Thousand Year Dreaming

I have been working with the composer Annea Lockwood for five years. We collaborated on the solo trumpet work, Becoming Air, for the second edition of my For/With Festival. (A recording came out alongside her work with Yarn/Wire called Into The Vanishing Point on Black Truffle in 2021.) The preparation of that piece is ongoing, and we regularly get together to take part in the process of nurturing its sound together.

During this time, we have also Talked—that capital “T” is intentional. Talking deeply, comparing ideas, chatting, catching up, shooting the breeze: these are points on a spectrum of our working together. And after multiple performances of Becoming Air, we still somehow find a reason to be on the phone together about once a month. The conversations range from the breezy (How was that festival?) to things more difficult (I’m so sorry. That must be so tough.) These are treasured and personal moments, but the joy we take in speaking is not limited to phone calls or in-person lunches. We have been lucky enough to be able to have some of our chats in front of audiences as well: public discussions at Café Oto in London and Chicago’s Frequency Festival and a printed conversation for the most recent volume of John Zorn’s Arcana series. 

Annea and I had been talking about a recent performance of her 1974 piece Spirit Catchers on the phone, and it prompted me to dig a little deeper into different eras of her work. During one of our monthly calls, I brought up the idea of another public discussion, this time in Sound American. Annea happily agreed, and we went right back to talking about what we’d been reading lately. And when we met a week later via Zoom for this interview, we started right where we had left off on the phone, doing what we do best: Talking.

Nate Wooley

Suggested Listening

Annea Lockwood: Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point (Black Truffle, 2021)

Annea Lockwood: Thousand Year Dreaming/Floating World (Pogus Productions, 2007)

ALI can tell you—in terms of jumping right in—that I just ordered Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain.

NWYou did? Had you read it before?

ALNo. I hadn’t even heard of her. You’re my Library of Alexandria.

NWHa! Well, that’s actually perfect way for us to start, and I’ll tell you why. I found a CD of Thousand Year Dreaming1 at work and had it on while I was making dinner last night. I was reading some bits that I particularly love from The Living Mountain while waiting for something to boil. There’s this passage where she describes the different ways that snow plays with ice and wind.2 It struck me that what you had made sonically was a perfect representation of that exact scene Shepherd was describing in “floating in mid-air.”

ALOh, that’s the movement with the very floaty gong rolls. 

NWYes, and it exemplified the feeling of environment in your work. There are “ecological” composers that consciously aim to recreate an image of nature, but your work has a different, more abstracted but deeper, quality to it, and I want to talk about that. Around the same time, I was rereading this essay by Charles Olson about projective verse. Essentially, he’s proposing a practice where you build a field of all the things that you’re interested in, and then you proceed in the form of an energetic exhale built upon the material you’ve amassed. It’s the human aspect of making the thing that makes it exciting opposed to music having a theme and variations architecture that you’re going to fit your melodies and harmonies into.

ALDo you think people who are any good ever really did it that way? Those forms are not cookie cutters.

NWNo, but I think in listening to Thousand Year Dreaming I found it to have the same projective exhale, so I wondered if we can talk about the process of making that piece. 

ALSo maybe the easier place for me conceptually to start would be to talk about the history of Thousand Year Dreaming and then go on into talking about fields, which is a vague concept to me but will become less so as we keep talking. First of all, did you get the two horses [from photos of Lascaux cave paintings]?

NWI did.

ALThe most exquisite horses—absolutely beautiful. I wanted you to have those fresh in mind. I mean, one can say to somebody: “Oh, you know those Lascaux cave paintings,” and the person you’re talking to has some sort of residual memory of having seen some, but I wanted you to see how alive they are, how beautiful they are as we talk about the piece.
So, Dreaming. I have to work my way into it, so it’ll be a bit pedestrian to begin with. I think it started with me and [trombonist] Art Baron and [percussionist] N. Scott Robinson sitting in a car coming back from Staten Island after having worked together on Nautilus. We were adding up how many people we knew in New York who played didgeridu in one fashion or another. I’d heard a couple of Indigenous Australian players in London years before, playing together, and what a rich sound that was. The didgeridu has long felt to me like the sound of the core of the planet somehow; one could say it’s the way it pulses, just the way magma pulses, for example, but nothing that literal. It just feels like the core-sound for the whole planet.
Then, Charles Wood and John Kennedy asked if I’d like to take on a commission for the presenting organization they were running at the time [Essential Music]. I said yes, of course [laughs] and started thinking about who I’d like to add to the didgeridus. I don’t know how I got to those instruments; they seemed obvious somehow. I needed percussionists. I always need gongs. [laughs] And I knew that [multi-reedist] JD Parran would be super. I love contrabass clarinet, just love it. And I love oboe. I wasn’t initially thinking of [oboist] Libby Van Cleve because I didn’t know her. I initially was talking to another oboist, but it wasn’t quite gelling. Somebody mentioned Libby, we met, and she’s very much my sort of person—and a superb musician. Libby got into it, and [trombonist] Peter Zummo, John Snyder brought a waterphone to the mix, Charles Wood, N. Scott Robinson and Eric Kivnick on percussion, John Gibson on didgeridu, and the band sort of, well, assembled.
Art and Scott both played conch [shell] with real inventiveness, so the call-and-response opening just fell into place for me, for example. The next thing I remember was creating the sort of interactive solo lines in the second movement [“the CHI stirs”] for JD and Libby. In the third movement [“floating in mid-air”], I wanted a feeling of suspension. I think the titles for the movements were very clear by then; it was obvious that the second movement was the beginning of fundamental, core motion stirring. I recall a strong, generating image of a great snake beginning to move. And that for me, at the time, was the Chi. I wanted that sense of suspension. The lovely experience of watching two large birds circling, slowly riding thermals in Glacier Park led to the trombone canon for Art and Peter which ends “floating in mid-air”. Yes, building a field—that’s it exactly.
I had met [komungo virtuoso and composer] Jin Hi Kim quite a few years before at one of the Telluride Composer-to-Composer events that composer Charles Amirkhanian and artist John Lifton programmed. I asked her to talk to me about how duration and periodicity were used in Korean court music—I listened to that music in London in the Sixties and thought it was exquisite, really interesting—so we talked a lot about extended durational and overlapping cycles. I started working with what she told me to create the beginning of “floating in mid-air,” and then the piece sort of moved from all those beginnings to assemble itself.
We worked for three months on Thousand Year Dreaming, putting it together, making it, rehearsing it. And nobody was getting paid for that—such generosity from these superb musicians. We were all rehearsing in John Snyder’s3 office—he had a day job—appalling acoustics, of course, but we didn’t have to pay for rehearsal space. So, for something like three months, we all got together on a fairly regular basis and gradually made the piece happen.

