Audiosketch S2 EP3

An art date with Hildegard Westerkamp (Part 1)

Listen to the episode here

Credits and notes

To discover more about Hildegard Westerkamp’s extensive body of sound works, including links to full recordings, visit her website here.

Hildegard was part of theWorld Soundscape Project with R. Murray Schafer which you can learn more about here.

Hildegard Westerkamp is a founding member of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology, of which you can learn more about here.

The personal art-crush Hildegard cited was Tina Pearson and her sound work Music for Natural History (created with Paul Walde) which you can learn more about here.

Our Audiosketch podcast title music is by Fia Fiell. All in the Same Room, is from Fia Fiell’s 2018 album of the same name, which you can find on Bandcamp here.

Full transcript

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

Welcome to Audiosketch, a Chamber Made podcast dedicated to innovative artists working across performance, sound and music. I’m Roslyn Oades and I’m joining you from the lands of Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation, also known as the City of Melbourne. In this episode, I’m a remote art date with pioneering composer, radio artist and acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp, who joins us from the West Coast of Canada. Hildegard’s impressive career spans near on 50 years of artistic practice. She was part of the World Soundscape Project with the late R. Murray Schafer, she produced and hosted the radio program Soundwalking in the late 70s and was a founding member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. In summary she is a pioneering female sound artist we should all be aware of. In fact, this conversation was so good we had to split it into a 2-parter. So, be sure to catch our second half in the next episode. Now let’s meet the inspiring Hildegard Westerkamp…

Roslyn Welcome to Audiosketch, Hildegard.

Hildegard Thank you, Roslyn. Thank you for inviting me.

Roslyn It’s such an honour. Given so much of your work is about listening to place, before we start, perhaps you’d like to share a bit about where you are right now.

Hildegard Yes, I’m on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples in what is now called Vancouver here. The Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and the Squamish. And I have been here since 1968. And I must say, it’s been a really long journey in beginning to relate to the incredible richness of this coast here – sort of my consciousness really understanding that I’m a settler here. And the gratefulness I feel of having been able to live most of my life in this very special place.


Roslyn As per tradition on Audiosketch, my first question I’d like to ask you, is if you were a sound right now, what sound would you be?

Hildegard Yeah, I find that an interesting question. Slightly disturbing. Because I am a sound right now. My voice is the sound I am. And we can reflect on that and think about it as, what is that sound that I am? And how am I placing that sound into the world? How is that sound heard? How do I hear that sound? And what is that relationship between the sound as it comes out of me to as it is heard by others. It sounds a certain way because of my physical being. The resonances in my body, the way I’ve been trained or not trained. The way I feel right now. Just like listening, it’s a lifetime of learning about the impact that one’s own sound and sound making has in the world. 

Roslyn It’s interesting, you talk about the voice being your sound. A lot of people really hate the sound of their own voice. What’s your relationship with listening to your own voice? Because it’s been part of your instrument in your compositions.

Hildegard Yes. Of course, we hear our voice completely differently than others do, acoustically speaking. When we speak, we hear our voice internally through the bone conduction of the bones. And so, we’re hearing a nice sort of low frequency sound that is culturally more appealing to people. And when we record our voice, and then listen back to that, that low frequency bone conduction stuff is gone. And suddenly, our voice sounds much thinner, and not as voluminous. And that takes good getting used to. I remember when I was doing first experiments on radio, on Vancouver cooperative radio, I was absolutely shocked to hear my voice. When I then did my sound walking show, and kind of spontaneously decided that my voice needed to be part of it, as a mediator between the radio listener and the environmental sounds that I was presenting. Then I heard my voice over and over again. It was like a learning experience. I heard my voice, I didn’t particularly like it, and I think it changed my way of speaking over time. And over time, I made peace with that. And then I also sometimes got feedback, years later, from someone saying, oh, I heard you on co-op radio, this strange show, Soundwalking. And they remembered my voice. And I thought, wow, this is really interesting. 

