Audiosketch S2 EP4

An art date with Hildegard Westerkamp (Part 2)

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, we pick up the second half of our great conversation with pioneering composer, radio artist and acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp, who joins me from the West Coast of Canada. Hildegard’s 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. Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off…

Roslyn Moving from silence to noise. A noisy composition of yours. I’d like to play an excerpt from Harbour Symphony.

Hildegard Yeah, that’s really different.

Roslyn This is actually the first work I heard of yours. 

Hildegard Oh really? 

Roslyn Which is a strange way to come to your work. But it’s the first work I was played of yours. And it blew me away. I love the epic nature of this concept. Can you tell us about this particular work and how you came to make it, because it seems a little bit incongruous to the other work in some ways. Although I can also see the parallels? 

Hildegard Yeah. Yeah, it was commissioned by the organisers of the EXPO 86 in Vancouver. We had built the Canada Pavilion, which is this big building with sails in the harbour. And they wanted to do an Opening Ceremony for that. The idea of the Harbour Symphony came from St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the East Coast of Canada. Every second year, there is the Sound Symposium. And during the Sound Symposium, they invite participants for every day at noon to compose a seven-minute harbour symphony for their harbour. It’s a small harbour that will have anywhere from four to seven boats in it. Big ones, like freighters. So, you’re invited to compose a piece for those kinds of horns. And that had happened for a few years before, already. And so that’s where this idea came from. Somebody in the organising committee had this idea, why don’t we do a harbour symphony in Vancouver, but make it much larger scale. And somehow, I got this commission. And it was scary. I had never-

Roslyn I bet. So much to coordinate.

Hildegard Well, there was a coordinating committee. 

Roslyn Oh good.

Hildegard There was someone who was from the harbour authorities. There was someone who was familiar with the shipping community. And the way I started was, I need to record some of these horns that are going to be there. So, I went around to meet the fishing community and the tugboat community, and I managed to record about 30 horns. In the end, there were over 100. And then of course, they were also freighters and larger ships in it, that we didn’t know who was going to be there. And train horns. And then we have our iconic Oh, Canada Horn that always blows here at noon every day. 

{AUDIO: recording of the ‘Oh Canada Horn’ (0.12mins)}

Hildegard So, I realised very quickly, this is a ‘chance composition’. This is like, I have to think John Cage. And literally, I have a score that has over 100 boats, like instruments, on the one side, and then every minute, I assigned certain horn-tooting rhythms to each boat, over seven minutes. 

Roslyn Wow.

Hildegard The structure that I had in mind was just starting out with almost everybody at the beginning, just a big chaos. Then there were some specials horns that I got to know. One had a siren. Another had a keyboard, with pitches. Some of the tugboats were very beautiful. One minute I devoted to all the horns I knew. So that I knew that one minute, we had a bit of control and I would like it. (laughs) And the rest was really chance. Then of course you have to make the score, but each boat then gets its own voice. Its own role of what it plays, right? Like just like an instrument in the orchestra,

Roslyn But they’re just regular horn-blowers. Like it’s a regular work person. It’s not a musician blowing the horn, is that correct?

Hildegard No. No musicians. The only musician was the person who was playing the keyboard for that one horn. 

Roslyn Okay. 

Hildegard She was a pianist, and she played, I think she had seven keys, seven pitches, and she played a tune of a BC fishing song. In the middle of it. Just a short tune. Yeah. So, what happened was, there was a central boat that would radio this counting of seconds, to the boats. And so, they had to… 

Roslyn I was going to ask that. How you communicated?

Hildegard Yeah. They had to follow the seconds and then you, all you could hope for, is that they’re playing at the right point. I have no idea whether they did. I listened, I mean, I listened to it from Canada Place and I just laughed because it sounded so chaotic. And quite wonderful. It was like a big party really.

Roslyn It sounds like so much fun. Just, as a community building activity. It just sounds delightful. 

Hildegard A lot of fun. And we had people stationed in different parts of the harbour to record it. So that’s why you have now this mix. The best part was a sentence from a critic in The Globe and Mail. He said it sounded like a bunch of happy elephants in a traffic jam.

Roslyn You never expected to get a review like that. Given the work you make.

Hildegard At least they were happy elephants. 

Roslyn Yes, yes. 

{AUDIO: excerpt from the Harbour Symphony (3.01mins) recording}

Roslyn To complete the circle and return to one of your most recent spoken-word, more recent, spoken word compositions, I’d like to talk about For You. Which I think is actually Für Dich? Is that how you say it in German?

