Explore Program Notes

Composer Portraits: Annea Lockwood

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music. 

"Any one of the sounds we use when we're composing really has its own intrinsic structure—especially sounds that come from the environment. Those sounds are not happenstance, but originated in some action. Listen to a river and how intricately layered the sound of water is. That’s what draws me to rivers. I want to suggest that those structures are as beautiful and worth paying attention to as any of the structures one could compose in a studio.” —Annea Lockwood

Annea Lockwood

Photo by Kyle Dorosz    

Care packages can be full of surprises that reveal as much about the generosity of the sender as the needs of the recipient. In the past two decades, Annea Lockwood has, time and again, entrusted various postal systems across the globe with an idiosyncratic collection of items, including dimes, wood screws, rubber bouncers impaled on barbecue skewers, cedar mothballs, a water glass with a scalloped rim, a ceramic pestle, a hard rubber ball, plastic sheathing from a Romex electrical cable, a pair of rocks, and bubble wrap with large blisters—not for securing the contents of the package, but as an element within it.

Someone unfamiliar with Lockwood’s creative impulses might mistakenly think she emptied her catchall kitchen drawer into a cardboard box, but rather she has carefully curated these objects, plus drumsticks and a bowl gong. They are essential to performances of her Ear-Walking Woman (1995), a composition for prepared piano in which the keys are rarely played; instead, these items are deployed within the instrument’s interior. Lockwood will ship them off to pianists performing the piece, because she wants to make sure that they have exactly what they need.

“I always send the cedar mothballs around because they’re very American,” explains the New Zealand-born composer. “I carry dimes with me whenever I’m going to another country. They’re just the right size to sit in the middle of the three unison strings [in the piano’s treble range]. The original rocks came home with me from a certain beach on the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. They were wonderful, egg-shaped, white quartz rocks, sometimes with black streaks in them, which were uneven enough to wobble on the strings. I would send them to pianists, but they never came back. One always hopes that means the piece is getting played again.”

Lockwood’s precision engenders performances rife with chance, where musicians must relinquish control to their conventional—and not-so-conventional—instruments, opening themselves to the unexpected.

The piece is representative of Lockwood’s ethos as a composer: her experiments with sound often thrive on the specificity of physical objects and spaces. “I love all of these tiny details,” she enthuses about her sound-generating materials. One might think that being so particular could breed limitations for the musicians. Yet Lockwood’s precision engenders performances rife with chance, where musicians must relinquish control to their conventional—and not-so-conventional—instruments, opening themselves to the unexpected. Her compositions are collaborations with their sound sources. Listening very closely to the natural variations and subtleties that emerge—ones that are irreproducible—is like “taking your ears for a walk,” she likes to say.

In fact, to Lockwood, the whole project of being a composer is about giving performers tools that send them on a journey of discovery. “Yes, exactly,” she agrees, “because that’s what I’m doing myself when I’m composing. And that’s what keeps me involved with sound exploration to this day.”

Lockwood turned 80 this summer, and her perspective is largely born of the extraordinary experimentation she encountered on New York’s downtown arts scene in the 1960s. In the wake of the iconoclastic composer John Cage (1912-92) and Fluxus, an interdisciplinary community of artists, creators faced the alienation of the post-war years by challenging the authority of high culture, exchanging it for counterculture.

Musicologist, theorist, and composer Robert P. Morgan sums up this historical moment, writing, “Composers began thinking of their work as a process of encouraging certain kinds of activity rather than of creating immutable objects (compositions). They took their music ‘out into the streets,’ linking it to specific occasions and physical environments. The traditional concept of the autonomous artwork, intended for a passive audience seated in a hushed auditorium, was seriously compromised, as was the notion of the ‘masterpiece,’ the work possessing a value that transcended the particular conditions of its creation and performance. Art conceived in terms of unique and momentary experiences no longer aspired to immortality.”

Although these new approaches were revelatory, they were also purposefully disruptive, leaving this cultural current’s progenitors and their descendants on the margins of mainstream academic conversations. “There are structural inequities that still impact how music from the experimental tradition is represented, “ says percussionist Russell Greenberg of Yarn/Wire. The quartet was introduced to Lockwood’s work through their performance of Immersion (1998) for marimba, tam-tams, and a quartz bowl gong at the Tectonics Festival New York 2015 in Brooklyn. She sent them the quartz bowl, and guided them in rehearsals of the piece.

