Hildegard Westerkamp: A Life in Soundscape Composition

January 9, 2023 | 00:40:27

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Today we speak to Hildegard Westerkamp, the pioneering composer, radio artist and sound ecologist. The centerpiece of all of her work is a close attention to the sonic environment and its relation to culture. We will listen to excerpts of six soundscape compositions made between 1975 and 2005, all of which reward the close listener–conceptually and aesthetically–with a deeper relationship to the sonic environment. 

Mack Hagood interviewed Westerkamp shortly after the death of R. Murray Schafer in late 2021. Westerkamp worked closely with Schafer in the early 1970s and she graciously agreed to talk about him despite the grief being fresh. They also discussed her own amazing career and that’s the part of the tape we are sharing in this episode. They talk about her formative years as a 20-something working with Schafer and his World Soundscape Project and then we jump into a number of her compositions, ending with the piece “Breaking News” from 2012. 

Incredibly, she said Mack was the first person to ever ask her about that piece, even though it is one of her favorites. And sure enough, not long after this interview she released a retrospective album on Earsay Music called Breaking News, which features that piece and a number of others created between 1988 and 2012. 

For our Patreon members we have the full, unedited interview for those who want to hear all her thoughts on R. Murray Schafer and her career. Join at Patreon.com/phantompower. 

And a quick correction: Hildegard wanted me to clarify that the sentence “When there is no sound, hearing is most alert,” which she uses in “Whisper Study,” is a quote from the Indian mystic Kirphal Singh in his book Naam (or Word).

Pieces featured in this episode: 

Gently Penetrating beneath the Sounding Surfaces of Another Place” (1997)

Whisper Study” (1975)

Fantasie for Horns” (1978)

A Walk through the City” (1981)

Für Dich – For You” (2005)

Breaking News” (2002)

Today’s show was written and edited by Mack Hagood.


4:46 Snippet from Part 1 of R. Murray Schafer Episode

8:42 Interview with Hildegard Westerkamp

36:00 Breaking News by Hildegard Westerkamp 

Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.

[Bells Ringing]

Hildegard Westerkamp: Every sound says something together with the environment in which it occurs

[Man Screaming]

And we, as listeners, do our interpreting.

[Sounds From A Busy Street]

And that dynamic creates a field of information. A field of recognition. An opportunity to analyze.

[Bells Ringing]

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where artists and scholars talk about sound. I’m Mack Hagood, and you just heard an excerpt from a piece called Gently Penetrating Beneath the Sounding Surfaces Of Another Place by my guest today, Hildegard Westerkamp. 

Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer, radio artist, and sound ecologist. Based in Canada, she presents soundscape workshops and performs and lectures internationally. Westerkamp is the author of a number of essays on sound and listening, and the centerpiece of all of her work is a close attention to the sonic environment and its relation to culture. 

She also happens to be one of my favorite sound artists. It’s not just her conceptual sophistication or her selection of sounds. It’s really her technical abilities and her aesthetic sensibilities when it comes to mixing. We did this two-part Phantom Power series on acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, and I included some of her soundscape compositions in the story, and hearing her editing and mixing next to mine, I felt like a fourth-grade fiddler playing next to Hilary Hahn. 

So I interviewed Westerkamp shortly after the death of Schafer in late 2021. And you know, Hildegard worked very closely with Schafer in the early 1970s, and she graciously agreed to talk with me about him, despite the grief being quite fresh.

But while we were having that conversation, I really just couldn’t resist asking her about her own amazing career. And so that’s the part of the tape that I’m going to share with you today. 

We talk about her formative years as a 20-something, working with R. Murray Schafer and his World Soundscape Project, and then we jump into a number of her compositions ending with the piece Breaking News from 2012. Incredibly, she said I was the first person to ever ask her about that piece, even though it’s one of her favorites. And sure enough, not long after our interview, she released a retrospective album on hearsay records called Breaking News.

It features that piece and a number of others created between 1988 and 2012. There’s a link to that in the show notes, and I highly recommend it.

And of course, for our Patrons, we’ll share the full, unedited interview so you can hear everything Hildegard had to say about Schafer and her own career. 

