Thoughts on sound interactivity on different kinds of media should perhaps be accompanied by thoughts on how we relate to our daily sonic environment. Roughly speaking, the world we live in is actually the first and most important interface we have to deal with and sound plays a big part in that relationship whether we take it for granted or not. Internationally acclaimed sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp never did. Born in Germany, Westerkamp moved to Canada in the late 60’s where she eventually joined the World Soundscape Project (WSP) directed by Murray Schafer and was strongly influenced by his ideas concerning acoustic ecology. With a very diverse body of work, both formally and thematically, dealing with subjects ranging from feminism to a critical view of the culture industry, Westerkamp’s compositions are above all remarkable explorations of different sonic environments, both real and a product of the artist’s imagination.
How did you become interested in sound?
I started my career as a traditional musician, but I wasn’t very comfortable with some aspects of it. I didn’t like the idea of performance much. In fact, I loved listening to music a lot more than I liked being a musician. Everything changed when I met Schafer. This was when I discovered my fascination with listening to the whole world around me! My WSP colleagues and I could literally sit in the Sonic Research Studio and listen for hours to the environmental sound recordings that were made, such as the sounds of birds or any other environmental sound for that matter.
Even though you were not very comfortable with the idea of performance, you’ve managed to somehow make yourself present in your recordings. If we take for instance some of your earlier works as in the Soundwalking series…
Yes, I participated in those as a kind of narrator, but not so much because I wanted to, but because I felt it was necessary. The Soundwalking series was a program I created for Vancouver Co-operative Radio in 1978/79. The basic idea was for me to record sounds and soundscape in many different places in and around Vancouver. My initial thought at that time was that this could be perceived as something really strange by regular radio listeners. In order to make things easier to understand, I decided to make my voice a type of mediator between the environment in which I was recording and the radio listener, even if used very sparsely. I would give information about the context of that recording: the place where I was, the time of the day, what was happening around me, really anything that a radio listener could not know about.
After that you have continued to use spoken language in your work quite frequently as well…
For me, written and spoken language are very close to environmental sounds. This is because I regard environmental sounds as a type of language that informs us about the environment. When we listen to it like that, we learn a lot about what is happening around us. Sound to me is the language of an environmental context.
You make a kind of division in your work between what you call sound documents and sound compositions. But, even in your most personal compositions, the idea of the soundscape is still a very strong one. How do you deal with this kind of tension between preserving a recording just as it is and manipulating it?
I think my fascination with processing sounds started right away during my first experiences in the sound studio. To be able to change sounds like that was something remarkable to me. Over time I understood the reason why I liked processing sounds. It did not have to do so much with the technique but more with the fact that in our own listening experience itself we process sounds as soon as we perceive them. We interpret them right away and often in different ways depending on the context. Sounds never arrive in our ears and our minds in the same way. When I process sounds in the studio, it is very much with that in mind. I want to explore further what really happens in our imagination when we listen to something. And, of course, all those plug-ins and all those tools that we now have make it very easy to do this kind of processing and changing of sounds. To me there is a very fine line between processing sounds for processing’s sake, because it’s fun, or to do it because it deepens our understanding of a sound. In Beneath the Forest Floor, for instance, there is a raven sound that I recorded in one of the indigenous forests here in British Columbia. When I slowed that sound down, it reminded me of a drumming sound as one can hear in the music of the West coast First Nations culture. It ended up determining the character of this piece because that association was rather magical: the raven plays a big role in indigenous mythology here on the Northwest Pacific coast. So, that’s one example of how processing can bring our perception and understanding of sounds to a deeper, meaningful level.
Even though the sound of the raven was somehow transformed by you, it still had this strong bond with its original source, right?
Yes, of course. And I must say that processing won’t always have those kinds of results. That particular recording of the raven was the only one that would give me this kind of drum sound. I had other raven recordings, but they did not do that. They were either too far away or they didn’t have that sharp grainy characteristic that this call had and as a result gave me that clear attack, reminiscent of an indigenous drumming sound. Only one recording gave me that.
