Annea Lockwood — Sound Streams

by Louise Gray

It was while attending summer schools in Darmstadt during the early 1960s that Annea Lockwood realised that there was more to sound than its orderly manipulation into the composed form of music alone, into what Edgard Varèse would have termed “organised sound”. At the time, she was a young postgraduate student, newly arrived in Europe from New Zealand for studies in composition and piano at the Royal College of Music in London. She was an enthusiastic participant at Darmstadt, then very much the world’s focal point for the pure, electronic music associated with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez. She remembers the excitement of Darmstadt, its generous teachers (one of them was the German-Dutch composer Gottfried Michael Koenig, with whom she later studied under), the heady atmosphere of it. “I was really drawn to, excited by, electronic music,” she recalled in an interview we did in 2016, “because now, finally, other than writing for one’s own instrument, I was having the experience of feeling that sound was in my own hands and malleable. [It was] just there for me to work with, which was thrilling.”1

It was, in other words, a liberation from the limits of instruments and into a new auditory world. This malleability, that sound is capable of being shaped into new forms, is central to Lockwood’s compositional development. It is a musical strategy that opens up new worlds of sound to the possibility of audibility. And we hear the consequences of this in many different ways across a wide range of Lockwood’s varying compositions made from the 1960s to the present day. It’s in this sonic shape-ability of an essentially dynamic material – sound itself – that the key to her work lies. It unites not only the early childhood memories of sound that Lockwood has often spoken of – the stream sounds and calls of kiwis and other birds up in the mountains of her natal New Zealand – to her mature, compositional work, but also links also to the translations of energy that is represented in the Piano Transplants (1968-72),2 the flows of the river Sound Maps (1982-2010) – one of which, the Danube,3 is installed at this festival – or is revealed sounds of far-off natural phenomena that we hear in Wild Energy (2014, with Bob Bielecki). Her composition eagerly embraces the central paradox that sound-shaping presents: that sound and music are insubstantial and yet their wave-forms can be altered. Sound is always heard in its sensuousness rather than a materiality.

Every musician learns, through practice, through ear and by a haptic relationship with their instrument, how to be a sound-shaper. An integral aspect of any musician’s developing craft has to do with how they achieve that expression, tone and colour, how they each make the sound envelope which describes the life cycle of a note, a personal one. Most musicians do this on conventional instruments, using conventional techniques, to reach and explore a sound palette that is conventional to the method – the piano, the violin, the whatever – at hand. If Lockwood’s early training reinforced this conventional nature, it was Darmstadt and its espousal of rein elektronisch – purely generated electronic – music that changed this. Lockwood discovered in Darmstadt a materiality in the electronic sound that, on the one hand, reiterated what she realised up in the New Zealand mountains – that all sound is available for musical expression – but now offered the young composer the tools by which to achieve this moulding and hinted at the radical routes that might be available.

It takes imagination to make the leap from one type of music to another one, but it also takes time to form one’s own method and methodology, to craft a singular musical vocabulary. After Lockwood’s initial enthusiasm for the pure electronic music she was experimenting with at Darmstadt and importing back into her own nascent compositions, she became musically restless. “I began to puzzle over why I didn’t find ring-modulated sine tones fascinating and figured out that they’re really not that intricate,” Lockwood has said. The sounds were actually too stable to maintain her interest. A pure sine wave has little to do with – to use a word Lockwood often alights on in conversation – “happenstance”. As she says: “The sounds that result are not complex in the way that I enjoy complexity, [while] environmental, natural sounds are indeed [complex].”

The result was a return to basics, to a hands-on approach to whatever came next. This was aided, in part, by Hugh Davies, the composer and artist who was a long-term friend to Lockwood. One of Davies’s projects had been an array of shozygs, his home-made electro-acoustic musical instruments created out of domestic objects – springs, wire, rubber-bands and circuits – and for which he created text scores. Davies was certainly an influence when Lockwood took a decrepit upright piano and decided to do some permanent preparations upon it.4 (Cage, Lockwood reasoned, was never able to do a permanently prepared piano because people would always have other calls on the instrument.) Among her modifications to the piano, she added a pair of fluttery toy eyes, which would blink when the instrument was played. Mascara was later added to the lashes. A toy train was placed upon the piano’s bass strings, and when a cord was pulled, it would trill up and down the strings, making a deep rasping sound. Another friend, the artist John Lifton, cut out a section in the side of the piano and rigged up a bubble-blowing mechanism: when the piano’s soft pedal was depressed, bubbles would stream from a big, red Plasticine mouth (think of a vampy, Mae West image) that had been fixed to the instrument. It was all fun and this playfulness was very much in keeping with some of the humour that was prevalent in Fluxus-influenced scores by others in that period. Nevertheless, there was also a seriousness to the play in the knowledge that access to ludic activity is the precursor to individuated creativity of whatever kind. Play was a place to try some things and to break away from other things, to create a space where things might happen.

