To talk about the significance of river systems to human life is to descend into a dizzying whirlpool of clichés and hackneyed truisms. Historically, they have fuelled creative expression of all kinds, giving rise to a pantheon of river gods, inspired poets and painters, enriching language with countless metaphor.
Yet New-Zealand-born, New York- based composer Annea Lockwood has knelt down over the banks of some of the world’s most important river systems, reached into their waters and drawn out musical ideas of impressive singularity. Her 2005 sound installation A Sound Map of the Danube is a tribute to a river’s beguiling aural beauty. Assembled as a collage of field recordings, Lockwood’s work plays like an epic sound novel. Its narrative follows the journey of this mighty Eastern European river, from its source in the Black Forest to its delta at the shores of the Black Sea.
Lockwood collected her sound recordings of the Danube in five separate trips to Europe from 2001 to 2004. Working as a sort of ‘ethnographer of sound’, she travelled slowly down the river’s sinuous body, stopping wherever an interesting sound effect seemed probable. The result is a 167-minute edit of aural tableaux from 59 separate points along the river’s banks.
The work’s scope encompasses sounds both natural and manmade, from chirping water birds and murmuring insects, to tolling church bells and rumbling engines. Then there are the sounds of the water itself; confounding in their endless variety and multi-layered complexity. Delicate trickles give way to crude guzzles. Quietly mumbling wavelets falling upon river banks morph into full-bodied resonances captured within a drain’s cavernous walls.
The remarkable array of water sounds in A Sound Map of the Danube portrays Lockwood’s chronicle of the Danube, showing the intricate polyrhythms inherent in a River’s natural flow, both rhythmic and constant. Yet, unlike the work of great modernists such as Stravinsky and Messiaen, the River’s isorhythms are the doing of Nature Herself, artfully penned by Her infallible hand.
Though to some dismissably ambient music, Lockwood’s sound map makes for probing meditation on the essence of rivers. Why do they exist? How are we dependent on them, and they on us? WHAT are they? Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Danube poses all these questions, and the answer she offers is refracted in the complete logic of the River’s internal movements, the lapping of its waves and the never-ending flux of its waters ♦
Editors note: This is Ilario Colli’s first post to imodernreview.com as the site’s music contributor, and he will be continuing to share welcome signs from modern culture in the field of musical arts. [photos sourced and attributed from Flickr Commons]