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Annea Lockwood at 80

By Elizabeth Kerr

As a child, Annea Lockwood often fell asleep in a little hut near Arthur’s Pass listening to the sounds of the Bealey River. It was the beginning of this experimental composer’s enduring habit of close listening and her lifelong interest in the sounds of the environment, influenced by a father who took his children into the wild South Island landscape and talked about erosion. She left New Zealand for studies in England almost six decades ago and has now lived for many years in the small community of Crompond, up the Hudson River from New York City. “I love it here,” she says.

At the Royal College of Music in London in the 1960’s, Lockwood studied with Peter Racine Fricker who sent her to Germany to attend the famous Darmstadt Summer School. Darmstadt then was dominated by composers like Boulez and Stockhausen, but Lockwood knew that “hyper-structuralism” was not for her. She was instead inspired by John Cage, who had been at Darmstadt the previous year and whose experimental approach was still much talked about. “I pored over Cage’s book Silence,” she remembers, “annotating it furiously. I loved Cage’s idea of all sound being accessible, all sound being music.”

Timbre is the musical element that most fascinates Lockwood. “I was drawn to what the musique concrète people were doing, finding sounds that were innately complex and vivid and working with them. I was interested in the interior life of a sound event.” Working as a free-lance composer in London in the late 60’s and searching for a material for her sound experiments, she came across glass. She visited the factories of Pilkington’s, a big British glass company, and gathered scientific glass and samples from the quantities of debris lying about. Her innovative Glass Concerts in the UK and elsewhere attracted attention for many years.

Lockwood’s next move brought her ever greater notoriety. Inspired by Cage, Lockwood had “pushed piano preparation as far as possible” and began to work with defunct pianos. Experimenting with heat – “I was looking for hot sounds, fire sounds” – she took another defunct piano, set it up with microphones, wrapped the cables in asbestos and set it on fire. Piano Burning,  her first “Piano Transplant”,  featured in the iconic Californian Source Magazine, and has been presented around the world, including a performance in Wellington’s Civic Square during one of the 1990’s Composing Women’s Festivals. More “Transplants” followed – in Piano Garden the instrument gradually subsided into her landlady’s English garden and Piano Drowning events took place in a pond in Texas and on a beach in Western Australia.

Elizabeth Kerr (L) and Annea Lockwood (R).

After a dozen years of experimental music-making in England and many collaborations with other artists, she was taken to the States by “a wonderful convergence of things” in 1973 and has lived there ever since, teaching at Hunter College at the City University of New York and in the music faculty of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York until 2001. Since then she has been busy as a free-lance composer.

Looking back over Lockwood’s long composing life, it seems that her creative work can be divided into two strands. One involves live performers and these works are often created collaboratively; the other, which includes her electro-acoustic works and installations,  is based on curation of recorded environmental sounds.

Both strands involve close listening and relinquishing some composerly control. In Ear-Walking Woman (1996) for prepared piano, Lockwood allowed pianist Lois Svard to choose materials for piano preparation and explore the sounds during the performance. One of the ten sections of the piece is a ‘Homage’ to John Cage, beautiful gamelan-like sounds acknowledging his on-going influence on her aesthetic.

Strikingly original river-based installations called Sound Maps took Lockwood with recording gear to the banks of the Hudson River in America in the early 80’s and twenty years later to the Danube, which she recorded in several countries along its length. The Sound Map of the Hudson was, she says, “for New Yorkers”, set up as an installation in the early 80’s in a venue beside the Hudson, visitors experiencing both water sounds and interviews with those who had been physically involved with the river.  For Sound Map of the Danube she acknowledged that “rivers create their own environments and are shaped by - and shape -  human beings.” The Danube installation integrated river and voice sounds.

In 2014, the year Lockwood turned 75, she completed Wild Energy, a work she describes now as “one of my most exciting collaborations”. Working with inventor and sound designer Bob Bielecki, she created an outdoor site as one of fourteen new installations at the Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York State. Now permanently installed there in a cedar grove, Wild Energy uses geophysical, atmospheric and infra- and ultra- sounds from nature transposed into the human hearing range. Supplied by research scientists world-wide, the sounds come from locations as diverse as gas vents on the volcano Mt Kilauea, oscillations from the sun, a tiger moth spewing ultrasonic radar to block the echolocation of a predatory bat and ultra-sound from inside a Scots pine tree in Switzerland. Listeners can recline in hammocks, while all the equipment is hidden in a bramble patch.

The work is one of many in which Lockwood has expressed her environmental concerns. “Through these sounds” she and Bielecki wrote in the catalogue, “one can feel the energies generated as energy-fields moving through one’s body.” “And,” Lockwood continues today, “that forms a conduit… through which we might be able to sense our integration with the rest of the planet, something we urgently need.”

Now Annea Lockwood is 80 and as busy and inventive as ever. Last year a collaboration with improvising trumpet player Nate Wooley produced Becoming Air. In November this year another new collaborative work will feature in her Composer Portrait at the Miller Theatre at Colombia University. She has created Into the Vanishing Point with a group of pianists and percussionists called Yarn/Wire, inspired by distress about disappearing insect populations worldwide.

Lockwood seems a little surprised by the extent to which she has been acknowledged this year by performances  at festivals and events in America, the UK, New Zealand and Europe and by an upcoming panel and papers about her work at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting.  “I have felt myself to be - perfectly happily - on the fringe of the music world all my life,” she says, “so I feel honoured.”