I wasn’t prepared, when I walked in to the installation of Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982) at LCMF, for how familiar it would be. After all, this is a giant field recording of the most ambient, neutral of all sounds, running water; as ordinary and as ignorable as traffic noise. Yet as I stepped into the vast concrete cavern that is Ambika P3, I had a visceral hit of familiarity, of knowing, of orientation. This was, I realised, a real object, with a weight and form and identity of its own.
A Sound Map of the Hudson River is the first of three such portraits (others are of the Danube and the Housatonic), and is related to Lockwood’s larger River Archive project, begun in the 1960s. To create the work Lockwood recorded the river in stages, moving downstream. She took recordings from the bank, at points that she deemed sonically interesting and that fit an overall sequence of contrasts and movements. The piece was thus recorded compositionally, with a final sound and structure in mind, rather than objectively; Lockwood rejected locations, for example, if they were too close to roads or presented too little of sonic interest. Once the recordings were completed, Lockwood compiled them into a montage sequence, stitched together with slow fade-ins and fade-outs. The completed work is presented with a map of the river annotated with the location, date, and time of each recording and at what point in the work they can be heard. A set of headsets also play interviews with people who live and work on the river: a fisherman, a judge, a park ranger, a farmer, an activist and a river pilot.
Its materials are so slight, so neutral, so ambient and unadorned, as to be almost not there at all. In this sense, it is a masterpiece of presence: it is so utterly present as a work in spite of that neutrality. And that goes even more as what is here and what is there is folded over and over the longer one listens. The Hudson is here; we are here on the Hudson; we are there on the map (in time now, measured by a clock on the wall; a slice of time then, Lockwood in 1982 standing by the water’s edge); we are here in this tiny locale, the river zoomed in to a few inches around a single microphone, projected around us across a 40-foot circle of speakers.
Almost until the end, the recordings are taken from the water’s edge: border spaces, the ribbon between this and that. The work’s focus is on touching and close sensation, not the generalised power of the river. Intimate. More interesting sonically as a result. But also more unexpected.
Rarely, even in the piece’s later stages, is the Hudson recorded as a source of power or mass. Recordings always made at the river’s edge, lapping, bubbling, the elemental mix of earth and water and air. The river is conceived less as a thing in itself than as a space around which things happen: the map is not of the river so much; the map is the river. This perspective is heightened by the addition of interviews with some of those who live and work on the river. I listened to a river pilot describe the challenges of bringing tankers, 100,000 tonnes in weight, onto the piers in New York: yet despite the huge forces involved even this was a tale of precise movements made under almost no engine at all, trusting to the silent pull of the river’s tides and currents.