A specific passage of Kits Beach Soundwalk comes to my mind at this moment, where you say something like “I could shock you by saying the soundscape is this loud. Actually, it’s more like this”. And then we listen to everything at a lower level. And you say that the reason why everything seemed quieter to you at Kits Beach is because the image of the place was very beautiful, enhancing our visual experience but at the same time putting the acoustic experience into the background of our overall perception. Since we, the listeners of your piece, were not there to see for ourselves what you were seeing, you decided to exaggerate everything soundwise, in order to compensate for that.
If we want people to listen to the sounds of the environment I think it’s not such a good idea to just play back field recordings, because our habit to block out sounds in daily life will click in also, when we hear simple environmental recordings over the radio. So, yes, I think we have to exaggerate such sounds or soundscapes to a certain extent so people actually notice them. In a soundscape composition, I want to draw the listener inside the composition. I’ve always felt a lot of resonance with people who do sound design in film because they do very much what I do except that they create sounds for images. While watching a film the visual sense often dominates and people don’t necessarily notice what the sound designer or composer has done. But it doesn’t matter because the soundtrack will create an atmosphere in which we want the listener to be immersed. That’s very much what I also try to do with my compositions, except without reference to visuals.
You had two compositions of yours, Beneath the Forest Floor and Doors of Perception, used as a part of the soundtrack of two of Gus Van Sant’s films, Elephant and Last Days. How was that?
Well, they approached me for Elephant first and asked if they could acquire an excerpt of my pieces. At the time, I wasn’t so familiar with Gus Van Sant’s work and was a little suspicious, but finally agreed to it. I had nothing to do at all with the way they placed the excerpts of the pieces in the films. I found out later that Gus Van Sant had a lot to do with these choices, not just the sound designer (Leslie Shatz). At the end, I was absolutely impressed with the way they used my sounds. If they had asked me to compose the soundtrack for the films, I probably would never have done anything similar. I had said to them that I would prefer if the excerpts were not used in a violent context. Originally, Beneath the Forest Floor is about a very peaceful environment. But they used that excerpt exactly at the moment in the film where the violence started. And it worked very well actually! So Gus Van Sant’s perception of my piece made me aware of how dark it really is.
And when this uncertainty about how your material will be presented concerns your own work, how do you deal with it? You did a couple of sound installations in which there is a larger risk of things not working as planned or imagined.
The idea of sound installations didn’t come to my mind until later in my career. I was not very interested in doing them initially because most galleries weren’t ready to create the right context for such sound experiences. There were often interferences, the acoustics were never ideal… so I was very skeptical for a long time. My first sound composition presented in a gallery was Cordillera. This was in the early 80’s. It was still a very simple, contemplative installation and I was very pleased with the result at that time. I did a couple of other things in that domain, but generally with very little visual information. And, then, in 2000, I met photographer Florence Debeugny, and we did a project about ghost towns in British Columbia entitled At the Edge of Wilderness. Florence photographed these abandoned industrial sites and I made sound recordings. Of course, I recorded a lot of environmental sounds, but also the sounds of my interactions with these places: I hit metal structures, abandoned machinery, wood objects, I even played an old piano I found in one of the ghost towns. In addition I recorded the sounds of my own and the photographer’s voice talking about where we were, and about the weird contradiction between the mountainous wilderness landscape and the remaining, rather messy traces of pioneers wanting to mine the earth for precious metals.
You had done something similar previously in Cricket Voice, right?
Cricket Voice is a composition whose sounds originated in a desert located in north central Mexico, called The Zone of Silence. Except for the crickets at night, there was so little sound in this environment that you had to make it yourself. So I came up with this idea: “Let’s just touch these plants, these cactus plants”. It was really interesting that the sounds that we were making revealed the interior of those plant leaves, their texture, a mixture of exterior dryness and a certain interior liquidity.
This is an unexpected and fun way to discover a new sonic environment
Yes, it is. Actually, kids do this all the time, as they touch objects in playful ways, exploring.
