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.