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Holy Hell! Breaking the Surface Turns 20

Holy Hell! Breaking the Surface Turns 20

Breaking the Surface remains a great introduction into Lockwood’s oeuvre.

Breaking the Surface is credited to Annea Lockwood, but it’s the product of so many others. Not only do the album’s performers take on a quasi-compositional role, but Lockwood draws on multiple global and natural sounds in these pieces that further conceal her contributions. The New Zealand-born composer has long worked with the aleatoric qualities of field recordings as well as non-European musical practices, and her 1999 release showcases both in an arguably perfect form. Just two tracks that run less than an hour, Breaking the Surface highlights the wild and empathetic creativity that Lockwood had always exhibited and continues to exhibit in her work. She takes the highbrow guardedness of 20th century classical and bursts it open, creating music that is sonically, emotionally and ideologically stunning.

Breaking the Surface remains a great introduction into Lockwood’s oeuvre, as it presents a high watermark of two of her distinct styles: pieces that rework traditional music and pieces that move beyond any easy definition. The first, “Duende,” exhibits the former. A collaboration between Lockwood and vocalist Thomas Buckner, the piece is centered on the idea of transcendental meditation, though Lockwood gives Buckner expansive freedom beyond the core concept. His performance is disarmingly physical, incorporating more grunts and wheezes than distinct melody lines. Still, his singing feels musical. Buckner treats this atypical material with care, always shaping phrases to match his expression, always keeping the performative aspect of music in mind. Despite the composition’s lofty aims, hearing Buckner stretch his vocal limits—both physical and idiomatic—for close to a half-hour does resemble some sort of ego annihilation.

While “Duende” does greatly revolve around the performer’s choices, it’s equally boxed-in by Lockwood’s guiding framework. Ideas-as-music have long been one of her trademarks, especially in her most famous works, Piano Transplants, which involve burning, drowning or otherwise destroying the titular instrument. Broadly, some of these “arch” works are better thought about than actually experienced—look at Dick Higgins’ Danger Music series for an extreme—but Lockwood always privileges the listener’s experience over heady ruminating. “Delta Run” is the apex of this quality. The track compiles recordings of Lockwood interviewing her friend and fellow artist Walter Wincha, aged just 30, on his deathbed. The composer’s only tangible contributions are the few questions she asks throughout and the nature recordings she’s spliced behind the late sculptor as he discusses his thoughts on loss, life and art just a day before his passing.

Obviously, “Delta Run” is a piece of music that must be listened to sparingly. So much of its strength comes from Wincha’s calm and collected courage, and overexposure would ruin the sincere lucidity, saying nothing of what repeated listens would do to your psyche. To print quotes would tarnish the natural flow of the piece. Only through direct interaction with the sound does “Delta Run” speak as it should. Its most notable message is how unique of a position Wincha was in: Instead of a sudden accident, attack or other unforeseen circumstance, he had months to prepare for his death. The ways he talks about this confrontation with mortality are all heartbreaking, but there’s an eerily soothing quality to the way he so clear-headedly addresses a daunting concept.

As is the case with most of Lockwood’s music, her presence here is severely understated. Between Buckner’s vocal improvisations and Wincha’s largely self-directed interview, her role is more of a guide than a commander. She draws lines around vague shapes, but always leaves enough space for both the performer and the listener to endlessly interpret the work. Now nearing 80, Lockwood is still an active composer and performer. Her work continues to grow in scope and potency, always looking for new means of musical expression, be it field recordings (A Sound Map of the Housatonic River), graphic notation (bayou-borne, for Pauline) or group improvisation (Water and Memory). Breaking the Surface, along with Black Truffle’s recent archival release Tiger Balm, is a great entry point for the unfamiliar. It shows a style that is truly of its own kind, barred to no doctrine other than exploration and expression; subject to no motives other than understanding and growth.

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