Roslyn Do you think you’d learnt something about your personality, when you first started hearing your own voice back? Like, was it some sort of mirror that you went, Oh, that’s who I am. Or that’s part of who I am? And… 

Hildegard Yeah, probably. You know it, sort of, emerged out of this interest in, in radio, and, and when I decided to speak on tape, in the environment that I was recording and saying, where I was and what the date was and what the weather was. It was a kind of connecting to the moment. I’m not a journalist with a script at that point, or radio announcer. I’m just in that moment. And that to me, was a deeply grounding experience. I found a place of comfort with my voice. And I wasn’t worried of not, you know, stumbling, or anything, I could always edit out. In hindsight, I mean, my newest composition, which is called The Soundscape Speaks, is made from many, many recordings. Partially from the Soundwalking show but also from other things that I recorded. So, my voice appears from 1977 to the present. First of all, it’s much higher. You know, mine has dropped a few octaves, I think. But the other thing that was really interesting was that, depending on which environment I was speaking, my voice was different. In a very quiet, snowy environment it was a very calm voice, and slow. If I was in a mall, the voice was more hectic, was louder. And so, I could observe now in hindsight, vocally, we are always giving all sorts of messages about the place that we’re in. It just makes it absolutely clear that we are not separate from the environment, we are a complete part of it. Yeah. 

Roslyn That’s so fascinating. 

{Excerpt of The Soundscape Speaks (1.16mins) featuring Hildegard’s voice over time}

Roslyn In preparing for this art date, I’ve been listening to your work, which has been so fascinating – it’s very exciting for me. And I thought it would be interesting to talk listeners through several of your key works as a way of mapping your creative trajectory over time as an artist. And you cite Whisper Study as your first composition. Could you talk a bit about what led you to making that first work?

Hildegard I was working, I had been working with the World Soundscape Project at that point. And the work with Murray Schafer and the Soundscape Project was absolutely inspiring for me. And it wasn’t only that we learned as much as we could about sound, the world of sound, in general. Like, acoustical engineering, about psycho acoustics, about noise measurement, all those kinds of things. But we were also discussing what does silence mean? What are the meanings of noise? We were very philosophical often about things. And there was one sentence that Murray quoted by Kirpal Singh, that said, “When there is no sound, hearing is most alert”. And it fascinated me. It felt like this big truth. That if you are in a quiet environment, if you are in a quiet state, your hearing becomes more alert. And at a certain point, a few years later, I wanted to learn things in the analogue studio. And Barry Truax, my colleague, helped me, showed me some techniques, and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to do. We had talked about doing works with voice. We had listened to contemporary extended vocal technique stuff at that point. And then I suddenly thought, oh, why don’t I do something with that sentence? And it speaks about quiet, why don’t I whisper it? So yeah, then I decided to record: When there is no sound hearing is most alert. What I did not know was, I was giving myself a huge challenge with this, in the analogue studio. If you have a very quiet sound to work with, you have to be extra careful not accumulating noise hiss on the tape. So, any, any dub that you had to make, any kind of next generation thing you had to make, you were in danger of accumulating noise hiss, which is exactly in the same range as the whispering, right?

Roslyn So you had a very noisy recording, ironically.

Hildegard So, you know, I’d learned enough that you, in the analogue studio, you record things as loudly as possible and then you can bring them down. And then that will remove the hiss. So that’s how I recorded myself. But what that meant was, that from the very first moment of working in the studio, I had to deal with being absolutely clean and clear, with the sound, in quiet. The ultimate challenge. So, I made several recordings of that sentence and one recording was the one that was the best and it had a sort of a liquid quality in the whisper. And then there was one that was not so successful, but when I processed it, it gave me some other interesting sounds. So that was more like, ‘when there is no sound, hearing is most alert’. So, it was more pressured. It came more from the throat. And so, it gave me a whole other set of, sort of, high frequency sounds. But I was just experimenting in the studio, I was not a composer. I had no clue what I was doing. I wanted to get to know the techniques. It kind of blew my mind actually.