NWHow did it come together in rehearsal?

ALIt’s a fully scored piece, so I was bringing sketches to the rehearsals, as I recall, and pinning the scoring down as we worked. I’d have to look back through my notes.

NWThat’s interesting because it doesn’t sound fully scored to me, but it also sounds like it could be. It could be exasperatingly scored, or it could just be a series of direction, and the musicians are asked to make good musical choices.

ALThere are those passages—passages for improvisation. Scott’s improvising on frame drums for a significant part of one of the movements, and the four didgeridu players were improvising. There’s a whole section in performance where they move around the audience and place the end of the instrument up against somebody’s shoulder or leg or something. If you’d like a little sonic massage, you just indicate where, and they put the end of the instrument up against that body part, and you get a massage. That goes on for about ten minutes.

NWIt’s difficult to pull off that balance of improvisation and composition, especially with a massage element!

Listening to you talk about how the piece was made brings me back to the idea of working from a field, whether we choose to use that term or not. It’s like that piece came out of a group of, not coincidences, but moments of action—moments of people coming together, exploring the sketches and possibilities. And even though it was then scored in a way that it could be reproduced by another group of people, it doesn’t feel like it was created merely for that reproducibility. That’s what triggered the connection to Olson and his idea of field. To me, that’s what he’s really talking about: ideas pop up; you follow one; it becomes something new and everything changes; and you follow a new idea. In the end you have a piece.

ALAnd that is my preferred way of working. It doesn’t apply to every piece, and there are pieces I’ve composed straight through, but the preponderance of my pieces are based on exactly what you’re saying.
There’s one more thing to say about Thousand Year Dreaming. I was interested to work with instruments which feel very old: primordial or original instruments. And the Lascaux images, like those I sent you, became attached, as invocations, to the piece very early on. In performance, they’re projected very large—two at a time—on the wall behind the players, so the musicians are seen within the images. It’s done in a very specific sequence, and the relationship between the two sets of projections is quite worked out. But still, I think the way you are defining field feels very natural to me.

NWI don’t mean to try and shoehorn what you’re doing into someone else’s idea. It struck me this week because that essay was on my mind, and I thought your music—all that I’ve heard and the piece that we’ve done together—is very much like that. For example, our piece Becoming Air continues to be a field from which we develop that specific music with each performance. And it also got me thinking about how your music tends to develop over longer stretches of time. You told me recently that you’re going back and performing Spirit Catchers again, for example, which reminds me that you have built work that can be revisited without becoming . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . repertoire. I’m not sure that’s quite right, but hopefully it makes sense: if you say we’re going to do Spirit Catchers—which is from 1974 if I remember right—that’s a much different feeling to me than playing an Elliott Carter piece from the same year.

ALOr somebody playing Red Mesa, which is a scored piano piece of mine from the late 80s.

NWSo, what do you think the difference is?

ALI’m tempted to say that one is a process, and the other is a thing—a sonic object in a way—and I find process more interesting than object. It’s not a hard and fast thing, but it’s a very definite preference. Spirit Catchers came out of my all-enveloping fascination with ancient sounds that came from studying trance music and ritual in the late 60s in London and goes back to Tiger Balm. In a way, I’m speculating that we have residual atavistic memories of rituals that may be triggered by hearing certain sounds—possible sounds. While I was looking into trance—which all comes out of my preoccupation with how sound affects our bodies and paying attention to that—I kept coming across these references to “spirit catchers.” Spirit Catchers comes right out of that. As does Tiger Balm. As do a whole slew of pieces from around that time. And, ultimately, Thousand Year Dreaming comes out of it, too, for sure. There was a lovely and powerful moment in which, just before the musicians all went out into the space at St. Peter’s Church [NYC] for the first performance, Peter Zummo held up for us one of the Lascaux bull images—an invocation.