Hildegard Für Dich in German. Für Dich. For You.

Roslyn This work I wanted to talk about, because along with some of your other spoken word pieces, you include voices of your family members, and it’s clearly quite a personal, poetic work. Can you talk a bit about where these more poetic works come from and where they sit in relationship to your environmental works?

Hildegard Yeah, this was a piece that emerged in 2004, 2005. I had a commission from the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe in Germany, a Centre for Culture and Media. It was a part of a larger commission for nine Canadian artists by that centre. To have a conference and also a concert. We were all commissioned to work there. It was remarkable. And I felt very much like this is the first time I’ve done something in Germany. And I wanted to somehow bridge these two cultures of mine, Canadian and German. And I had discovered the love poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, who was a famous German writer, whose poetry I like very much, especially this poem, Liebes-Lied/Love Song. And so, I felt that I would like to collect my favourite sounds from where I grew up in North Germany, and also from Vancouver where I’ve been living since. And I asked my ex-husband, who was a very good translator, to translate the poem into English. Because I couldn’t find a translation that I liked at all. His name is Norbert Ruebsaat and he translated it beautifully. So, I had these two texts, and then I decided I was going to get people that were important in my life, to read them.

Roslyn Beautiful.

Hildegard My voice is in there speaking German and also English. And my ex-husband also speaks German and so he spoke. Murray Schafer spoke German. I asked him to do it in both German and English. And my mother. And then I had more English voices from over here. Close friends, partners, my daughter. So, I surrounded myself with people and sounds that I loved, in the studio. And that was really what it’s about. My loving relationship to the places that I came from, and that I’m living in. And it was an eight-channel composition. I was in Karlsruhe, in Germany. Had these eight speakers and I was composing for that space. It was a remarkable experience. Not that I don’t usually like the sounds I work with but this was sort of special. The poem is very much about personal love. But it also extends into something else. What love is. How do we experience it? And, in a way, a generalisation of that sense a little bit. And then I just basically played with the sounds. And the structure was given by the poem, and the placement of the voices in eight-channel. And it was a beautiful composing experience, because I really loved working with these sounds. It was complicated. It’s one of my favourite pieces, actually.

Roslyn I love it, too. It’s a really beautiful concept. And I love that, as an environmentally driven artist, that you’re playing with that unique quality of each of the voices of the people you love. Like you’re treating that as your palette in this case, which is a lovely circle back to our start about the voice. 

Hildegard Well, exactly. It gets us back to the voice. I mean, the thing that was remarkable to me, we have anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour of recording session with each person. And when you then begin to compose with that, you realise, that maybe a sentence or a certain kind of expression of a certain part of the poem, that you really want in there, does not work in conjunction with this other voice. So other things that maybe you didn’t think would work suddenly fit. And so, then you begin to get to know the quality of the voices with each other. It becomes this sort of multi-vocal, spoken voice composing, that becomes really interesting, like you’re picking and choosing from… Certain things just don’t work. And then others do suddenly work. And so, there’s constant surprises. And I really liked that. Sometimes I would create more of a soundscape first, and then bring the voices in there. Or sometimes I would create more the voices first and bring the sounds in. Like it would depend.

{AUDIO: excerpt from Für Dich (3.19mins)}

Roslyn Mm, really Beautiful. This feels like a good time to share the audio-sketch Hildegard has made. On each episode, I invite our guest artist to contribute a draft audio experiment or field recording that offers an insight into something they’re exploring or thinking about at the moment. Hildegard, did you want to tell us a bit about this recording before we play it? 

Hildegard Sure. In this excerpt, I am concentrating on the small sounds in nature. Flies and something crackling, some leaves, birdsong. And it’s quite composed. It sounds probably not so composed. It sounds more like as if it’s a field recording, but it’s not. And I put it together, intentionally in that way, in order for the ear to be drawn into these small little sounds and how they animate us. And while I was thinking about your question, I was reminded of being initially confronted with something that’s called ASMR. 

Roslyn Oh, yes, yes, that big YouTube phenomenon, isn’t it? All the whispery…

Hildegard Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. And when I first encountered it, I could not believe it. I thought it was so absolutely bizarre. Maybe now men too, but at that time, it was a beautiful young woman, having some crinkly, candy paper. Putting it very close to the microphone. Maybe I can do something like that here… 

{Hildegard makes quiet crinkling sounds with a piece of paper)

Hildegard These sort of high frequency sounds. Or the hair, stroking the hair. They would have their beautiful long hair and they would be stroking it, and it looked very sensuous. But the effect this has, it gives a kind of a slightly tingling sensation. It also is very relaxing. And I thought there is a need in the world right now for this kind of experience. Of quiet, of tingling, of a kind of a grounding and hearing the subtle sounds. It’s like having someone whisper into your ear. 

