as an installation.

What about the Danube?
It came to mind in about 2001, when, having set aside working with water for some twenty years, I discovered that I very much wanted to be immersed in that process again. The Danube came to mind right away and no other river was considered, I think in part because it carves through such varied topographies – the Black Forest, several mountain ranges, the Kazan gorge, the plains of Wallachia etc. – and through so many cultures. It has been a major historical frontier, so its human history is fascinating to me, and is echoed in the communities along its banks. Its delta is one of the world’s great ornithological flyways. For such reasons it was going to be a rich exploration, I knew. And indeed, working down that river from 2001 to 2004 was one of the great journeys of my life. When I made my final recordings, in the Delta, I wanted to start all over again.

What were some of the things you changed and learned fom these first two river projects, would you say?
The real change came between the Hudson (1982) and the Danube (2001 – 4) and it came through technology, not even a new technology – hydrophones, and a change in goal. On the Hudson, once I reached a long stretch above Albany which was extensively controlled by weirs and small dams, I found less surface sound to work with, and bypassed that area. I think I was intent upon capturing the physicality of the river, certainly the interviews I did with people living on the river focussed upon their physical encounters with its currents, rapids, ice jams etc. And then, significantly, I presented the interviews separately, through headphones, not through the main mix and speaker system which carried the river recordings. So you could choose to listen to the interviews, still hearing something of the river in the background, or to listen only to the river, but they weren’t integrated fully.

My focus was much broader when I came to the Danube. I started that work with a question, something I really wanted to explore: What is a river? i.e., what is the being of a river? So I needed to listen to, and record the entire river, not skipping any section. On the one hand, I was now using a hydrophone to record in quiet stretches, in pools and old arms of the river which were rich in aquatic insect life and fish; also in the area near Grein (Austria) where strong whirlpools and currents make the river dangerous and interesting to listen to, but are barely visible on the surface. On the other hand my ears were stretching out into the whole river environment, as happened in Backo Novo Selo (Serbia) where the river flowed slowly, lapping against a small metal boat pulled up on shore, and I walked slowly in among about 200 geese grazing down in a dry channel, relishing the way their calls echoed off the distant trees. As I moved downstream on the Danube, it became so clear to me that human lives, as with those birds, the aquatic insects, fish, animals, plants, are deeply entwined with the river, an integral part of its ecosystem.

Let's turn towards your latest sound map, of the Housatonic river. What's you relation to the river and what's your impression of it?
That river is, on one level, a paradox to me. It’s very beautiful, small, only 150 miles approximately, and badly polluted but with substances such as PCBs which are invisible, so it never looks polluted. But a consequence of that pollution is that even now, some time after the paper mills, GE’s battery factories etc closed down, the local people tend not to use the river much, as if they have turned their backs to it. There’s some swimming, boating, canoing, fishing of course, but in general the human pleasures which rivers encourage seem missing. So human voices are also rather absent in the mix. I was delighted when, one day, I recorded kids’ voices echoing in the distance, cycling through woods near a pond where I was recording a spring.

The general environment of that river is forested, with small towns, meadows, lakes – much less varied than that of either the Hudson or the Danube.

Apart from that, for this work, the Housatonic, I felt that I would like to focus entirely on the changing textures of the water. I can become almost intoxicated with the complex beauty of water timbres, the layers, the hidden little pitch patterns, and wanted an extended period of listening just to those. So both these aspects lead me to concentrate largely on the river itself. Whereas with the Danube, I was aware of the whole environment of the river, and wanting to convey a sense of how much life such a river creates – in plant life, animal communities, human communities, all interdependent and generated by the river.

What was the time spent at the river like?
The Housatonic is only about three hours drive from my home, so I had the luxury of being able to just pack my gear, hop into the car and go recording whenever I felt like it. As with the Hudson and the Danube, I recorded moving from the sources downstream, following the growth of the river itself that way, but being close to this river enabled me to backtrack to several sites, once I had borrowed a hydrophone (generously lent to me by the composer Maggi Payne), to search that other major dimension of a river, underwater – the dimension rarely heard by humans. The Housatonic was not nearly as rich as the Danube in this respect, which may have been a matter of the season, but I also wonder if the pollution present still in the water is a factor.

The Housatonic river has notably inspired composers - like Ives, who wrote "The Housatonic at Stockbridge". Do you believe that there is a direct relationship between the music created close to a river and the 'sounds' created by the river itself?
I love that Ives piece and was very conscious of the need to find some good sound to record at Stockbridge – I couldn’t omit that site! But it was a really quiet stretch, at least when I was there, so I anticipated that it would be a challenge, not least because the river is bordered on both banks by busy roads even early in the morning. But at 6 am traffic was minimal and I found a rock around which the flow created an eddy, a delicate sound, complemented by high energy bird action in the woods, so to my relief it worked.

But this story isn’t an illustration of what you’re asking, since my Sound Map is comprised of the river’s actual sounds. The question is sort of clouded by the fact that many pieces evoking rivers seem to set out to mimic, to some degree, the characteristic rhythms of flowing water, therefore another way to tackle the question might be for me to look at my own work; although I live close to the Hudson and on the bank of the Flathead River in the summers (Montana), unless I’m actually working with water sound, I couldn’t say that my other output is in some way related to those rivers’ soundscapes.

What are some of the most musically inspiring locations of the Housatonic river?
To take water - those complex mixes of small pitch patterns, layered rhythms, close/distant which comprise water textures are deeply musical, or rather, can be heard that way. On the Housatonic I found some of the most intricate and fascinating textures close to the head of the river, at the locations of the second and third sources, just after the Muddy Pond sequence, and could listen to those for a long time, sorting through their many component elements.

