The Greeks built monuments and sculpted figures that displayed the divine order of the universe. Persian carpets aim to bring nature indoors, capturing spiritual paradise for earthly consumption. And Monet depicted the ephemeral in a new, quick style, enforcing a novel way of looking at both art and nature. In many ways, art and nature have always been intertwined.
Composer, sound artist and former Professor of Music at Vassar Annea Lockwood carries on this long tradition of eliciting emotion through art. Over her long career, Lockwood has experimented with many instruments, such as the piano, drums, didgeridoo and conch shells. She composed music to accompany readings of poems written by Guantánamo detainees and gained notoriety for setting out-of-use pianos on fire.
Lockwood has always tried to challenge established notions of what constitutes art and music. As Vassar Professor of Music Richard Wilson puts it, “[Lockwood’s works] stand at the very edge of what would traditionally be called music.”
Lockwood will present “environmental sound,” in the form of an installation at the Aula. The event was organized by Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) as part of its 2015- 2016 theme of “Sound and Silence.”
Lockwood’s installation is intended to complement a course in the Environmental Studies Department, “Animal Metaphors,” taught by Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Kathleen Hart and Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair John Long. The course, through readings of literature, biology, psychology and cognitive science, explores why humans often identify themselves in opposition to animals and nature, and how this dichotomy is reflected and challenged in our stories and traditions.
At Vassar, Lockwood will be presenting a “sound map” of the Housatonic River, recordings taken from 18 sites along the waterway. This piece is the third in a series that includes two sound maps of the Hudson and Danube Rivers.
Visitors experience the sound maps through Lockwood’s carefully curated selection of recordings. The installation includes a map of the river and the location of each recording, the time and date of each recording and the time of each recording within the hour and 17 minute run time. “I include all this information because very frequently visitors know the river and have a favorite stretch, but since any one site’s sound changes with weather and season, it’s not easy to identify by ear alone,” she explained.
This precise identification is reminiscent of Impressionist painters, who often painted the same landscapes at different times of day and in different seasons to capture the changing effects of light. In Lockwood’s case, her auditory snapshots give the listener a sense of the changes in the river’s physicality and its subsequent sounds from site to site and from day to day. “It is an anti-solipsistic mode of composition,” asserted Wilson. Her art gives an animate and independent voice to nature itself.
Unfortunately, as the “Animal Metaphors” course explores, humanity’s connection with this natural spirit has become increasingly distant. In art, Romanticism reacted to such concerns, portraying the relationship between man and animate natural forces. .
Lockwood’s river sound-maps fit into the creative and environmentalist spirit surrounding the Northeastern rivers but she also exposes audiences to the landscape in a very different way. As she explained, “I decided to set up comfortable situations in which people could become immersed in the sound-fields of rivers, listening for long periods of time largely without visual input other than the maps themselves, so there could be real aural focus.”
As Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for CAAD Tom Pacio states, “[Each project provides] additional opportunities for conversation between disciplines.” Not only is this true in the interdisciplinary nature of the “Animal Metaphors” course in which Lockwood is participating, but her art itself transcends genre. Her sound-mapping process combines cartography, sound engineering and the en plein air use of recorders and underwater hydrophones. Her inspiration—an old treatment that heals by bringing patients to waterfronts—is both medical and emotional. She hopes that this experience combines the corporeal and the spiritual for the viewer.
According to Professor Kathleen Hart, sound can facilitate this relationship between the spiritual and material. She explained, “Through sound, a story can teach us to listen, to pay closer attention to our environment, from which we’re never truly separate…[it can help us] imagine a conversation in the chortling of a brook…without quite knowing what the ‘words’ are.”
Lockwood’s work engages listeners more closely with their environment, creating personal and emotional connections to the Housatonic that demonstrate that it lives and breathes just like we do. From this understanding, we can better understand that nature can be destroyed and die just like we do. Ultimately, Lockwood described, “That’s what I’m looking for in the way I build these installations, encouraging a feeling of immersion which can lead to that of non-separation from the environment—essential ground if we are to act effectively, collaboratively, with an environment in crisis.”