Roslyn It’s intimate. 

Hildegard Exactly. It’s about intimacy. And it to me, it’s about lack of intimacy. It’s something we need, and we don’t have.

Roslyn Mmm. Like desire. It’s our desire for intimacy that’s attracting us to these sounds. 

Hildegard And it’s become a huge thing. And in a way, this is precisely what I’ve been doing with my Whisper Study.

Roslyn Yes, from your very first work, you’re the first ASMR artist.

Hildegard And this piece, is taking those kinds of natural sounds that have that quality of kind of whispering to us. And attracting our ears, if we care to listen to it and giving us something. You know, like when you’re in the desert, the longer you’re there, suddenly you’re hearing those kinds of sounds, and there’s a pleasure when you discover those things. It’s a connection to the environment that’s really different. So, this first minute, that’s really what I was playing with there.

Roslyn Great. We’ll have a listen… 

{AUDIO: excerpt from The Soundscape Speaks}

Roslyn I just have one last question that I love to ask all my art crushes. In terms of sound-based artists that you find inspiring at the moment, who do you have an art crush on, and why?

Hildegard I have a friend, Tina Pearson, who I’ve known for many years, who is a composer and a musician. And has been very connected with Pauline Oliveros in the deep listening context. She has gotten further and further into the reciprocity with the land. For example, when she goes out, either improvising or a field recording, she will ask the land for permission. She will have a short ritual to create the context by which it feels like, this is an exchange. She is receiving something from the land and what is it that she can give back. And she’s really taught me a lot. And she did a piece with a group of people that really made me listen up a few years ago called Music for Natural History. There is a museum in Victoria here on Vancouver Island. It’s kind of old fashioned. What do they call them? Panorama kind of exhibitions from the 60s, with special effects. Where you’ll have a beach scene that has been reproduced, almost in the Disney style. The rocks were made, everything was made. And then the landscape was made as closely to what you would find here on the West Coast, on the beach. And then there is a painted backdrop of the ocean and sky. 

Roslyn Like a theatre set almost. 

Hildegard Yes. What do they call it here again? It’s not a panorama. It’s called something… 

Roslyn Diorama?

Hildegard Yeah, diorama, exactly. There’re forest scenes, there’s an ocean scene, there’s caves. 

Roslyn Yes, yes, of course. I know what you mean. 

Hildegard And then they play back a soundscape. So, Tina, and I think it was her colleague, Paul Walde, created a piece whereby they asked the museum to turn off the soundtrack. Then they recreated the sounds of the animals and the landscape that was shown, with their voices. And they rehearsed in a way that they went out and got to know the sounds of seagulls in ways that you become the seagull. You don’t imitate, you become the seagull. You become the ocean. You become the landscape. 

Roslyn Wow. So, they embodied those voices. 

Hildegard Incredible. And they were like a group of 10-12 people. And they created this absolutely gorgeous soundscape. It’s remarkable. They didn’t only use voices, they also used some tools, like um… 

Roslyn Like foley artists might. 

Hildegard Yeah, exactly. A little bit like that. Maybe drum surfaces for wind or waves. Things like that. To become that soundscape. And everyone learned a huge amount about those creatures and about the landscape, because they did indeed become that. 

Roslyn Wow. What a wonderful exercise for sound students to do that. 

Hildegard Yeah. I’ve always loved her work, but this one sort of really stood out for me.

Roslyn Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Hildegard for this wonderful conversation, which has been the highlight of my month. And well worth the wait.

Hildegard Well, you’re very welcome. I hope it’s not too overwhelming. I talked a lot.

Roslyn No, no, it was so great. Great for me as an artist to hear you speak so openly about your process, and I know our listeners will get so much from it. And yes, it’ll be a little bit of a challenge to do it justice in the editing suite. But um, I will enjoy listening back to your voice. 

Hildegard Well, thank you for inviting me to do that. Nice to meet you. Again. 

Roslyn You too. The pleasures, all mine. 

Hildegard Okay.

Roslyn Take care of yourself. 

Hildegard Thank you

You’ve been listening to Audiosketch, hosted and produced by Roslyn Oades, with title music by Fia Fiell. This episode’s art date with Hildegard Westerkamp was produced in Naarm, on the traditional lands of the Eastern Kulin Nation. 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}