Working with a river is great ear-training. I find I need to take a significant amount of time at a site to settle my brain and body down and refocus all my attention on the soundscape. Gradually it comes into focus and I begin to pick up the softer sounds, then such aspects as the coincidental connections of one pitch in the river with the same pitch elsewhere in the environment. Then I start recording. Over time, as I work my way downstream (in many sessions, not in one long journey) I develop a memory of the characterising or outstanding aspects of the various locations’ sounds. That helps give me a sense of how the river is evolving or growing, and also helps to prevent me from recording soundscapes too similar to those I’ve already tapped into upstream. That’s an important aspect of composing the Maps, a vital variety.

And simply, the longer I listen in any one spot, the more I hear, as we all do.

I would, perhaps naively, assume, that a sound map would be subject to more changes than a conventional visual map.  How 'representative' are these recordings of the particular places you've recorded?
That’s a fascinating question. Some broad aspects of a site recording might be taken as representational: rapids, for example, which change in intensity with the flow level and season but remain a characterising sound source; small lapping waves which tend to suggest flatter terrain, but the beauty of a site lies in its fine details, to my ears, and those shift constantly.

I remember finding a lovely resonant plopping one evening on the Danube, in Germany. I didn’t record it then and there, but planned to come back early the next morning and do so. It rained upstream during the night; the water level covered the roots and rocks which had created that sound, and I learned the value of "now". So I feel that the Sound Maps trace these rivers at specific times, each site in a specific moment which can’t be taken as "representative" of some whole, not even of the site itself.

When you're 'mapping' the river in sound for a CD release, how do you create a sense of dramaturgy?
In fact none of these sound maps were initially created for CD release. Each was designed as a sound installation, to be presented in public spaces: The Hudson is in two channels plus the headphone set-up for the interviews; the Danube is a 5.1 set-up, with the speakers arranged in a circle, equidistant so that there is no sense of front/back/side and the mix keeps moving amongst them; the Housatonic is a 4 channel set-up plus subwoofer. Each installation incorporates a large wall map, like the one Ákos included; the Danube installation also includes a hand-bound book of translations of the interviews into the language of the presenting institution’s location – German, Hungarian, Romanian, English etc.; for both the Danube and the Housatonic, listeners can see which site they are listening to by cross checking between a time display and the site listings on the map. So in each case the CDs came later and while I found mixing down from multi-channel to stereo not too tricky – a matter of spatial re-composition really - it was harder to grapple with the shift from a sample rate of 96K and 24 bits (for the Housatonic), to 44.1K and 16 bits, not so much technically as conceptually.

How do you see the balance between your personal, emotional and aesthetic input and your interest in documentation?
I don’t see these Sound Maps as documentation, which may sound surprising, so there’s no such dichotomy when I’m working on them, nor do I have any sense of balancing personal and aesthetic aspects because there is no separation between those aspects – they interact smoothly as a purely natural part of the process of composing. For example: With the terrible recent history of the little town of Vukovar, Croatia, the site of a siege and mass killings by Bosnian Serb forces, painfully on my mind, I found the Vuka Rijeka, a tributary of the Danube, pouring through the town centre fast, almost boiling. I recorded it in close focus, with a sense of its ferocity and when I mixed, brought it in abruptly at full volume, thinking to convey something of the violence which had devastated the town. The history directed the aesthetic decisions naturally.

Rivers are focal points for a wide range of topics, ecological issues included. How does one make them audible?
In the Maps which include interviews, sometimes these issues, both social and ecological, arise naturally when I’m talking with someone, as with János Horvát, the fisherman from Croatia, who described how the old arms of the Danube near his home had silted up once the area had become a national park and local fisherman had been stopped from fishing there and keeping them clear. At other times I know about events which have affected river communities and ask interviewees to focus on them, as with Gizela Beba Ivkovic, who described the NATO bombing of the bridges at Novi Sad. Speech of course can be explicit. But I haven’t yet found a way to evoke such concerns purely through sound and it’s something I am always curious about in others’ work. How can it be done without falling into a didactic mode – that’s the challenge?

I made several recordings at a pulp paper mill on the Housatonic because such mills were a major industry on the river and a major source of pollution, but when I came to select the sites I would use in the mix, once I took them all into the studio, I found those recordings just weren’t that interesting as sound, so they dropped out and with them, the implicit ecological reference. The sound, its quality and vitality, always has priority for me.

You once said: "I was interested in trying to discover why rivers are so magnetic to us, why people love to go to river banks, what their ears are reaching for as well as their eyes, and what our bodies respond to in rivers". After your trilogy of sound maps, what's your answer to these questions?
This will sound evasive, but, truly, the sound maps themselves are my answer.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Nicole Tavenner

Annea Lockwood Discography:
Glass World Of Anna Lockwood (Tangent) 1970    
Malaman / Cloud Music (New Wilderness Audiographics) 1977    
A Sound Map Of The Hudson River (Lovely) 1989    
Thousand Year Dreaming (¿What Next?) 1993    
Sinopah/ w. Ruth Anderson (Experimental Intermedia) 1998    
Breaking The Surface (Lovely) 1999    
Early Works 1967 – 1982 (EM) 2007    
Thousand Year Dreaming / Floating World (Pogus) 2007    
A Sound Map Of The Danube (Lovely) 2008    
In Our Name (New World) 2012    
A Sound Map Of The Housatonic River (3LEAVES) 2013

Recommended Annea Lockwood interviews & articles on the web:
Interview at Sonic Acts about various aspects of Lockwood's work
Expansive interview with Frank J Oteri about the River Maps and environmental recording

Annea Lockwood