This playfulness has much to do with the sonic imagination that makes Lockwood’s music so interesting, for it opens up a direct channel to a simple, yet radical idea: that one might hear the possibility of untapped sound sources in surprising places. The play can be heard often all over her work, from this mid-60s permanently prepared piano to Womens [sic] Work (1975-76), the two volumes of cross-disciplinary text scores by other female artists that Lockwood, with the artist Alison Knowles, was to compile once she had moved to the US. The sense of fun and a taste for delicious images reaches a delirious apotheosis in Gone! (2007), Lockwood’s composition for a tiny, tinkling, piano-shaped music-box that floats out from the body of a grand piano and into the concert hall, borne aloft by a bunch of helium balloons attached to it. It would be hard to find a more voluble image of musical freedom.

The permanently prepared piano became a template of sorts for Lockwood’s Piano Transplants. The four works that make up the Transplants are performative, highly visual events. One of them includes burning a piano, the second one planting a piano in a garden, the third one letting the piano gently sink under water, while the final one places a grand piano on a beach at the mercy of the ocean. The drama of the Transplants has led to a fundamental misunderstanding that their meaning is bound up in destruction. There are historical reasons as to why commentators have seen them in this way, most significantly the near-contemporaneity of the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966, which was convened by the artist Gustav Metzger. (Lockwood did attend parts of this and did perform a piano destruction with the artist Rafael Ortiz.) It was clearly a counter-cultural moment. During one event, a piano was destroyed – photographs show two artists using axes and heavy tools to shatter an upright piano. But the Transplants are very much not about destruction. Rather, their intent is to highlight the elemental process in composition, of translations of energy. The sounds of the Transplants come from the way that each old and disused piano is overwhelmed by nature and each sound is liberated, in a composition created out of decomposition.

This process – of pulling things apart in order to create new work – can be expressed as one of (de-)composition. It is a way of working that is capable of looking at the minute, the unheard or dismissed sounds that are either normally inaccessible (the aquatic insect sounds on Jitterbug, for example) to the human ear or, conversely, so common that we no longer attend to them. Lockwood’s music has a way of making us pay attention to such sound and hearing what she has described as their “structural intimacy” (Lane and Carlyle 2013: 31). Lockwood used this phrase when talking to the composer and sound artist Cathy Lane about the rivers that she had recorded for her Sound Maps, and, as a summation, it offers an excellent way for us to think about sound. “Structural intimacy” suggests that each thing – a river, a tree trunk, a water current, has a sui generis sound, its own place in a sounding universe. Composition is a strategy that sources sounds and re-orders them, but nevertheless recognises their fundamental existence. Lockwood does this often, liberating a sonicity rather like a genie coming out of a bottle: we think of her Glass Concerts (1967-73), in which a wealth of different glass materials were amplified and so coaxed into sounding out so many extraordinary tones and rhythms. Even in a work that uses conventional instruments such as Immersion (for marimba, tam-tams, and quartz gong bowl) (1998), the “structural intimacy” lies in the beating frequencies by which the instruments are joined as they sound and resound.

Despite the wide range of sound sources that she uses, Lockwood’s trajectory is very much not one of rejecting the musical technologies that came before her. Rather, her emphasis has been on nurturing a deep, exploratory relationship with sound, of trying to put as little between the sound and the listener as possible. When we listen to the compositional installation of, for example, A Sound Map of the Hudson, we are listening to the weight and flow of the river itself, the intricacies of the sonic patterns that the water offers. The sound offers up a newly sensuous way of hearing the landmass – Manhattan – that the river partially outlines. The river is what it is and has been for so many thousands of years – Lockwood gives us its power unadorned and without sentiment. To listen to it is to acknowledge great flows and weights of energy that are there, should we choose to listen to them.

As a composer, Lockwood intervenes in how she shapes the work, but by using only a minimal amount of electronic processing in the creation of the work, she ensures that we, the listeners, are closer than we might realise to the water and its volume, both in terms of weight and amplitude. Volume – in both its senses – is to the fore in a different way in Ear-Walking Woman (1996), Lockwood’s work for “prepared piano and exploring pianist”. Commissioned by Lois Svard, the pianist who performs the work in both the DVD and CD releases of it, Ear-Walking Woman is about probing the interior body of a piano, tapping out its resonances and sound streams through a sequence of actions performed on a piano that has been detuned in a way that would have been familiar to John Cage. The sounds in this case, are circumscribed by the curves and lines of the piano’s body but there is a mapping going on, a sense of if this, then that and what if? The piano becomes an island that invites sonic geographers to chart its curves, its peaks and troughs. Lockwood asks all who do this ear-walking to make their own landscapes within the boundaries of the piano itself.

