Avant-garde composers frequently use altered and reassembled tape pieces as a disorienting display of mechanized, man-made sound. Terry Riley’s landmark “You’re No Good” (1967) took a now forgotten R&B 45 and deconstructed it into a mesmerizing experimental disco single. Pärson Sound’s Bo Anders Persson used drones and spoken word tape loops as part of an alienating, electronic swirl. Composer Annea Lockwood took a different approach to tape manipulations. On such pieces as “Tiger Balm,” originally released in 1970, she began with the sounds of nature, creating a different kind of sonic space that was more organic. Newly reissued on vinyl with eye-catching cover art, Lockwood’s intriguing early work is back in print after decades out of circulation.
Lockwood has described the title piece, originally developed for a theater performance, as a “sound ritual.” The amplified purring of a tiger fades in, and the sound of this ferocious, powerful creature is indeed somewhat soothing. But as Tiger Balm ointment delivers a physical—and healing–kick, so does this piece, which gradually introduces an eerie gamelan figure, its chimes accompanying the animal’s sounds of contentment with an unsettling minor-key tension.
Throughout this 19-minute piece, only two sound elements are heard at a time. As the tiger initially fades out, the gamelan accompanies a heartbeat, the combination invoking a cinematic suspense that created anticipation for some unknown danger around the corner. What you hear next is a jaw-harp distorted to resemble a slowed-down frog. Mid-piece, the sound of a tiger roaring in what sounds like a storm is accompanied by the furtive sighs of a woman in ecstasy, the juxtaposition suggesting the fine line between animal and human desires. When the sounds of a low-flying airplane follow this soundscape, it seems that man’s technical progress has driven away a natural beauty.
Born in New Zealand, Lockwood reportedly grew up fascinated by the sounds of nature heard around her family’s mountain forest vacation home. On American shores, “Tiger Balm” premiered on a record that accompanied a 1970 issue of the avant-garde music magazine Source, which also featured her piece “Piano Burning” accompanied by a striking photo of Lockwood seeming to play a piano on fire. This musical heat is an image that Jerry Lee Lewis played as part of a bad boy persona, but Lockwood’s designs seem more iconoclastic.
Tiger Balm is filled out with two more Lockwood compositions that are thematically related but don’t use this same early tape method. The five-minute “Amazonia Dreaming” (1987), performed by Dominic Donato, is a snare drum piece with vocalizations that invoke the forest. Frank Cassara joins Donato on the nearly 15-minute “Immersion” (1998). This too seems like a “sound ritual,” an opening gong setting off a slow, hypnotic drone amid atmospheric percussion that sustains a sense of restrained unease. But the real highlight here is “Tiger Balm.” Lockwood recently told Orlando magazine that, perhaps in part due to cultural conditioning, she’s never been particularly active in promoting her work. But although it was just issued a few weeks ago, the limited vinyl run of this reissue is already running low at the distributor. Musically adventurous listeners should track this down while they can.