Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River
Annea Lockwood thinks of rivers as “live phenomena” that are constantly changing and shifting. She’s been drawn to the energy that rivers create, and the sound that energy makes, since she first started working with environmental recordings in the 1960s.
One of her projects has been to create detailed “river maps” of the Hudson, Danube, and Housatonic rivers. Using stereo microphones and underwater hydrophones, she captures the gentle, powerful sounds of the water, along with the noises of insects, birds, and occasional humans she finds along the way.
Lockwood’s composition, “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River”—a decade old, this year—takes listeners on a 150-mile tour, from the headwaters in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, past sites of toxic PCB contamination, to the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary, where the river spills into Long Island Sound.
Hear an excerpt of the full composition at Annea Lockwood’s music portfolio.
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Annea Lockwood is a composer and environmental sound recordist based in Westchester, New York.
IRA FLATOW: One of the major rivers that feeds Long Island Sound is the Housatonic. It meets the sound in the town of Milford, Connecticut, and begins about 150 miles north in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts.
Like many rivers in the northeast it has a long history of pollution from factories that were built along its banks. For decades General Electric’s plant in Pittsfield Massachusetts dumped toxic PCBs into the river. Parts of the Housatonic were declared a Superfund site. And even after more than 20 years of cleanup, the river is still contaminated.
But for a long wild stretches the river snakes through mountains and under covered bridges. And you wouldn’t know about its troubles. It starts here with a mountain spring trickling out of a metal pipe.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: My name is Annea Lockwood. I’m a composer. I make pieces for singers and instrumentalists, but also I do a lot of environmental sound recording, and I have done for many years, going back to the ’60s.
IRA FLATOW: This year marks the 10th anniversary of Lockwood’s detailed sound map of the Housatonic River. She had previously completed sound maps of the Hudson and the Danube. Lockwood, who is now 81, does her recordings from the banks of the rivers using stereo microphones and hydrophones to listen underwater. All of her sound maps are meant to be listened to as immersive sound installations, where listeners travel with her as the rivers change and grow. So if you can, you might want to put on your headphones.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: I’m doing it almost entirely by ear. In other words, I look at local maps and look at areas that are marshy, for example, where I expect to be able to find a lot of aquatic bugs that make a good underwater sources, and look at areas where the flow is clearly going to be fast, in which case I get very complex water textures, which I love. And then just let my ears guide me.
I want to draw people into the energy of the river, and by that means arouse associations, pleasant associations in people’s minds with rivers that they know and love, and from there and move along to get concerned about the health of rivers. That’s my aim. But the sound has to be right. Has to be really good for that to– for that immersion of the listener.
I don’t want the sounds of oars or paddles to be included in the recording. I sort of don’t want people’s attention to be drawn away from the actual energy of the river itself. So I always just record from the bank. Besides the banks are so interesting. I mean, that’s where the friction is between water and land, and the sounds which rivers create at their banks are beautiful and complex and varied. Tremendously varied.
I remember being truly shocked when I got to Pittsfield, and remember reading a sign which pointed out PCB contamination in the mud, and if you were trying to embark on a canoe or a kayak, make sure to wash your legs as quickly as you possibly could. It was the first time I’d seen that sort of warning. It was shocking.
And when I got to do a recording, which was purely an underwater environment, I’d been recording underwater in various spots by then on the Danube and up in Montana and in New York, and was used to hearing a lot of activity underwater. Should’ve been plenty going on. Late spring, early summer. But it was very, very little, and I wondered if PCB contamination and the other contamination which had been flowing down river for so long, it just sort have decimated underwater populations. Not just of fish, but of smaller creatures, too.
No river in my experience has an overall characteristic about which you could identify. Ah, that’s the Danube, or that’s the Hudson, or that’s the Housatonic. Every single site on a river has its own characteristic. So I regard rivers as live phenomena which actively create their sound by the way they work with the materials of their banks, and restructure their banks, and change their banks. Not to mention the bed of the river changing constantly. So every single site has its own sound.
And moreover, every sight, sound changes somewhat within a very short space of time. There’s no pinning a river down. And I like that very much.
IRA FLATOW: You can explore more of an Annea Lockwood’s sound map of the Housatonic river on our website. Our story was produced by Science Friday’s John Dankosky.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.