 {Excerpt of Whisper Study (2.13mins) is heard}

Roslyn Wow. So, you developed a whole palette of versions of that line and then you could compose. You brought your composer’s ear to something you didn’t know how to do, but you were led by your ears to composing.

Hildegard Exactly. I mean, it was just going through some of these techniques. And then I did this mix, and I played it to Barry. So, my exercise. And he said, no, no, that’s not an exercise, that’s actually a piece. So, I was quite surprised. And he played a great role there for me in recognizing what I was doing. The next piece Fantasie for Horns was similar. I was fooling around with foghorns and train horns and ship horns. He then encouraged me to send that to Bourges, to a competition. And it won an honourable mention. And it was at that point, that suddenly somebody mentioned that I was a composer. It had never occurred to me that I could ever be a composer.

Roslyn Wow, I love that story. Especially that idea of like, when an artist doesn’t understand how to use the tools, but if they’re bringing their artistic instinct, and their artistic instinct is so strong that even mistakes and experiments can add up to a really thoughtful, resonant work.

Hildegard Yes. And then, and then you really do need an environment of encouragement in order to be able to recognize something about what you’ve just done. I mean, I knew that I loved the process. I knew that there was something happening here that I could relate to and I liked it myself. It just wasn’t that cultural perspective of saying that I was a composer. It’s that kind of reciprocity in terms of your own working and then the world conversing with you about it. It’s so important.

Roslyn And champions are important too, aren’t they? I think that now that I’m an established artist, like, how important it is that I’m also a champion for the next generation of artists as I was privileged enough to have some champions recognize me when I was emerging. That we’re part of an ecology of artists.

Hildegard And you will now know also that it’s a kind of a natural process. One just recognizes someone who comes with a creative spark. There is some life, some new life that happens, and it resonates. Not everything resonates. But when it does, then we can offer encouragement. And Barry was doing that at the time. You know, that was, was really important to me. And the other thing that I recognized also, in hindsight, was that I came with certain knowledge of classical music. I grew up with classical music from day one on really in my parent’s house, and it sort of was in my bones. So that the musical structures from that culture, from the Western classical music, was a kind of a natural structure that I knew something about. I didn’t study composition, but when you grew up with that, those things sit in your being. And I think that guided me a lot in those first experiments, and even now, helps with structural decisions and harmonic decisions of how you put pitches together and things like that.

Roslyn Mmm. Which kind of takes us back to that idea about the voice being your product of all the all the influences in your life and your, your upbringing, I think it’s the same with your unique artistic lens or ears on the world. In that, you know, you bring all that product of your environment. And the way you hear the world starts from when you’re a child and all the things you’re immersed in. And then it’s combined with the things you encounter later in life and, and that’s what makes each artist’s work unique to them. If they’re actually trying to make something new from all that history. 

Hildegard Yes.

Roslyn Yeah, that’s really fascinating to track in your work.

Hildegard And we’re always, no matter how, whether it’s abstract or anything, we are always a product of that kind of growth and environment. And I think the more we understand that, the more it can inspire us further. And guide us.

Roslyn And own that as a good thing. 

Hildegard Exactly. 

Roslyn Going back to Whisper Study. It’s fascinating to me that that first composition as a young artist was inspired by that notion of silence and attentiveness, which, you know, in hindsight is almost like a mantra in your work. A personal mantra. Can you talk a little bit more about the notion of silence and quiet details and why that’s been so attractive to you over your career?

Hildegard For me personally, quiet has always been potential for inspiration. It’s a room. It’s a space that is empty. And that emptiness is full of potential. It can be filled with anything. It can be unpredictable. It can be surprising. If you have a very hectic lifestyle, and then you give yourself a pause, and you let things echo, some things can be shifted. We can have some new ideas, or we might be able to make some changes that are positive. And I’ve always been very grateful for that. And I feel it’s a balancing part of our lives. 

Roslyn Let’s have a listen to this beautiful excerpt from one of your soundwalking recordings, Soundwalking on Silent Night, which from the perspective of an Australian is incredibly foreign and evocative…

{AUDIO: excerpt #1 from Silent Night (1.09mins): snow sound walk recording}

Hildegard I called the program Silent Night because there was also a bit of irony in it. Because I contrasted that with recordings that were made in malls, before Christmas. With choirs and organs playing and terrible advertising and noise and stuff. So, our show plays on that kind of contrast. 

