[MUSIC PLAYING] ANNEA LOCKWOOD: I want to draw people into the energy of the river, but the sound has to be right, has to be really good for that immersion of a listener.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Welcome to Universe of Art, a podcast from Science Friday and WNYC Studios about artists who use science to take their work to the next level. I'm Science Friday producer D Peterschmidt. What parts of nature are better appreciated heard rather than seen?
This is what drives the subject of today's episode, composer and environmental sound recordist Annea Lockwood. She uses stereo microphones and underwater hydrophones to capture the sounds of life along riverbanks to create what are called sound maps. And sometimes, it's the relative lack of sound due to human-caused pollution.
In either case, her goal is to lead the listener along a river, asking them to use their ears more than their eyes to appreciate it. And I'm here with the producer of this segment, Science Friday Director of News and Audio John Dankosky. Hey, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Hi there. How's it going?
D PETERSCHMIDT: [CHUCKLES] Good. So this was the first time I've heard of sound maps as a concept. Was that something you were aware of already?
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. So I had heard about many people doing sound map-type installations in the past, but Annea Lockwood's is one of the most famous. And she's a composer whose work I've known for a very, very long time. And I was just-- I was drawn to this in large part because the Housatonic River that she maps in this piece that we talk about runs-- I don't know-- right by my house.
It's about 10 miles away from my house. And it's a river that I know very well. And so the sounds of the river were really attracting to me.
D PETERSCHMIDT: So part of Annea's focus is documenting the effects of human-caused pollution along these rivers. And when I hear about that kind of story, I don't think about the sounds of that environment. I think of the visuals. Like, maybe the visuals are changing. But I don't think about the sound changing.
Was that something that stuck out to you too?
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. So a lot of this goes back, for me, to reporting that I did on the Housatonic River and PCBs that were dumped there decades ago. And one of the things I learned in talking with people who lived along the river was that if you have a river that's essentially dead for quite some time, where the fish aren't reproducing at the same rate, where there aren't going to be as many birds along the shore because there won't be as many fish, you end up with a much quieter place.
You end up with a place that sounds a lot different than a vibrant river that has a lot of life in it. And that's always been a really interesting idea to me that, yes, you can take a picture of a place that is environmentally degraded. But rivers are a little different. When you take a picture of a river or a video of a river that's been dumped into for years, you might not see anything different at all.
But you're going to hear something different because the amount of life, the types of life that live along that river will be, in some cases, irrevocably changed. And if you go someplace else in the world and sit next to river, you'd be like, oh, I hear different sorts of birds, I hear different sorts of life.
And that's one of the really interesting things to me. This helps to tell a story that you can really only hear, you can't really see so much.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So I didn't know this was-- this river was right next to where you lived. [CHUCKLES] Just really cool.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. Yeah. I know the place pretty well.
D PETERSCHMIDT: I mean, producing this, talking to Annea, did it make you listen to the river differently when you go down there?
JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think just talking with her in general, it can't help but to make you listen to not just river sounds, but just the sounds around you differently. I mean, she's an artist who has used found sound as part of her work for 50-plus years, and she's so attuned to the natural world.
And as you listen to the work that she does, you start to pick up some of those things yourself about what makes a piece of music out of just the sound of a river or a train going by or some other natural phenomenon. She's just been able to hone her ear to find these sounds in nature that resonate musically-- because she's a music composer. And hopefully, I picked up a small fraction of that from her.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Totally. Cool. Well, let's listen to the segment. Thanks, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Thank you. Oh, that was great. Thank you.
D PETERSCHMIDT: And here's Science Friday Host Ira Flatow introducing composer and sound artist Annea Lockwood.
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 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's 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.
[RIVER SOUND MAP PLAYS]
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: I'm doing it almost entirely by ear. In other words, I look at local maps, look at areas that are marshy, for example, where I expect to be able to find a lot of aquatic bugs and maybe good underwater sources, 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.
[RIVER SOUND MAP PLAYS]
I want to draw people into the energy of the river and, by that means, arouse associations, personal associations, in people's minds with rivers that they know and love-- from there, move on to bigger concern about the health of rivers. That's my aim. But the sound has to be right, has to be really good for that to-- so that immersion of a listener.
[RIVER SOUND MAP PLAYS]
I don't want the sounds of oars or pedals 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.
[RIVER SOUND MAP PLAYS]
I remember being truly shocked when I got to Pittsfield. And I 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 I was used to hearing a lot of activity underwater. There should have been plenty going on late spring, early summer, but there was very, very little.
And I wondered if PCB contamination and the other contamination which had been flowing down river for so long had just decimated underwater populations, not just of fish, but of smaller creatures too.
[RIVER SOUND MAP PLAYS]
No river in my experience has an overall characteristic by which you could identify, oh, 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, and not to mention the bed of the river changing constantly.
So every single site has its own sound. And moreover, every site sound changes somewhat within a very short space of time.
There's no pinning a river down, and I like that very much.
D PETERSCHMIDT: You can listen to more of Annea's work at sciencefriday.com/soundmaps. And before we go, if you're a fan of books and book clubs, I want to tell you about our new Science Friday Book Club pick, The Possibility of Life, Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos, written by Jaime Green. And it shares a lot in common with the DNA of this podcast.
It's an investigation into how science fiction has influenced our science reality and how pop culture helps us imagine life elsewhere in our universe. We'll also have a livestream Q&A with the author that you can attend for free on Wednesday, May 24. You can find out more about both those things at sciencefriday.com/bookclub.
Universe of Art is hosted and produced by me, D Peterschmidt, and I also wrote the theme music. Charles Bergquist and John Dankosky provided production assistance, and our show art is illustrated by Abelle Hayford. The segment you just heard was originally produced by Science Friday Director of News and Audio John Dankosky.
And support for Science Friday's science and arts coverage comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Also, if you have an idea for a future episode of Universe of Art, send us an email or voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back in two weeks. See you.