Hildegard Westerkamp More from the press

In the press

trans_canada Festival: Trends in Acousmatics and Soundscapes

Wibke Bantelmann, Computer Music Journal, no. 29:3, September 1, 2005

The trans_canada festival of electroacoustic music by Canadian composers at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe was certainly no everyday experience for the interested German public. A festival of acousmatic music—and acousmatic music only—is quite unusal. The German avant-garde music scene is still uncommonly lively, but most composers prefer either instrumental music (with electroacoustic elements) or multimedia works. The idea of invisible music seems not to touch the German musical sensibility.

Despite this, 460 visitors found their way to ZKM. During 10-13 February, 2005, they experienced a four day-long plunge into the Canadian way of composing, and had the opportunity to learn more about the “Canadian Example” as Daniel Teruggi of the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) called it in his paper. According to Mr. Teruggi, the liveliness and outstanding quality of the electroacoustic music scene in Canada is the result of good composers but also of academically sound research and training and a wide range of philosophical approaches to music. The opening of the festival showed another aspect of this “example.” Paul Dubois, the present Canadian ambassador to Germany, came from Berlin to open the festival—cultural policy in Canada apparently knows and supports the electroacoustic scene intensely, quite contrary to German policy.

Francis Dhomont, Robert Normandeau, Gilles Gobeil, Nicolas Bernier, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Louis Dufort took part in the festival and presented works (Ned Bouhalassa was invited but for health reasons was unable to attend). Nine pieces were commissioned by ZKM and received their world premieres at the festival.

trans_canada not only offered an occasion for Germans to learn about Canadian acousmatic music; apparently, it also connected the Canadians themselves. “It seems we had to come to the ZKM in Karlsruhe to get together,” said Robert Normandeau at the last concert. And so, the Francophone composers from the east, rooted in the Paris school of “musique concrète,” met the Anglophone soundscape composers from the West coast. “I was very much surprised when Francis Dhomont told us that he does not like the original sounds to be changed so much that you can’t distinguish their origin any longer,” said Hildegard Westerkamp. “We are not as far away from each other as I used to think.”

This proved to be quite true, as could be heard. The parallels between their new works, Brief an den Vater by Mr. Dhomont and Für Dich—For You by Ms. Westerkamp, were striking. Both compositions were not only inspired by but also formally based on literature and the structure, the sound, the rhythm of the text. The work by Mr. Dhomont, with the scraping of a pen as a sort of leitmotif, was no less abstract than Ms. Westerkamp’s music with its sea-sounds (gulls, wind, waves). And her fantasy land called “home” is not more “real” then his world of inner struggle. Both works showed an extreme sensitivity for subtle, delicate sounds which were spread in many layers, throwing shadows of sound, and constantly and slowly developing into new shapes and shades. The differences between the works seemed after all (to this listener at least) to be ones of personal style and expression than of basic principles.

Another new work with words came from Darren Copeland. I don’t want to be inside me anymore was quite singular in the festival due to its definite focus on content, on a “real story.” This fact gave the piece a strong dramatic quality leaving hardly any room for imagination. The intention of the sounds to build around the absorbing, sometimes even vexatious, words seemed to force the listeners to constantly keep their full attention on the meaning of the text. It was a deeply impressive piece, even if it was to a certain extent more dramatic than musical. (Although other listeners might experience it differently if they do not understand the German text.)

In a way, this work resembles a compositional style of a very different kind, that of Barry Truax. The connection may be found in the very sense of reality in both composer’s works: the reality of the feeling of isolation on one hand, and the reality of an existing landscape (streams, peaks, caves) on the other.

Even Gilles Gobeil’s magnificent medieval drama, Ombres, espaces, silences…, followed roughly this direction. This piece was not about feeling or landscape, it was about reality, too, in this case the reality of history, only by far more sublime, sensitive, and imaginative. