Annea Lockwood would rather leave interpretations of her music up to other people. “I’m always preoccupied with making the latest piece,” she says. She’ll be introducing a new work – Bayou-Borne, for Pauline, inspired by her late friend, the composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros — at Issue Project Room on Sept. 29, the first night of the two-evening FOR/WITH mini-festival organized by trumpeter Nate Wooley. The following night, her 1995 piece I Give You Back will receive its New York premiere, sung by Kristin Norderval.
Lockwood has created a wide variety of music – vocal, instrumental, electroacoustic – since the 1967 release of her first album, The Glass Concert. Some works include spoken or sung texts from a variety of contexts. Others are built around recordings of natural environments and animals; for instance, her 1970 piece Tiger Balm (newly reissued on guitarist Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label alongside two previously unrecorded percussion pieces) features recordings of a tiger, a woman’s breathing, a heartbeat, an airplane, and other sounds, layered and sequenced into a mesmerizing suite.
Qualities shared by all of her works include patience—she likes to let ideas unfold slowly—and a combination of humanism and a reverence for nature that comes from her childhood in New Zealand, where her mountain-climbing father showed her the beauty of the wilderness. In a telephone interview, Lockwood talked about the works to be performed at Issue Project Room, her compositional philosophies and methods, and more.
THE LOG JOURNAL: You’re premiering a new piece at Issue Project Room: Bayou-Borne, for Pauline. What should we know about it?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: That’s a piece that comes in two versions, and this is version two. McGill University organized a big celebration of what would have been Pauline’s 85th birthday earlier this spring, and of course Pauline died just before she reached that birthday, but in the meantime McGill had asked 85 composer friends of Pauline’s to each make an 85-second piece to be performed, and I thought, Whoa. For one thing, 85 seconds is the polar opposite of Pauline’s normal time spans [laughs], and for another thing, that’s nice and short.
Thinking of Pauline and Houston, her birthplace, and her brilliance at improvisation and her love of systems, I came up with a piece based on a map I found of the tributaries of Buffalo Bayou, the main bayou flowing through Houston, which I thought would make a good graphic score. I also discovered that there’s something called Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern nearby, an 87,500 square foot underground chamber, a water reservoir that’s decommissioned and now open for art events and so on. I thought, perfect for Pauline, and slipped that into the score as a hint.
But in any case, an 85-second version of it, which has three voices a cappella interpreting three of the bayous, including Buffalo, as vocal lines swooshing downstream to Houston, was fun to contemplate, but sort of short. So I came up with a second version, and it’s the second version which is going to be premiered at Issue Project Room. That’s for six players, vocal and/or instrumental, and it’ll be Megan Schubert, voice, Nate Wooley on trumpet, Christian Wolff doing percussion and melodica, Michael Pisaro, electric guitar, Jessica Pavone, viola, and Ross Karre, percussion.
I’m collaborating with him at the moment, so I’m getting to know Nate fairly well and really enjoying that process. Christian I’ve known for a long time—he played on another piece of mine, and Michael Pisaro played in that same piece of mine, Jitterbug, in Glasgow last year, and I’ve heard his work a number of times and it’s beautiful threshold-of-hearing work, I love it. I’ve heard Ross perform and been awfully impressed. Jessica and Megan are new to me, but this is going to be really fun to work with them.
So version two, just briefly, is at least 20 minutes and the score, which is really brief, reads, “Read down the stream from the left, noting the point at which your tributary enters relative to the main bayou, Buffalo Bayou, all reaching the spot marked with a red star together” — coming together at that spot, in other words. The players can be working somewhat independently of one another up to that point, and then they come together at that spot, which is Houston, and moving out onto the bay together. I think, in visiting this, it’s possibly quite a slow piece, given the normal flow rate of bayous and their environment, you know? And of course, Hurricane Harvey changed that.
The image of water flowing through Houston has a whole different resonance today than it had a few weeks ago.
Oh, yes. And a darker resonance. So we’re thinking about that, all seven of us, and I’ll be interested to see how they let that come through the sounds they work with and working together. It may turn out that the 85-second version is the more accurate. [laughs]
What can you say about your relationship with Ms. Oliveros? How might her theories of Deep Listening and sonic awareness have impacted your own compositions?
It goes back a long way. We started communicating when I was living in England and she was in San Diego, back in the early ’70s. We really got to know each other via Source magazine, which you may have come across. Source was publishing her early Sonic Meditations at the time. I published the Glass Concert score shortly after her Sonic Meditations came out. And we realized we had a lot in common and were thinking about very similar things, which at that point included the return of ritual to music performance and also the effect of sound on the body. She ran with that, of course.