Sound is not the only way that Lockwood engages with the natural world. She has also used it as a method in terms of translating form into composition. We hear this in Jitterbug (2007). Commissioned originally by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Jitterbug is a six-channel work for two or more players –to be performed in Stockholm by Oren Ambarchi, Crys Cole and Sarah Hennies – who make sonic interpretations of the patterns and colours of rocks that Lockwood found in a dry creek bed in the Rockies of Montana near the site where she recorded the aquatic insects for the piece. The photographs of the rocks – shot by Gwen Deeley – present a graphic score for the musicians who create sonic representations of the rocks, each stratum of each stone saying something about the history, the formation, the mineral contact of its geological composition. An accompaniment provided by separate sound files – underwater beetles, microscopic organisms, bodies of water, piano and gong resonances, recorded in Montana and elsewhere – provides an environmental context to the rocks themselves. You can hear a selection of these sounds on Lockwood’s website: rhythms, melodies, counterpoints are built up with the scratchings, scrapings and the broadcasting noises of insects, the gurgles and bubbles of the lakes and bodies of water. Lockwood reveals the water to be a sonorous medium, teeming with the sound of movement and dance. And, by adding the very human agency of musicians performing their rock scores, a very direct link is made between arts, humanity and nature, three categories that are intrinsically part of a greater whole in Lockwood’s music.

For Lockwood, the natural world is not simply a source of manipulable sound. It reminds us that energy flows around us and through us. It resonates in us and, if we choose to listen critically and openly, offers the possibility of deep connections. But is also provides a sonic register of some of the critical issues in the contemporary world, issues that flow – just as the Danube has done for millennia – across political and geographic boundaries. When Lockwood began her river series in 1982 (or indeed, began her first recordings of rivers in the 1970s), most people had little awareness of the deleterious environmental consequences that human action was having on the world. That has now changed, and with that change, our contextualisation of works of art – like Lockwood’s compositional installations – has a greater urgency, a greater charge to them. To listen to Lockwood’s Sound Maps – the Hudson, the Housatonic but especially the Danube – is to privilege nature over national boundaries and nation states. The rivers are larger than politics might suggest, and their life cycles are expressed in long durations of time. The snapshots of human life along each river – provided with short, first-person accounts from those who lives are interlocked with these great masses of movement – might people the river, but they are one element in the sonic pattern of each sound map. Each of the rivers in Lockwood’s Sound Map series have their own sonic characters: each one sounds differently at different sounds. By mapping these sounds, Lockwood highlights their latent musicality and allows us to hear what Salomé Voegelin refers to as “their invisible territories”:

These sonic worlds are not parallel worlds, fictional untruths or illusions, but are variants of our actual reality that need a geography to practise and articulate their invisible territories, immaterial things and unseen activities; to give them legitimacy and make them count as knowledge and as power of the real. (Voegelin 2018: 78)

One might say that this type of composition is as much about using natural processes as sound sources to be manipulated in various ways, as it is about hearing the natural world. I am reminded of Pauline Oliveros, whose development and practice of Deep Listening starts from a fundamental premise: that hearing and listening are two different functions. The first is a physiological process performed involuntarily by the
auditory equipment of the ear. Listening, on the other hand, is a process that is chosen: listening can be dulled by many things – inattention, social norms, preconceptions – which means that Deep Listening is a process that asks its practitioners to engage a critical acuity to the very how-ness of their listening. Lockwood’s compositions fulfil a similar role. In reminding us that acoustic space is not to be found only in the concert hall but in the many environments around us and in which we inhabit and affect, she asks – as she has been asking us for a long time now – not only to hear but to listen to the world, and by definition one another. It is a request of a profound and critical importance and one that we ignore at the peril of the greater good.

1 Marshall, Louise. 2018. ‘Deep Listening: The Strategic Compositional Practice of Female Experimental Composers Post 1945’. PhD thesis, London: University of the Arts London.

2 The tripartite Piano Transplants are Piano Burning (1968-), Piano Garden (1969-) and Piano Drowning (1972). The last in this series was revisited in Pacific Ocean (1982), which was finally realised as Southern Exposure in 2005. Any piano used in these works are always beyond repair.

3 2005. Recorded between 2001-04, at locations from Germany to the Black Sea.

4 Lockwood’s permanently prepared piano is now in the Hugh Davies Collection at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Lane, Cathy, and Angus Carlyle. 2013. In The Field: The Art of Field Recording. Axminster, Devon: Uniformbooks.

Marshall, Louise. 2018. ‘Deep Listening: The Strategic Compositional Practice of Female Experimental Composers Post 1945’. PhD thesis, London: University of the Arts London.

Voegelin, Salomé. 2018. The Political Possibility of Sound. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Annea Lockwood’s work will be featured as part of the Fourth Edition Festival for Other Music in Stockholm in February 2019 with an installation of her ‘Sound Map of The Danube[ at MDT’s Studio 2 and a performance at Fylkingen of ‘Jitterbug’ (together with Oren Ambarchi, Crys Cole and Sarah Hennies) and ‘Immersion’.

Buy Festival Pass or tickets for the Saturday concert at Fylkingen.

Louise Gray writes on sound and music for The Wire. She a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice) at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she is an associate lecturer in Sound Art. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Wellcome Collection, London.

This essay is included in Notes on Other Music, an A5 perfect-bound book published on the occasion of the Fourth Edition Festival for Other Music.

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