“Annea’s music doesn’t fit the modernist trajectory of the work we typically find in our cultural institutions,” Greenberg continues. “She doesn’t often get pulled into this world of concert music, which is exactly why it is important for her to have this Composer Portrait.”

Cage advised his fellow composers to “give up the desire to control sound, clear his [sic] mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments.” Those who forged their own trails from the basecamp he established further developed the use of indeterminacy (chance), mined the complexities of acoustic sound, employed electronics, expanded the potential of existing instruments, devised new sound sources, including found sounds from the environment, and explored global influences.

“Annea’s music doesn’t fit the modernist trajectory of the work we typically find in our cultural institutions...She doesn’t often get pulled into this world of concert music, which is exactly why it is important for her to have this Composer Portrait.” —Russell Greenberg

Lockwood’s body of work traverses these broad domains. She credits The Glass Concerts (1966-73; recorded as The Glass World, Tangent Records, 1970) with changing the way she heard music, and as a common ancestor for the works on tonight’s program; looking for a sound source that listeners would be unable to identify, she performed in darkness on an array of amplified glass objects.

The Glass Concerts were very much about exploration,” she remembers. “They grew out of my electronic-music training from [Gottfried Michael] Koenig in Germany and Holland, and my realization that the ambient sounds I heard were frequently more complex—in terms of the spectrum of sound and how they process time— then anything I could put together with oscillators, ring modulators, filters, and tape. A single sound is actually a weaving together of many components, interacting in complex ways, as the spectralist composers continue to show us. They are miniscule compositions to be heard and appreciated in the same way that you might listen to a complete piece.”

In Lockwood’s series Piano Transplants (1969–82), which paid homage to the first heart transplants by pioneering surgeon Christian Barnard, she set defunct pianos ablaze, planted them in English gardens, submerged them in ponds, and stranded them on beaches to be ravaged by the tides. She recorded conversations that became her source materials for World Rhythms (1975), Conversations with the Ancestors (1979), and Delta Run (1982). Beginning with A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982), she has charted waterways through interviews, field recordings, and graphic scores, including the Danube (2005), Housatonic (2010), and the bayous of Houston, Texas (dedicated to composer Pauline Oliveros, 2016).

Given the conceptual nature of these pieces, Lockwood’s collaborators and audiences can be thought of as agents for the work. They come together as active participants in performances that approach ritual. “It’s very much a communal experience,” relates Lockwood. “Although it’s long seemed to me that the listener is constructing their own sense of the nature of these pieces, there’s a tangible feeling of shared energy that hones everyone’s attention, as Pauline [Oliveros] would say, and sharpens everybody’s ears. We sense one another.”

Lockwood’s collaborators and audiences can be thought of as agents for the work. They come together as active participants in performances that approach ritual. 

“The compositions are not only sonic explorations,” she concludes. “They are people explorations.”

Even though Lockwood speaks eloquently about the social bonds of performance, her greatest sense of community has come from belonging to what one might rightly call an aesthetic tribe.

“The word community always brings to my mind the experimental composers and musicians with whom I’ve grown up and love dearly,” she says, naming members of the Sonic Arts Union (Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman), plus Phil Niblock, Alison Knowles, Charlie Morrow, and Daniel Goode.

“I’m still amazed by the generosity of people in that scene: it meant so much,” she explains. “In that company, it felt right to explore any idea that crossed my mind, especially the more extreme ones. These were minds in tune with my own, for whom burning a piano was no big deal. It was as if there was a very large field to play in and people were telling you, Go play!”

I Give You Back

Written for solo voice, I Give You Back sets an early text by Joy Harjo, a writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the current Poet Laureate of the United States; she is the first Native poet to have received that honor. The subject matter—trauma from the genocide of indigenous peoples—haunted her in a recurrent dream until, fed up with it, she decided to fly, and could then dispel the sources of her anxiety. It freed her to set words down on paper. The resulting poem addresses fear.

“I applied for Harjo’s permission to set the text, and she gave it,” says Lockwood. “The intensity and persistence of the genocidal harms done to the tribes—I have been learning about that for many years, starting back when I was in England and becoming increasingly aware of the harm done by white colonizers to Maori communities in New Zealand. So Harjo’s writing hit home. I also understood it as an exorcism of fear itself. Setting it was a spontaneous act, a way of exorcising my own fear at that time in the language most natural to me: music. The piece is unique among my works in that respect.”