That’s at patreon.com/phantompower.


[Bells Ringing]

Let’s start off with a quick flashback to part one of our R. Murray Schafer episode. 

The year is 1973, and a 27-year-old Hildegard Westerkamp is about to meet Schafer for the first time. In the early 1970s, Hildegard Westerkamp was a recent emigre from Germany studying music at the University of British Columbia.

She enjoyed attending a series of noon-hour concerts and lectures at UBC, but she had no inkling that one of those lectures would completely change her life. The lecture was by a composer she had never heard of from Simon Frasier University, but he wasn’t just talking about music.

 Hildegard: And that lecture was, for its time, remarkable. It was a little bit, you know, in the spirit of the seventies and sixties or in the spirit of John Cage. It was unusual. 

Mack: Hildegard says the impact of that lecture was immediate. 

Hildegard: I came out of that lecture literally with my ears popped open. And they have never closed again since then. It was such a clear experience. I came out of the recital hall, I walked out of the building, and I heard the whole world, and it was just this delight that I felt. Just noticing everything. 

Mack: Westerkamp wasn’t the only young talent drawn to Schafer’s flame in the 1970s. Schafer assembled a research team of composers and electro-acoustic experimenters who laid the foundation of acoustic ecology.

In 1974, the group published a special journal issue that included Hildegard Westerkamp’s tutorial on sound walking, a central technique of engaging with the soundscape. As Westerkamp put it, “A sound walk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.”

Meanwhile, Truax in Westerkamp, we’re increasingly interested in doing more with recording technologies than faithfully documenting the sounds. Doing what Truax called “soundscape composition,” they began editing and processing environmental sounds in an aesthetic exploration of our relationship to sonic space, and they would become renowned for pieces like the one we’re listening to now, Westerkamp’s Beneath The Forest Floor from 1992.

[Snipper from Beneath The Forest Floor]

Mack: So, yeah, that’s a little excerpt from part one of our series on R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project, which was just so foundational to so much of what happens in the humanities and the arts around sound today. If you haven’t heard it, there’s a link in the show notes. Just wanted to give that little bit of background into Hildegard’s development as a composer.

She worked as a research assistant to Schafer for only two years in 1973 and 1974, but those years were really formative for her. And one of her jobs at the time was to listen to all of the field recordings that were being conducted by members of the World Sounds Scape Project, and then to write up notes on what she heard.

And I wanted to know what impact all of that listening had on her. 


Mack: One of your jobs was to listen to and catalog and make notes on all of those environmental recordings that were being made in and around Vancouver and across Canada and even Europe. Do you feel like that was a moment when something was sort of gestating inside of you that eventually came out? Like you must have really honed your listening by listening to all that tape. That’s a very singular job. I can’t imagine having, you know, that job. 

Westerkamp: Definitely. And you know, that kind of became conscious only quite recently when I was writing an article. I thought, “Oh yeah, I learned a huge amount about field recording by listening to my colleagues’ recordings.”

And, because I also had to comment on that, you know. I had to mark the significant parts and had to write little notes about it. And that was like a lot of recordings. And I ended up knowing them very well. And, yes, although my own recording style was quite different, turned out to be quite different.

I think it had just gave me an ear. It gave me an ear towards the microphone listening. Like what does a microphone do? What does it pick up, and how does it do that? And, you know, I knew about good sound quality. And a discernment of sound and listening and understanding ambience and foreground sound in a way that I could always think of examples.

So that was a big training, which, you know, literally I had never thought about until very recently, how important that was.

Mack: This practice of listening obviously opened up a wellspring of creativity in you because you are the renowned creator of soundscape compositions. Can you talk about what that is, what that practice is, and perhaps differentiate it from similar earlier practices like musique concrète.

Hildegard: Yeah, soundscape composition became a word when we were doing the Vancouver soundscape and some of the radio programs, there were moments of mixing and perhaps a little bit of processing as part of wanting to document the soundscape that had already sort of a compositional edge to it.