We kept in really good touch. I would send scores over to her, which her students would perform, and she would send the Sonic Meditations over to me and I’d get a group of people in London together to do them. And since then she’s been a sort of a central friend of mine. She got me over to the States, actually, which is exactly where I wanted to be. Ruth Anderson, my partner, was looking for a substitute teacher at Hunter College, where Ruth had installed and was running an electronic music studio, and Pauline suggested me. Ruth called me up and invited me over and engineered it and then I was in exactly the place I wanted to be, which was wonderfully nourishing. So Pauline has had a significant effect on my life.
Deep Listening—yes, of course, through doing the Sonic Meditations and reading her writing has been an influence. I think our thoughts about such things were converging pretty early on, which is what drew us to one another to begin with. And I think she will turn out to be one of the great composers of our time, and her influence on the musicians, on the listeners, on the audiences, on all the receptors, so to speak, of our time will turn out to be profound. I think it already is. There are indications of that already.
The other piece that’s being performed at Issue, I Give You Back, is around 20 years old. Does it have a particular significance for the event, or some other reason to be revived now?
Yes, it dates back to 1993. Nate asked me to suggest another piece, and Jitterbug came to mind but it’s been done in New York quite a lot. It’s also a graphic score, improvisation-based, with pre-recorded episodes that I made. That’s been done here quite a bit; it was done for the Merce Cunningham company to begin with. So not Jitterbug.
It occurred to me, actually, that I Give You Back hadn’t been done in New York, in fact, and would be a contrast with other pieces on the program. It’s a setting of a very powerful poem, which I read as simultaneously a lament and an exorcism, by Native American poet Joy Harjo, who’s also a musician/composer of the Creek nation. And it covers a wide range of hurts and wounds, national wounds, actually; one passage reads, “I am not afraid to be angry, I am not afraid to rejoice, I am not afraid to be black, I am not afraid to be white, I am not afraid to be hungry, I am not afraid to be full, I am not afraid to be hated, I am not afraid to be loved.” And it ends, wonderfully, by embracing fear and exorcising it when she writes, “Come here, fear, I am alive and you are so afraid of dying.”
It’s a powerful poem. A singer performed it at Vassar College four or five months ago, and the audience was startled by its relevance right now. I suggested it to Nate and he decided to program it. It’s gonna be performed by Kristin Norderval, who has performed it elsewhere a number of times and does it with great intensity.
This song includes the opportunity for the singer to improvise her own lament at one point, for about a minute, my idea being that, for one thing, the lament form is one of the great traditional female vocal forms, which mattered a lot to me. And I like to work very closely with performers, in some way engaging their personal lives in a way that’s acceptable to them, and it occurred to me that it might be really nice to give a singer an opportunity to lament someone she may have lost, which she may not have been able to do through her voice up to that point. So I give her a set of pitches, and then invite her to improvise her own personal lament for about a minute or a little longer, however long she needs, and then she moves back into the notated score. And Kristin always takes that opportunity. It’s very optional. Not all singers really want to do it, and not all singers do it. I knew I would need to make it optional.
Accepting as our starting point the idea that music is organized sound, what are the principles by which you organize sound that make a piece musical, and make it yours? Do you have rules that you live by as a composer, in the way Brahms or Elliott Carter would?
Not rules that I could codify. I have practices which I work with, but you catch me off guard, because I don’t often think about these practices in the abstract. When I’m working on a score, they come right into play immediately, but I don’t think of them as abstractions.
I ask because I’ve listened to a number of your pieces and they’re very different from each other. What makes something a Lockwood piece? Is there some kind of umbrella under which they all fit?
I’m told that there is, but I don’t know that I could put my finger on it. How the sounds I’m using may affect listeners’ bodies—that’s been important to me for decades. I think it’s one of our responsibilities as composers to take that into account, and it manifests in various ways, but that’s always a consideration. Silence is important in my music, and one of the pleasures of collaborating with Nate Wooley on a piece is we have exactly the same feelings on how to use silence, what its nature is in music.
The pacing: Because of my interest in how the body absorbs sound and responds to it, the pacing of my pieces is something…how would I describe it? I don’t often write super-fast pieces [laughs] and I like letting sound play out. From back when I was doing the Glass Concerts in 1966 on for a few years, I get really interested in timbre, and I get interested in the details of timbre, and sounds which have intricate timbres which change over time, as the sound continues to resonate. So I tend to like letting sounds play themselves out quite frequently, which makes for a slower tempo.
Others have told me that my pieces are really different from one to another. It’s because the joy of composing, for me, is precisely that it’s an exploration. Each time it’s an exploration. Not of a form, often of an instrument—but we’re all doing that, and have been for a long time—but an exploration of a phenomenon these days. I work quite a lot with the sounds of environmental phenomena: not just rivers, but volcanoes and atmospheric phenomena and so on. I’m fascinated by the energy that the sounds transmit, and how bodies respond to that energy, and how it affects our feelings about the particular phenomena or connection to the particular phenomena. For me, those are real explorations, and that’s what I’m doing when I’m composing. So I don’t often repeat myself, because I was there already—or at least I was as close to “there” as I could come when I composed whatever the previous piece was.
