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Hildegard Westerkamp

      ... composer, radio artist and sound ecologist. Ms. Westerkamp composes using "environmental sounds" -- sounds produced by nature and by human technology. Born in Germany, she moved to Canada in 1968 and in the early '70s worked with Canadian composer Murray Schafer on the World Soundscape project. She now travels, lectures and records all over the world. Her latest CD is Into India. She is also associated with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she lives and works.

      Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer. She takes sounds from the natural and mechanical worlds and turns them into music. She is also an environmental activist, convinced that soundscapes in the industrialized world need natural sounds and silence if we are to have healthy communities. She is concerned that people risk alienation when mechanical and urban sounds drown out nature and quiet. All of the threads of her life come together in this conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, recorded in Ms. Westerkamp's home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

      "Our love-hate relationship with technology challenges healthy soundscapes. In today's world, we need to find a balance between acoustic stimulation and quiet, seek out lively sounds which alert our ears, not noise which makes us numb. People in today's urban societies are surrounded by sound walls. Mechanical sounds cut us off from our communities. They also make it difficult to reach down to voices we all have -- singing and speaking voices. Sound is about Place. Locality. It surrounds us like water. We are inside sound waves, they are touching us all the time. We all depend on technology but mechanical sounds disconnect us aurally from our communities, wipe out natural sounds.

      "Sounds tell important truths about communities. They are the voices of societies. In Europe, Christians ring church bells to gather a congregation at a certain time. They're goal-oriented. In India, being present in the moment is the most important thing. Ask people when temple bells ring and there's no clear answer. Hindu worshipers enter their temples and ring bells to wake up the gods. Many Westerners skip over the present, which is where listening happens."

      Where can we begin to enter "soundscapes"? "Listen to HOW we listen to each other and to our soundscapes. Then work to be in the present. The present is where listening happens."

Conversation 1

Environmental composer and acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp introduces us to the intimacy of ears -- as complex on the outside as inside. Everyone listens in completely differently ways from the very moment when sound waves enter the ear canal (especially high frequency sounds whose origins are clearly identifiable in space.) She generalizes from the individual differences we all experience to those shaped by the the larger cultures in which sounds are encountered. She uses bells as an example, contrasting the role of bells in Hindu India which play a part in the process of people living is in the present to bells in Christian Europe where they reinforce people's goal orientation.

Ms. Westerkamp suggests listeners "listen to the acoustic present they are in, allow the present to exist." She believes acoustics and sound give a person a sense of place. "Sound is like water. We're forever inside the sound waves, they're touching us all the time."

Conversation 2

Ms. Westerkamp describes taking people on "sound walks." where they begin to listen in a conscious way. She recalls the first time her own ears "popped open," guided by Canadian Composer Murray Schafer. [Schafer's book "The Tuning of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) is credited with spearheading the World Soundscape project which focused on the relationship between people and the acoustic environment in which we live.]

She discusses sound as having the potential to be "authoritarian. "She describes "Muzak" from their own corporate statement as "sound intended not to be listened to." Profit and profit making are its goals.

She admires sound effects professionals, found mostly in the film industry now. They continue to create "soundscapes," unlike current sounds delivered by most radio and television.

"We listen differently at certain times in our lives. Selectivity is important in how we listen." She urges people to be aware of sounds, to think about "sound ecologies."

Conversation 3

Ms. Westerkamp describes the impact of mechanical sounds which increasingly cover quietness and negatively affect communities. "Quiet is always a space in time that's a breather, gives ears a way to reach out in ways important." Constant sounds of traffic, air conditioning, airplanes, home equipment, and "walkman" devices effectively put "sound walls" around us, aurally disconnecting us from each other.

"What would happen if suddenly all electricity and gasoline were gone and we were free from all mechanical sound?" She had such an experience and found people discovered their own singing and speaking voices. Soundscape workshop participants are deeply affected when they begin to really listen.

Unrelenting mechanical/urban sounds can result in one's ears getting "numb." "Ears need time to recover." She urges people toward a better balance between stimulation and rest in using their ears.

Conversation 4

Ms. Westerkamp describes the "love-hate relationship" we all have with technology, the source of most mechanical sounds. She describes how many issues around "sound" are community issues with a need to balance global and village needs. We have sound related responsibilities to other creatures as well.

She describes her musical compositions from the perspective that "Environmental sound is about place. Locality. "She talks about the influence two very different forests had on one of her compositions.

"Sounds are the voice of our society. We speak about ourselves through sound. "She increasingly finds she composes with environmental sounds the way writers use words. A raven's sounds provide an example. She distinguishes from her own "soundscape" work from "New Age music with waterfalls and flutes." She believes it takes a new kind of listening -- "soundscape listening" -- for people to begin to understand her work as well as to focus on sound in our environment.

Conversation 5

Ms. Westerkamp describes the many levels and dimensions of listening. Her psychology of listening includes perceptions changing from moment to moment, influenced by cultural, social, gender, age differences. She urges us all to, "Listen to HOW you are listening to others. Listen to the soundscape. Note what conditions influence your listening and perception."


Our thanks to Barry Truax, composer of electroacoustic music and communications professor at Simon Fraser University, for connecting us with Hildegard. And to Peter Grant for his help and hospitality.

We were awakened to "Sound Ecology" by an article written by Ivars Peterson in Science News, vol. 150, December 21 and 28, 1996. It's called "Sounds of the Seasons."

We also thank Gary Ferrington for providing additional sources of information.

Related Links

You can find much more about Hildegard Westerkamp at her website. Her CDs are available from empreintes DIGITALes, earsay productions, and others outlets.
World Soundscape Project.
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology
Canadian Association for Sound Ecology - Association Canadienne Pour L'Ecologie Sonore
The Nature Sounds Society
The Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection
The New Soundscape Newsletter

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