I was not a composer at that time and certainly never thought I would be. And my colleagues were more Barry Truax, Murray, of course, Peter Hughes, Bruce Davis. They were all composers, and they had composed pieces already. And so there was this sense in the room that when we put together the Vancouver soundscape, we were composing the LPs in some form or other.

And I think the term soundscape composition was used at that point. I don’t remember. When I started it was basically because Barry Truax proposed a course that we were just going to do among ourselves with a few friends and colleagues about the extended vocal techniques in contemporary music. It was just a summer course that we invented for ourselves, no credit or anything. 

And in that context, I realized I really want to go into the studio and experiment with whatever I’ve seen my colleagues do in the studio. There was an analog studio established by Murray Schafer, the Sonic Research Studio.

And my idea at that time was that I wanted to grapple with a sentence that came from the World Soundscape Project that we had talked about that Schafer also used in his book by [Inaudible], “When there’s no sound hearing is most alert.” 

[Westerkamp Whispers]

And I decided that I was going to just learn the techniques in the studio and whisper the sentence.

And see what I could do with it. And I had no idea the challenge that I gave myself there by whispering the sound. But in an analog studio, you know, you accumulate tense as you’re dubbing and doing everything right. 

And I really had no clue, but learned immediately that if I didn’t make really good dubs every time I was processing anything or dubbing anything, I had to, they had to be really, really good and high, very high, high volume so that I could bring them down and get rid of the hairs. Right. So that was my first learning in the studio. And, and I ended up with this, this what I thought was an exercise.

And Barry said to me, “That’s not an exercise. That’s a composition.” And I called it Whisper Study

[Snippet from Whisper Study]

And that was my first composition, and the process of doing that in the studio was remarkable. I loved being alone in the studio. I loved being with those sounds.I just loved the whole thing. 

And also the sense of surprise of what was discovered when I processed the sounds in, in the style of musique concrète, by the way, like some of the sounds became sound objects, and they became abstracted, and they became something else. 

What I loved right from the start was this edge between the actual original recording of me whispering and then what had happened to it in the process, the two together and, and what had happened to it was that with a bunch of mixing and delayed feedback and equalizing and all that and mixing them all together, and speed changes. I got this very liquid-dense sound that sounded almost like a river. 

And that was a huge surprise to me. And a delight. And of course I had no clue what to do with that. But somehow, I’ve put all these sounds together, and I also added one more overtly musical sound with pitchers, which is a recording from the World Soundscape Project library of an alpine horn being played in the distance.

[Snippet from Whisper Study]

I thought I need something else here. I can’t just have this broadband whispery, you know, kind of sound. Something else has to happen there and my ears desired something else. And that’s when I remembered this recording because I knew all the recordings of the World Soundscape Project I found it and put that in there.

So then I had this composition, and, yeah, no, I wasn’t a composer. That was not what happened. That was not in my consciousness. But the experience of that work in the studio was so significant that I wanted to do more. And then I decided to do a piece with the foghorns and train horns and boat horns in Canada.

Mack: That was your second piece? 

Hildegard: That was my second piece. 

Mack: Oh my God.

[Snippet from Fantasie Of Horns]

Hildegard: Well, I had just given birth to my daughter, and my husband and I were thinking, you know, I need to continue this. And so once a week, I went up to the studio. I was still breastfeeding and stuff, and so I decided, we decided we could handle once a week, and so I went up to the studio, and took me about six months.

So then finish this piece. And Barry again, Barry said, “You know, you should send that to Bulge,” where there was the competition every year for electroacoustic music. And I had no clue about any of this, right? This was in the middle of France where there’s is, you know, musique concréte, right?

And here comes a piece that is not completely musique concréte. It has aspects of it, but a lot of it is very real soundscape stuff. And I got a mention. And that mention then put me on the radio in Europe and North America because I had won that prize.

And then I got commissions because I’d won this prize. Yeah, and that was scary because I just really didn’t even know what a commissioner was. I was, you know, I hadn’t lived in the music world in the way many composers had. They had studied composition, they had studied in a way that they listened to new music in ways.