Sometimes I get presented with a challenge to make a piece for a medium I never would have thought of making, such as the first piano piece that somebody asked me to write, in the late ’80s. Writing on-the-keys piano music was something that I had not done. I’d studied piano for years and years as a kid, but never written a piece, so that was sort of a challenge of a different nature.
Two poles of your work are your use of nature sounds and other things that are difficult to interpret in any fixed way, but also spoken or sung texts that are extremely explicit and even polemical. Do you see these as connected?
You know, I confess that thinking about how these things fit together is something I’m always very grateful for someone else to do. [laughs] I’m always preoccupied with making the latest piece. But texts—I grew up absolutely loving the written word and loving poetry, and being drawn to texts in the form of songs. Setting songs was a very natural thing for me, to the point where at one point I decided not to do any more for quite a long time, and break out of that, and branch out and work without the support of texts. It hasn’t stopped me working with texts every now and then, but anyway, that was an early love of mine,
And natural sounds were, too. I was lucky: I grew up in New Zealand at a time when some of our big rivers were still wild, and I grew up looking to them and wading them and watching them change course and learning how powerful they are. I grew up with a mountain-climbing father, which was wonderful; I got dragged up various small mountains as a kid. I grew up paying attention to those sorts of sounds and the power they implied, the power of natural phenomena. And that was also a huge influence.
Both those influences have sort of carried through, and I don’t necessarily see a relationship between them, but maybe somebody else can. Patterns can always be found, right? We’re a pattern-seeking species. But for me, I can’t quite make a connection, and I don’t recall often setting texts which relate to natural phenomena—although I did set a piece of Etel Adnan, a great Lebanese writer and painter, about the Mediterranean Sea a while ago for Tom Buckner and a small ensemble.
But other than that, the texts—polemical? Yes. Sometimes setting texts, such as with the Guantanamo poems—I set poems by three prisoners in Guantanamo, which were published by a university press. They were written, of course, while they were in Guantanamo; they were incised onto foam cups, they were written with toothpaste and slipped out to the prisoners’ lawyers. I did that in a piece called In Our Name for Tom Buckner and Ted Mook, and recorded sound, and that was my way of saying something about the return of torture as a practice, for example.
On the back of your first album, there’s a quote: “I have become fascinated by the complexity of the single sound.” What does that mean to you now, 40 or 50 years later?
Oh, it’s still true. I’m experimenting at the moment, for example, with the aluminum lids that are used for the containers in which hot takeout food is placed. A friend gave me some from her own freezer. If I flex the lid slightly, it produces the most wonderfully complex sound. I just flex it a little and listen to what it does, in a single sound event. The frequencies that pop in and out, and the way the sound changes during that event: those things are still really fascinating to me.
That quote refers to my ejecting myself, as it were, from the traditional ways of thinking about composition, including contemporary mid 20th century ways, with which I’d grown up. I’d been and out of Darmstadt, I’d been studying with Gottfried Michael Koenig, who’s a wonderful teacher, and I’d been looking at systems of composition hard for about three years, and then I’d been brought up in more traditional compositional styles before that. Listening to making one sound event happen with glass, which was a new material to me as to many other people at the time, and listening very closely to all the micro-events—there were tiny little events going on within that one sound, which were very complex—was sort of mind-blowing. I was hearing structures in the way a single sound event was played out that were so complex, I wouldn’t have been able to think them up myself. And they’re beautiful. So I became really fascinated with that, and I still carry that with me, I think. It’s good ear training, quite apart from anything else, as you can imagine. The glass was a marvelous medium to work with—in order to explore that big area of endlessly varied and complex sounds.
When you provide a graphic score and performers interpret it in a way you would never have done, how do you respond? Is that something you worry about, or is the piece the property of the performer, once the score is in their hands?
I think the piece is very much the property of the performer at that point. And I’m working with a graphic score because I’m interested in what the personality and the proclivities and instincts of a particular performer will lead her or him to do. I’m really interested in that interplay between personality and basic idea or basic shape: the squiggles of one of the bayou’s lines, for example. So it then becomes the property of the performer. But no, I don’t recall a time, actually, when somebody’s been interpreting a graphic score of mine and I haven’t liked the result, or wanted to push it away. I really don’t.
Annea Lockwood is featured in FOR/WITH, a two-evening series at Issue Project Room Sept. 29 & 30 at 8pm; issueprojectroom.org. She will collaborate with Aki Onda and Akio Suzuki at Pioneer Works Oct. 29 at 8pm; blankforms.org
Philip Freeman is a journalist and author. He has written three books (New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz, Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis, and Fifty Foot Drop), edited several magazines and an anthology of music criticism (Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs), and published hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. He runs the arts and culture site Burning Ambulance.