World Listening Day 2015 with Annea Lockwood

In celebration of World Listening Day 2015 we are pleased to present a feature with Annea Lockwood as part of the virtual symposium content. Annea Lockwood’s incredible body of work was an inspiration for our theme this year and we are thrilled she has shared these inspiring words with us.

“My life has been threaded by rivers, from my childhood in NZ – especially the Waimakariri, to this summer, spent beside the Flathead River, as every summer, in NW Montana (US). I have been recording rivers since the late 1960s, starting with the River Archive and moving on to recording, from source to mouth, the Hudson, the Danube and the Housatonic, three Sound Maps, each a sound installation with a physical map by which listeners can trace the journey as the audio unfolds.

Human relationships with rivers are incorporated in two of these works: for the Hudson I asked river-people about their physical experiences of the river’s considerable power, an important aspect of that river which people in NYC are rarely able to experience directly. Such access is not so easy, and so for most New Yorkers, the Hudson is a visual treasure to walk, jog, bike along, view from a rooftop at a party. But the strength of its currents is not felt by the eyes, once the river reaches the city, nor by the ears even, so these interviews – the stories they elicited, became an important component of the Sound Map of the Hudson. Even so, people often choose to listen only to the river – this is possible because the installation design sent the river’s sound through speakers while the interviews can be heard only through headphones (with the river in the background). Rivers are mesmerizing.

Twenty years later, thinking about the Danube, I wanted to get at why we are so drawn to rivers, creeks etc. and was asking people what the Danube means to them, and – a potent question which evoked deeply emotional responses, “Could you live without it?” One of the gifts which that river gave to me after four years of exploring was the realization that humans are a part of the river-created environment, as are its aquatic insects, fish, frogs, alders and willows, water plants, rocks – a part of its fibre, not acting upon, but within the riparian ecosystem, not separate but rather, shaped by the river – something I’d long believed conceptually, but now I could really feel it. So for this sound map people’s voices are fully integrated into the mix. To quote the anthropologist Philippe Descola “Plants and animals, rivers and rocks, meteors and the seasons do not exist all together in an ontological niche defined by the absence of human beings.”

While the growing water crisis is accelerating the commodification of water, affordable access to which should be a human right, and the old reaction of “We’ve got to put in a dam” still kicks in too often, it’s very heartening to learn about many people’s efforts to rethink our relationships with the non-human, to sense and act upon our interdependence with plants and animals, rivers and rocks, and climate.

‘Re-wilding’ our thinking, as Maja and Reuben Fowkes strikingly express it in the introduction to their recent publication – ‘River Ecologies: Contemporary Art and Environmental Humanities on the Danube’ (Translocal Institute, Budapest 2015). This brings to mind the idea that it might be helpful to ditch such terms as ‘capture’, ‘grab’ and even ‘take’, in relation to environmental sound, and replace them simply by ‘record’ and ‘sample’, for example. Language can be a useful place to start work on deep change and this will be a profound change.

So, ‘Rethink’, yes, but even more directly, re-feel those connections with the non-human. That has been the thrust of my work with rivers and, recently, with geophysical, solar, biological and other phenomena in Wild Energy, to feel the connection through your body. For Wild Energy, a sound installation made in collaboration with Robert Bielecki, we set up two hammocks in a wooded area and concealed all the technology in the brush. As a woman who visited said “You lie down and are instantly floating”, supported and relaxed – an important concern for me, as a relaxed body is open and responsive. So – no physical distractions, just hearing, sensing, with the sound vibrations coursing through your body. The upside of the fact that we have no physiological defenses against sound is that we can feel deeply permeated by it. When this happens, we are making a form of visceral contact with the source of the sound, I feel, making sound a powerful and intimate channel through which to experience other phenomena, and then we can go further, to the feeling of interconnectedness and the desire to sustain.

Immersion in the sonic energy of rivers through listening closely to them, for example, pulls them from data abstraction back into sensory experience – hydro-energy made tangible. The acoustic spectra they create fall largely within our hearing range; in addition, we can drink them, absorbing them internally; watch the play of light on their constantly changing surfaces, smell them, feel them on the skin. They are accessible to all our senses.

A common thread running through many of the interviews I recorded along the Danube was that for these people the river is alive – which I also came to feel. I hear it in the details of its constantly changing sounds, and if your sense of a river incorporates the fish, insects, aquatic plants, willows and alders, mammals and people which depend upon it, then a river is indeed alive.”

Annea Lockwood, World Listening Day 2015.

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