Burning Pianos and Whispering Rivers: A Composer’s Journey

Burning Pianos and Whispering Rivers: A Composer’s Journey

“Go to a river,” begins the text score for Annea Lockwood’s “Water Meditations,” from 1973. One version of the piece continues: “Stay there all day. Let the sounds change you and follow these changes.”

It’s not the typical instruction one expects from a musical score, but it is characteristic of Ms. Lockwood, who for decades has studied how sound can have visceral and profound effects on attentive, listening bodies.

A composer of audacious experimental works on the border of musical performance and conceptual art — including the exploratory prepared-piano piece “Ear-Walking Woman,” the impassioned vocal lament “I Give You Back” and “Piano Burning,” for which she is most recognized — Ms. Lockwood turned 80 in July, and she is being celebrated on Thursday with a Composer Portrait concert at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. Featuring a premiere by the piano-percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, the event is a tribute to Ms. Lockwood’s devotion to collaboration and her reverence for sound’s potential to move people, particularly in a time of environmental crisis.

Ms. Lockwood’s ears were tuned early by the surroundings of her native home in Canterbury, New Zealand, particularly the sounds of wild, undammed rivers like the Waimakariri.

“I’ve always thought of rivers as alive, as live phenomena,” she said by phone from her current home, in Westchester County, N.Y. “It became very clear to me that rivers create their sound by the way they interact with the materials in their banks through friction.”

Living in England by the mid-1960s, she began assembling a “River Archive,” soliciting recordings from around the globe. She began corresponding with the like-minded composer Pauline Oliveros, who not only contributed a recording of a Massachusetts creek, but also helped Ms. Lockwood secure a teaching position at Hunter College, which brought her to New York in 1973.

Like Oliveros, who died in 2016, Ms. Lockwood’s sonic attention to the body and environment has been interwoven with her life as a feminist. Through the 1970s, Ms. Lockwood taught courses on women and music, participated in consciousness-raising groups, and immersed herself in writers like the ecofeminist Susan Griffin, who suggested that the impulses to dominate nature and women grew from the same patriarchal root.

Out of this period came “Womens Work,” a 1974-76 score collection edited by Ms. Lockwood and the pioneering Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, and recently reissued by Primary Information. The multidisciplinary collection includes scores like Beth Anderson’s “Valid for Life,” a trio for large drums and strung instruments struck with “huge velvet beaters,” and Ms. Lockwood’s intense “Piano Burning”: “set piano upright in an open space with lid closed. spill a very little lighter fluid here and light.”

Her obsession with rivers continued. “A Sound Map of the Hudson River” was installed at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers in 1982, and featured 15 field recordings, from the bubbling and crackling source in the Adirondacks down to the ocean. Her “Sound Map” took on new political undertones when it was released as an album in 1989, the same year as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“With bringing rivers into an urban environment through sound, I’ve long hoped to convey the experience of that sound as a nourishing form of energy,” she said then. “And perhaps indirectly, over time, the experience becomes real, concrete, immediate, close up. Perhaps that person will slowly be able to empathize or understand more, even take steps politically and socially to preserve the phenomenon. My process is really indirect but it is direct.”

Her work continues to have political reverberations, even unintended ones. In 2016, she created “bayou-borne (for Pauline),” dedicated to Oliveros. The graphic score is a map, depicting six bayous that converge in Oliveros’s hometown, Houston. Weeks before the September 2017 premiere, Hurricane Harvey struck.

“It affected the players’ sense of how to move downstream together, and affected my sense of the nature of the piece,” Ms. Lockwood said. “It’s inevitable the piece turns darker as it progresses.”

Her new piece for Yarn/Wire, “Into the Vanishing Point,” originated as a reflection on the climate crisis. Late last year, Ms. Lockwood read a New York Times Magazine article chronicling the quiet catastrophe of rapidly disappearing insect species.

“I literally stopped in my tracks,” she recalled. “I stopped walking. I couldn’t continue walking. It’s such a shattering window into what’s happening.”

“Into the Vanishing Point” is not at all programmatic. It doesn’t depict the crisis so much as chart the raw, emotional response to it. Ms. Lockwood avoids didacticism, believing that the immediacy of her work makes its own case directly to the body.

“It’s really a lament; it’s a work of mourning,” she said. While the Yarn/Wire percussionist Russell Greenberg described it as a piece about loss, the question of what it means to lose something varies considerably from performer to performer, so the resulting sound is far from predictable.

Rehearsals have been highly collaborative, and Ms. Lockwood considers the piece to have been co-composed with Yarn/Wire. Early on, she visited the group’s studio in Ridgewood, Queens, to experiment with potential sounds.

“I asked each player to come up with a vocabulary of sounds at the threshold — really at the threshold — of hearing,” she said. The work takes the form of a structured improvisation, which begins with barely audible sounds but does reach peaks of intensity, using such materials as fishing line, a dog whistle and the inner tube of a tire.

Ms. Lockwood has kept busy with other collaborative projects, such as “Wild Energy,” an outdoor installation created in 2014 with the sound designer Bob Bielecki and now installed at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Westchester County. The work features environmental sounds typically outside the range of human hearing, like the reverberations of an earthquake or the clicking of a water-stressed tree, transposed into audibility.

“If you open yourself to these sounds with an awareness that these sounds are coursing through your body, changing you,” she said, “then your body and the sound merge and that is actually a channel of visceral connection.”

For Ms. Lockwood, the urgency of such work, of using environmental sound to awaken a consciousness of our connection to our bodies and the world around us, is clear: “We are not separate, at all. And the more we recognize that, the less harm we will do, I feel. The more we’ll be drawn away from exploitation, toward conservation.”

Composer Portrait: Annea Lockwood

Thursday at the Miller Theater, Columbia University, Manhattan; millertheatre.com, 212-854-7799.

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