Yes, I was familiar with a lot of new music, but not to the same extent, and I hadn’t been really influenced by any composer, contemporary composer. I mean, I certainly had classical music in my bones because I grew up with that in my family. So I had some sense of musical structure, and I had studied some of that, of course, in the traditional music studies.

But, contemporary music was very new to me when I came to Canada. That’s when I learned about it first and most at UBC. 

Mack: So would you characterize those early tape pieces as being soundscape composition, or would you think of those as being transitional? How would you define soundscape composition?

Hildegard: The word reappeared, soundscape composition, reappeared as a genre, and I think it was as a result of what I was doing and was what some other people were doing. I would not have called it that at the time. I was just doing these pieces and yes, the first ones clearly are soundscape compositions because Whisper Study is very much about thinking about silence and wanting the listener to think about silence. 

And that was what we did in the World Soundscape Project. We would sit sometimes for hours discussing the meanings of silence, for example, right. As one topic. And that brought me to the sentence and brought me to trying to, wanting to do this in the studio.

The horn piece was very much as result of having heard all these recordings that my colleagues had made on the east coast of Canada and also in Vancouver. And knowing these horns, knowing their meanings, understanding what they were saying in our communities, the next piece, A Walk Through The City.

[Snippet from A Walk Through The City]

Yes, I would say that’s a soundscape composition. 

It’s based on a poem by my then-husband, Norbert Ruebsaat. 

[Snippet from A Walk Through The City]

It is about the downtown east side of Vancouver, which is the darkest part of Vancouver, where the drugs and the alcohol, and the addictions are and the homelessness. 

[Snippet from A Walk Through The City]

How do you do a composition that attracts the ear that is about something very difficult, and using sounds that are also not very pleasant, like sirens and all this stuff that homeless people have to put up with. Right. So there was a lot of thought in there about environmental situations and soundscape.

I could trace all my compositions and tell you to what degree I think they are soundscape compositions. I’ll give you one more example that’s from 2005 called For You. It’s a piece based on a love poem.

[Snipper from For You]

I gathered all the sounds from my home in Germany and from Vancouver that I liked a lot. That meant lots to me. And I had people read the poem in English and in German, and people that meant something in my life that were very close to me. And, Murray Schafer was one of those voices in there as well. And so I’ve surrounded myself in the studio the sounds I love.

[Snipper from For You]

Which, yeah. Do you call that a soundscape composition? In a way you do. Right? But it’s perhaps not as more activist oriented, right? It’s not as clearly pointing at the soundscape as an issue, right? 

Mack: Yeah. How would you characterize something like Breaking News 

[Snippet from Breaking News]

Which seems to reflect sort of the most intimate space and also the most political and wide-ranging space. 

Hildegard: You know, you’re the very first person in my life that has ever asked me about that piece. 

Mack: Oh, really? I play it for my students. 

Hildegard: Oh, fantastic! Interesting. I mean, I’m so curious about that piece in terms of how other people actually hear it, because I’ve never heard anything about it. No feedback. 

Mack: That’s amazing to me. Just that it’s the womb, and to me, it’s the contrast, the spatial contrast is sort of mind-boggling, you know? 

Hildegard: It is. Well, I’m so delighted to talk about this. Well, it was a commission from the CVC who asked a bunch of Canadian composers to do a three-minute piece in memory of 9/11 a year later and the first anniversary.

And my first grandson was born two months after 9/11. That was the contrast, you know. We’d just gone through this horror and also the fears involved with it, and then this new human being appears, and you can’t believe the love that happens at that point. Right. The contrast to that, and my daughter had made a point of never looking at any of the TV footage because she knew it was just going to really affect her. 

And I thought that was a really interesting decision on her part. So when I was asked to do this, it was just a very natural thing that occurred to me that I would like to do this. And my son-in-law had this incredible recording of breastfeeding. And of this almost, it sounds almost desperate, like this child just desperately trying to get this nutrition into him, and it had been a very long birth, a difficult and very long birth, and I hear a bit of desperation in that feeding.