{AUDIO: excerpt #2 from Silent Night (0.20mins): shopping mall recording}

Roslyn Oh, wow. 

Hildegard Yep. And I know there’s one recording in that, where I went out, there’s a tradition called The Carolling Boat. Originally, there was a children’s choir on the boat, and they would be singing and playing along the coast, and you would be listening to it and it would be broadcast. I think nowadays they’re just playing back a recording of a children’s choir. And, at that point, I was recording one of those ships singing Silent Night, and it was terribly out of tune. And the ships… it’s not just one ship, it’s like a whole community of ships following this carolling boat, all decorated with lights. And it’s quite spectacular and quite beautiful. And it’s a bit of a tradition for everybody to go to and listen and see it. But the motors in this particular cove were so loud, that you could barely hear those children’s voices. So, there was a great irony in that as well.

{AUDIO: excerpt #3 from Silent Night (0.35mins): carolling boat recording}

Roslyn That’s great. The practice of soundwalking is something you’re very well known for. And you know, we’ve been talking about your radio program. For those who don’t know your work, can you just go back to basics for us and tell us what is a soundwalk.

Hildegard Soundwalk was basically kind of invented by Murray Schafer. And when I started with the World Soundscape Project, I was immediately captured by that whole concept. Really what it is, is you go for a walk, and you listen. You focus on listening to the environment. You can do it by yourself, you can take groups, you can do really anything. When we first did it, I remember going out and kind of selecting a route for people to go, and then I would draw the map and have some instructions for listening in certain places. There would be a number one and you know, something like listen to this. Kind of pointing people to it. That was the initial way that I did it. But you can do it any way. I mean, we now in Vancouver have a tradition, because of Vancouver New Music who integrated soundwalking into their yearly music season since 2003. We take people on a one hour walk, about four times a year, the public. And someone will have created a route. Then we stop and have a discussion afterwards. So, the combination of having the experience and then discussing it, it kind of completes the experience in a fuller way. It sort of confirms that we’re all completely different listeners.  And so, you get into learning more about listening itself. And of course, you are also getting to know your environment. I mean, the interesting aspect of soundwalking is that when you walk for an hour with a group of people without speaking, that’s the only instruction, no speaking, you will never forget that part of the city. Because you are paying attention to it in a completely different way than you have ever done. Even if it’s a familiar place. You will remember that soundwalk because you will have noticed things during that soundwalk that you normally do not notice. And it doesn’t mean you only notice with your ears. You notice with all your senses, things about that environment that in normal daily life, you just don’t. So, it’s a bit like going to a concert, and you’re focusing on just listening. And in that context, you notice everything else. 

Roslyn So, the environment becomes the composition you’re listening to. 

Hildegard Exactly. And originally it was very much about educating ourselves, and whoever was part of a workshop or something, about the soundscape. And I was also then very passionate. I wanted people to understand that, you know, we need to make changes. It’s too noisy. How can we design better soundscapes? Just like we have visual critiques of our environment, can we do the same in the aural sphere? So, it was very much about, let’s go out and listen to the environment. And my Soundwalking show was that same thing transferred into the radio medium. Over the years, more and more, I feel that soundwalks are also about understanding who we are as listeners, how do we listen to the environment? How do we respond to it? How do we process what we’re hearing?

Roslyn And who are we in the environment? What’s our relationship to the land?

Hildegard Exactly. That, to me is part of the sort of ecological question about the work that we do. If we understand our own listening, then we will also understand more about sound making. And the balance between the listening and the sound making that goes on. We’re never the same as listeners. And the noises and sounds that we hear, don’t always affect us in the same way, ever. And so, we need to take that into account when we want to think about, what do we do about it? And to me, it relates more and more to exactly how we have to deal with climate change.

