In 1973, the late Ruth Anderson wrote an exercise for her students at Hunter College in New York City. It was titled Sound Portrait: Hearing a Person, and its instructions reveal a remarkable sensitivity for how art and interpersonal relationships are intertwined. “Listen to a piece of music,” it begins. “Think of someone you love. Do not think of the music. When you find your thought of the person is gone, bring it back gently.” Sound, Anderson believed, held the power to increase “wholeness of self and unity with others.” Later that year, Anderson went on sabbatical and her post was filled by Annea Lockwood, a New Zealand composer recommended by Pauline Oliveros. Anderson and Lockwood fell in love within three days of meeting. “Ruth was totally enchanting,” Lockwood has reminisced about their initial encounter. “How could I not fall in love with her on the spot?”
Tête-à-tête, an arresting new album featuring works from the couple, is a testament to their lasting romance. Its centerpiece is “Conversations,” a joyous 19-minute track built from phone calls they had while living more than 200 miles apart: Lockwood teaching in New York, Anderson away on sabbatical in Hancock, New Hampshire. For nine months, Anderson secretly recorded their calls, and in 1974 she pieced them together into a longform sound collage. Eschewing extended dialogue, she collaged scores of brief utterances into a mosaic of their growing affection. While prior works like “DUMP” and “SUM (State of the Union Message)” were just as funny and spirited in their reconstructions, “Conversations” is rooted in the giddiness and surprise of passion. By incorporating pop standards from yesteryear, including “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” Anderson revels in a shared feeling that’s as pure and grand as those old love songs promised.
Anderson made “Conversations” as a private gift for Lockwood, and until now, no one else had heard it in full. While only they could fully appreciate everything it contains, the rhapsodic honeymoon phase on display overflows with emotion. In this piece, much like her Sound Portrait exercise, Anderson engages in a form of deep listening that encourages intimacy. To hear it as an outsider, decades removed from its conception, is to marvel at the way love is sensed in smaller details of speech. “Conversations” is not really the sound of anything in particular: It’s just two people who are madly obsessed with each other, who struggle to hang up the phone because every second is a chance to listen and understand someone in all their mannerisms—every plosive and fricative, every chuckle and creasing smile.
If “Conversations” is a playful manifestation of Anderson’s listening practices, then 1984’s “Resolutions” is an austere counterpart. “They slow me down to a state in which I’m just at peace,” Lockwood has said of her partner’s works. “She intended that with them.” For 17 minutes, we listen as rich tones extend and gradually descend in pitch. This was Anderson’s final completed electronic composition, and as with previous works like “Points” and “I Come Out of Your Sleep,” it is deliberately minimalist. To fully appreciate the hypnotic pull of its drones requires a complete surrender to its subtle rhythms and pulses. By the time it concludes, its meditative purrs recall the wild cats in Lockwood’s erotic sound-art piece “Tiger Balm.” This synergy is a reminder that everything Anderson and Lockwood composed was in pursuit of understanding—be it the world around them, themselves, or each other.
Tête-à-tête’s greatest accomplishment, more so than with their previous albums together, is in demonstrating how attentive listening fosters closeness. On 2021’s “For Ruth,” the album’s third and final piece, Lockwood revisits “Conversations” and adds field recordings made in and around Hancock. We get a sense of the local flora and fauna, but it’s the sustained tones that supply the piece with its multitude of emotions: a sense of mystique, a sacrosanct aura, even a bit of mourning. We hear clips from the same 1973 phone calls, though Anderson’s death in 2019 now casts them in a different light. The piece merges the formalism of “Resolutions” with the diaristic nature of “Conversations,” but is framed by the riveting three-dimensionality of Lockwood’s sound maps. Where her maps trace real geographic space, “For Ruth” points only to the couple’s boundless, eternal love. “We’re really gonna do everything together?” we hear at one point. The answer is immediate: “Yes.”