[Snippet from Breaking News]

How do you, how do you speak about birth in the face of this disaster? I just sort of went for sounds that like the heartbeat. I mean, I didn’t have a baby’s heartbeat, and that was a whole other story. It’s a long story. I happened to be at my mother’s in Germany at the time, and I didn’t, wasn’t around my sounds and I couldn’t find a heartbeat.

And, so what we did is we did the adult heartbeat in kind of adult temple. And then I sped it up to so we did like, I don’t know, maybe a few dazz on the keyboard. Yeah. Not very natural, but the sound was a heartbeat. 

And then I had this sped-up heartbeat, and by pure chance, I had a recording of my partner’s cat who had this very strange sound clicking sound inside a meow, which I discovered when I was slowing it down. I was doing this piece for him about his cat and when, this was a few years earlier, and I heard this clicking sound, and for some reason, I had that with me, and I thought, “Oh, that heartbeat reminds me of this clicking sound and sure enough that clicking sound had exactly the same tempo as a child’s, the baby’s heartbeat.” 

And so I kind of mixed these in and out of each other in that piece. And out of that then came ideas of the awesome bell sounds, other children’s sounds, the child, Caleb, who is a bit older, some of the baby sounds at the end.

There was some medieval fair in my hometown. The music of that in the background, they were just sort of trying to be joyful sounds, dancing sounds, the dramatic sounds, a very intuitive mixture of sounds that I used. I don’t remember all the details.

Mack: Is that common in your work that when you’re working with these sonic materials, that you sort of try to do it in an intuitive way? Is it a free-associative way? Is it a way about thinking about different textures rubbing up against one another? 

Hildegard: Yeah, that is definitely a very strong element. Initially, I might have a theme or a topic and I might have the recordings from the place that it’s about or from the situation that it’s about.

And then, in that context, I will be searching for sounds that are representative of that experience, but that can also be processed like they’re close up enough that you can treat them like a sound object. You can treat them as if it was a studio sound, and you can explore the musicality and the mood of those sounds. 

And that has never changed. I mean, that was right from Whisper Study on. Finding the sounds that are musically, aesthetically meaningful, in that, social, environmental meaning of the piece. Right. And to bring those together.

And so, the more experience I have, the longer I’ve composed, often what happens is that I’ll get to a certain point in the piece, and then it gives me associations of sounds that I might already have in my library, and then I will dig out sounds that have nothing to do with the context, but they, by association they fit. 

Musically, rhythmically, whatever. Right? So yeah, I go back into my library, or I go out and record, try to record something if suddenly I think, “Okay, I need this now because there’s still something that I need to do here, it’s not done.” 

Those are really interesting moments at the end when you think you’re done, and then you realize, “No, no, something’s missing here.” And, you know, you continue then so it’s not all pure at, you know. It’s what comes together is what you want to say in the piece in terms of the message of whether it’s environmental or whatever or whether it’s about, purely about listening or anything, or about a place comes together with the composer who wants to present music.

[Snippet from A Walk Through The City]

Mack: And that’s my late 2021 interview with one of my sonic heroes, Hildegard Westerkamp. 

Let’s wrap up by listening to that three-minute, 18-second piece that we were just talking about. One that responds to the hatred and terror of 9/11 by presenting the joy and hope of new life: Breaking News.


[Breaking News by Hildegard Westerkamp]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Hildegard Westerkamp for being on the show. Learn more about the pieces we heard today plus read Hildegard’s essays and more at her website, hildegardwesterkamp.ca, and go by her recent album, Breaking News earsaymusic.bandcamp.com. 

Both of those links, plus transcripts and all of our past shows, it’s all at our website, phantompod.org. Don’t forget to subscribe if you’re new to the show, and I would love it if someone would write a review. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one, so I would love to kick off 2023 with a review. 

You can do that at ratethispodcast.com/phantom.

Today’s show was written and edited by me, Mack Hagood, and pretty much all the sounds we heard today were by Hildegard. Phantom Powers production team includes: Craig Eley, Ravi Krisna Swami, and Amy Skjerseth. Our production coordinator and transcriber is Jason Meggyesy. 

Take care. Happy New Year. See you next time.