Roslyn And I love that this encourages us to connect to country. I mean, that’s the big thing that we’re learning from First Nations in Australia, like, it’s through connecting with the country, that we realize how important it is and how much we love it, and that we need to take care of it.

Hildegard Yes, we’re not spectators. You know, we’re not we’re not listening from a distance we’re inside it. And that inside also then creates a sense of responsibility really. 

Roslyn Mmm. I want to move now to Cricket Voice. Another one of your works, I really enjoyed. I had to toss-up between including Cricket Voice or the one about rain, which I also really loved, your composition from rain. In your more produced sound works, there often seems to be a very delicate balance between your original field recordings and compositional elements that you employ. We’re going to listen to a bit of Cricket Voice. And I’d love you to talk a bit about your approach to composing from found environmental sounds in this example of your work.

Hildegard Yeah, it’s an interesting example. It’s probably one of the more delicate field recordings, or rather should I say a field recording that had sort of a magical component. When I was doing it, I was in a region with a bunch of artists in Mexico called the Zone of Silence. Zona del Silencio it’s called. So, we were in a very, very quiet environment. It’s not only called that because of the quiet but also because of a certain kind of magnetism in there that prevents, like it can drain batteries and prevents equipment from running and things like that. And NASA has done studies there and things. But we were in this region, and we were in areas where we could do recordings, and it was okay. But it was absolutely pristine quiet. For three weeks, we heard maybe two jets very far up. We did have a truck that we used very rarely. And when we would see a car in the distance, the sound was absorbed by the desert. It was just you wouldn’t hear it. So, there was three weeks of no motorised sounds whatsoever.

Roslyn Was that a shock?

Hildegard Yeah, some of the urban people from Montreal, I remember were not handling it at first. Like, they had to shout a lot.

Roslyn Like agoraphobia, but a sound version.

Hildegard It was too scary. It was too scary. I loved it. Just because finally it’s quiet. 

Roslyn Sound like the perfect place for you. 

Hildegard Yeah, it really was. So, there were some tensions in the group because people reacted quite differently initially. But eventually everybody calmed down and your whole system calms down. Your whole nervous system calms down. And what seemed like too quiet, suddenly, you’re beginning to hear sounds that you did not hear before. It’s miraculous what you suddenly experience, hear and see. Now I was the only composer in that group and I had a microphone. And it was quite challenging to record anything because it was so quiet. And at that time, you know, it was only like a cassette recorder. And the only sound that we could always rely on were the crickets at night. And they were everywhere. And it was really noisy, and we all kind of liked it. And when you’re in the quiet space like that, after a while, even I discovered a desire for sound. In the city we are always presented with sound. So, we don’t actually know what it’s like when there is no sound. And suddenly, you want to make sound. You want to sing, you want to stomp your feet, you want to express something. You know, we were creating things sonically because we needed it. So, the crickets were of course wonderful, because with all those stars above us, we could just be there and hear the crickets and see the stars. So, I went out into the desert away from the camp and recorded them. And at one moment, one single cricket, I, I always see it in this theatrical way, as if it was stepping forward, right up to my microphone doing a solo performance. It was really close to my mic. It was dark, so I don’t know how close, but it was really close to my microphone. And it was this moment of, oh my god, this is incredible. Like a studio recording of a cricket. So, I had this amazing recording. And I didn’t know really what to do with it. This was in 1984, when we were in the desert, and Cricket Voice finally happened in 87. So, I finally went into the studio and I began to do a bit of processing with it but feeling like, I don’t really want to do too much with it. I felt like, you want to treat this with care.

Roslyn Hmm. And there was great detail in the recording, I imagine. That idea, of like, the attentiveness to the detail of the cricket’s voice. 

Hildegard Yeah.

Roslyn Though it’s not a voice, is it? It’s legs rubbing.

Hildegard No, of course not. Crickets don’t have a voice, exactly. It’s just, it’s just the mechanism of the scraping, right?

Roslyn They’re violinists essentially.