Speaking of new sonic environments, how was your experience in India?
India was an extremely exciting experience for me. We were always in the middle of so much life, which produced incredible sounds. We were engulfed by these soundscapes with crowds and crowds of people, in urban environments in particular, but even in small villages and temples. I found it fascinating, because my European and North American cultural and social concepts and ideas were suddenly turned upside down. The first city I experienced in India was New Delhi, a very noisy place. The traffic was really intense. But what I found interesting about that particular traffic noise was its communicational quality. The incessant honking was a type of orientation. There is such chaos in the streets that people have to honk to inform each other about there whereabouts. It’s not necessarily an aggressive honking, it’s simply a statement such as ‘I am here, don’t bump into me’. That kind of liveness, that social noise, affected me quite differently than a freeway sound in North America, which is just a broadband noise, boring, with nothing to tell us other than many vehicles speeding to somewhere. This is just one example of many that changed my preconceptions that I had about noise – and meanings of silence for that matter. I think when we travel to foreign places our ears naturally open up to the world. We’re all good listeners when we first arrive in a new place because it helps us to orient ourselves.
You’re also a member of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology. What are the forum activities and how do you think acoustic ecology studies evolved through the years?
The World Forum of Acoustic Ecology is a direct outgrowth of the World Soundscape Project. The Forum was founded in 1993 during the first International Conference on Acoustic Ecology in Banff, Alberta, Canada. It was initiated out of a desire to continue developing some of the ideas already brought up by the World Soundscape Project in the 70’s. Importantly we wanted to connect to other professions such as architects, scientists, etc. in an effort to bring many disciplines together that study sound from different angles, under a type of Soundscape Studies umbrella. Because one major emphasis in this field is on studying the environment through perception and listening, this is not very easy to do. Generally, the people that get attracted to acoustic ecology are artists and musicians. Scientists have only recently and reluctantly begun to acknowledge the importance of listening as a tool of analysis and scientific inquiry – reluctantly, because it adds a measure of complexity and therefore challenges conventional approaches to how sound environments are studied.
Could you say something about your future projects or your most recent work?
I just finished a new composition in collaboration with composer and recorder player Terri Hron. I also worked with a team of people on the soundtrack of a film last fall which actually premiers today here in Canada. It is called Koneline: Our Land Beautiful and is a poetic approach to the landscape of Northern British Columbia and the people that live there. It’s an area that is under dispute. There are indigenous land issues, environmental problems, and industrial interests… a really complex scenario. It was very interesting for me to work in film again, because I hadn’t done it since the 80’s. We had many discussions about the value of using environmental sounds versus using music in a film where the land was the main character. Nature films often drive me crazy: instead of hearing the sounds of the environment, we get music! Audiences will be exposed to the most gorgeous images of a natural landscape, but will not hear its sounds. The language of music is usually not the most appropriate for representing a landscape; environmental sounds on the other hand can be most appropriate and potentially heighten the enjoyment of the environment that is portrayed in the film.
When in the process did you start working on this film?
After it was shot. Actually this was my criticism at the time. Due to financial reasons we got involved way too late in the process. I think this happens very frequently in film. But, if the composer could be part of some of the film shoot, get a feeling for the film and what it wants to say, I think it would be easier to create a sound track that connects more deeply with the visuals and the desired ‘tone’ and atmosphere of the film.
Did you do a lot of field recording yourself?
I asked the director to send me all sounds that were recorded by the sound people on set during production. But due to budgetary constraints the sound crew was not given enough extra time to collect as many sounds as possible in and around the locations of the film shoot. As a result our sound repertoire from that landscape was rather limited. It was a financial issue, but it’s also a cultural one. Generally, sound is not thought about until late into the production process. In order to solve this issue, I recorded a few extra sounds myself and used some sounds I already had, that were related to that landscape. In the end, it all worked out pretty well. But when you have the luxury of being present on location, when you get to know a place yourself, you don’t just get the sound, you also get an experience and when you bring that into the studio, you work differently than when you just use someone else’s recordings or pick something from the internet.