NWWhat was behind the decision to start performing Spirit Catchers again?

ALOh, Ilan Volkov.

NWHe’s behind many good decisions. [both laugh]

ALHe’s a lot of things! I think back when he did Tectonics with the BBC Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow, I suggested Spirit Catchers. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to give us much rehearsal time, and that is a piece that dies if you rehearse it too much. Basically, you get used to the mic placement, hearing your voice, and ignoring everyone else, and that’s it. Then you perform it. It didn’t fit his programming then, but he remembered it. And so, when he asked me to come to the Athens Tectonics this year, he asked if I’d like to do Spirit Catchers, and it seemed like it would be really fun to revive it. I learned a lot from redoing it.

NWWhat did you learn?

ALThe most mundane of things. He asked me to be a participant, which I had never done before—I’d always done the mixing—so I learned that, even as a participant, one has to get up, stop participating, go over to the mixing board where the mixer is working, and listen to the levels! Oh, man, after all these years! [laughs]
A curious thing tends to happen with Spirit Catchers, which I did frequently in the 70s. What people are recalling, the imagery that they’re bringing up and so on, tends to converge. They’re not specifically listening to each other—that would pull them out of their personal memory space—but I presume that they’re hearing enough to naturally come together. Maybe not. In any case, it’s a magical thing to observe when it happens.
There are these wonderful rhythms involved, which is the other thing that got me doing Spirit Catchers in the first place. I call them “rhythms of memory.” As one’s memory begins to operate, and you’re searching for an image or searching for a connection or just searching for a memory, the voice moves slowly. Right? And when what you’re searching for is suddenly coherent in your mind, then the voice accelerates. You naturally get this lovely sort of rhythm of slow pace-accelerating pace-dreaminess-vitality-back to slow pace.

NWI think it’s as close as we get to being naturally poetic. It takes a lot of energy to stay within the rhythmic structure of a poem. They say even within the ancient epics that were spoken, many of the epithets and lines were ubiquitous phrases that the speaker would insert to make the rhythm fall in line. But there is something about that kind of memory-speech you’re talking about that gets one close to a naturally rhythmic poetic flow. Whether that puts you in iambic pentameter doesn’t matter; you’re creating a speed and a rhythm and a flow that has a natural poetry to it.

ALAnd it’s lovely to hear it happening. We should do Spirit Catchers together.

NWI would love to experience it from the inside as a participant or the outside as an audience member! I’m fascinated by that piece. Did you find that people had a different relationship to objects in 2021 than they did in the 70s when you wrote that piece?

ALIt’s not the sort of comparison I could make. If you’re wondering whether there was more interest in spiritual traditions back then, that's probably true, but I don’t know that it fed through into the piece. But is that what you were getting at?

NWIn a way, but I was thinking more about the objects themselves: the spirit catchers. I, for example, have noticed that my attachment to certain objects—books for sure—has gotten deeper than it has been in the past. My experience is not as deep as you’re asking of participants in Spirit Catchers, but I wondered if there was a similar effect in the way that people were viewing the objects they chose for Spirit Catchers now.

ALI can’t predict that, but I don’t think so.

NWIt’s a lot to ask, but it’s just something that came to me.

ALIt’s an intriguing thought.

NWI noticed that I’m more attached to certain things in the house. Two years ago, I would take a book with me to read on tour and just leave it at a hotel, or on the seat of a train, for someone else to read. Now, I really hoard books because my experience with them has become such a profound part of daily life.

ALI’m taking books to the local library’s little store by the bundles, but there are many books I couldn’t imagine parting with. And then that picture is a little complicated for me because I’m surrounding myself with—and have for the last two years—objects connected to my life with Ruth4 for the most obvious of reasons: I can feel that she’s still there in some form or another. So it’s not such a straightforward question. But anyway, for that reason, among others, I’m doing just the same thing.

NWI think we probably all do it to one degree or another. Even if we get rid of those things, we’re engaged in some sort of practice of recognizing them as having an important part of our lives. The choice to get rid of them is still just as heavy.

1Annea Lockwood, Thousand Year Dreaming/floating world, Pogus Productions, 2017.

2“Loose snow blown in the sun looks like the ripples running through corn. Small snow on a furious gale freezes on the sheltered side of stones on a hilltop in long crystals; I have seen these converge slightly as the wind blows round both sides of the stones . . . Or the wind lifts the surface of loose snow but before it has detached it from the rest of the snow, frost has petrified the delicate shavings in flounces of transparent muslin.” Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (p. 33)

3Snyder plays didgeridu and waterphone on the recording.

4Ruth Anderson. A pioneering electronic artist in her own right, Ruth and Annea were partners since the 70s. Annea wrote a beautiful and intimate remembrance for New Music Box in 2019, the year Ruth passed away.

Thousand Year Dreaming