Hildegard Yeah, I suppose. I suppose you could say that. So, one of the things that I did first was, because I often like to do that, is to slow a sound down because it reveals something of the inner rhythm. And, by the time I got down to about four or five octaves, it had this pulse: woo-wooo-wooo-woo-oo-woo. And so, you’re hearing the physical motion really of that sound. You know, it’s not mechanical, it’s organic. It changes all the time. Beautiful discovery, and I was really excited about it. I did some more sort of, with electronic stuff. And yeah, there was a limit. At a certain point, I thought, no, I don’t really recognize the cricket at all anymore. So, I didn’t want to continue. And in that process the feeling that this small animal is part of a whole ecological system in the desert. So, I got the sense that maybe with this piece, I could amplify this small voice into a place of importance. To say, this is what this little small animal is doing, and it’s remarkable, and we need to honour it. When I got to that place, then I could do a piece. 

{AUDIO: excerpt #1 from Cricket Voice (3.11mins)}

The whole thing sort of revolved around the desert, and its place in the desert in my mind. And to the other sounds in the piece, there’s loads of percussive sounds and things, are sounds where I touched some of the cacti and dry palm leaves and just played on them and had my microphone really close. 

Roslyn Mmm. It reminds me of what you did with the icicles, in the earlier piece we heard. 

Hildegard Yes.

Roslyn Playing on the environment as a percussionist.

Hildegard And you know, of course, the thought that you have when you’re three weeks in that environment and you’re discovering these sounds, you realize, oh, musical instruments are from the environment.

Roslyn And it’s a beautiful sound that bendiness of the spikes. It has a really nice vibration in it. 

Hildegard Yes, exactly. They’re musical instruments. Just like the materials of any landscape have provided musical instruments to us. And so, by touching the environment, you realize, okay, that’s the beginning of a musical instrument in this place. And the more choral sounds that you can hear in the piece are also, an extension of the cricket. There’s something when you slow down crickets, and you do some types of processing, you get this weird human choral quality from crickets.

Roslyn And maybe that speaks a bit to your classical background as well. The idea of the choral.

Hildegard Yes, that all comes in there somehow too.

Roslyn Yeah, amazing, I really love that attention to the small sounds and putting them centre stage. It’s a really, really beautiful, thoughtful composition.

Hildegard It only emerged as I was working on it. Yeah, not really knowing what I wanted to do with it. And sort of trying to make sense of it…

Roslyn So much of the best work comes like that, doesn’t it? When you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s like that’s where you leave space for the discovery. 

Hildegard Yeah, and I think that’s also very much the nature of working with environmental sounds, and soundscape composition. You can’t help but let things emerge. You may go out there with an intent to get sounds. As if they were your instruments and then you compose with them. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t get always the sounds that you want. And what you are coming home with may challenge your intentions and your expectations. And then the question is, how do you converse with those and your own intentions? What is the balance? The environment and I are working together on this composition. 

Roslyn And you’ve got to be open to being responsive, haven’t you? To make this sort of artistic process work.

Hildegard Yeah. And that’s the part that I love. I would’ve never become a composer, hadn’t I worked with environmental sounds. It’s a gift, I get a gift from the environment. What do you do with a gift? You want to treat it well. You do your best to somehow speak through it. About the place and itself.

Roslyn Yeah, it’s like a meeting between you and your discoveries isn’t it. You’re collaborating.

Hildegard Exactly.

{AUDIO: excerpt #2 ending of Cricket Voice (1.03mins)}

You’ve been listening to pioneering environmental composer, Hildegard Westerkamp. Please join me for the second half on this inspiring conversation in the next episode. Audiosketch is hosted and produced by Roslyn Oades on the lands of Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation. Title music is by Fia Fiell. All musical excerpts featured in this episode were created by Hildegard Westerkamp and are kindly provided courtesy of the artist. Audiosketch has been made possible by the Australia Council and was commissioned as part of Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz Practice Exchange. Hi-Viz is supported by the Helen Macpherson-Smith Trust and The Substation. Chamber Made receives multi-year funding from Creative Victoria. Thanks for listening.

{Signature outro music by Fia Fiell till end}