Lockwood refers to I Give You Back as a lament, a vehicle for grief that exists across cultures and is mostly sung by women. It’s a ferocious one at that. There is a point in Lockwood’s score where she invites the singer to contribute her own wordless lament to the composition, but only if she wishes to. “I wanted to open the song up to that deep, direct, and personal expression,” she says.

Ear-Walking Woman

Written for prepared piano, Ear-Walking Woman (which may alternately be titled Ear-Walking Man, when played by a male-identified performer) is built in ten episodes. The piece uses a score with graphic notation, indicating which objects to use, where in the piano they should be placed, and what physical action to employ.

For example, the score might instruct the performer to roll the rubber ball across the bass strings from right to left, creating a wash of descending pitches and activating the bubble wrap that sits just below its path. Superball mallets, the rubber bouncers impaled on barbecue skewers, are used to stroke the piano frame and its strings, producing a moaning quality from the instrument. At one moment, the performer must keep cedar mothballs rolling continuously, while dropping rocks onto the strings. It sometimes seems as if Lockwood is creating a Rube Goldberg machine inside the piano. (Pianist Lois Svard, who commissioned the piece, has put out an insightful video, Annea Lockwood’s Ear-Walking Woman for prepared piano [Innovera Studios], which captures the action inside the instrument).

Of course, there is variation in how the piece will sound based on the minute differences in the materials—and, it may surprise listeners to know, in the pianos themselves; while the keyboard and its pitches are standardized, the interiors that reproduce that tonal system are not. There are discrepancies, for example, in where exactly to place the dimes—an homage to John Cage’s prepared piano works—to create a whole-tone scale played on the keys. How the pianists approach these physical actions will vary from performer to performer, and, after a sound-propagation method is introduced, Lockwood will indicate that the pianist is at liberty to improvise.

“What I ask her to do,” Lockwood explains, “is listen to sounds coming from those motions very carefully, to recognize the deviations and follow them for a little while, to push them. I set her exploring.”

Becoming Air

“Nate Wooley wrote to me and asked if I’d be interested in a commission for solo trumpet,” Lockwood recalls. “It was partly because I’d already heard Nate and partly because it would never have occurred to me to write for trumpet that it seemed like a good thing to challenge myself with.”

The two sat in Wooley’s living room, and Lockwood asked him to play for her the sounds he’d been exploring in which he most interested. As it turned out, they had a great deal in common. “We’re both fascinated with what happens when you’re generating a sound and it slips out of your control. Then what?” It reminded her of The Glass Concerts where vibrations would build up in the material to the point where the glass would be playing itself.

She ran her recorder and left with documentation of part of Wooley’s vast sonic vocabulary. Then she began outlining a structure in which they could move from one type of sound propagation to another using amplification and feedback. A tam-tam enlarges the range of frequencies in the piece, and initiates the move from one phase to the next, marking long phrases that unfold and then quiet. They build in a progression until they reach a point where he loses control. Where it goes from there, Lockwood says, is entirely Wooley’s creation.

Into the Vanishing Point

Another collaborative work, the commission for Yarn/Wire had as its starting point a New York Times article on collapsing insect populations, and the cascade effect that it will have on other life forms—including humans. “I was walking around my house while I was reading it,” Lockwood remembers, “and it literally stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s an unimaginably awful thing to think about. When I brought up the topic with the members of Yarn/Wire, they’d read it too and were equally shaken.”

She began to work out a structure for a piece that would move though stages, which the collaborators eventually realized were stages of mourning. Lockwood is not relying on notation, but makes recordings of their rehearsals together. The musicians have been journaling about the process, taking notes on sound propagation methods and actions.

“I have a difficult time narrowing down a piece when it isn’t yet finished,” Lockwood admits of what is an on-going process, “but I will say that it’s not programmatic; we are not trying to conjure insect-like sounds. We’re working with our feelings about what is happening ecologically, discovering gestures that embody those feelings.

“The beautiful thing about that happening in the process of rehearsal is that it’s live. Maybe the energy isn’t trending in the way that I thought it would, but in a different direction that is really great. You can hear the deviation, you can hear the new path opening up in the sounds. When a piece begins to tell you want it needs, you know you’re on the right path.”


Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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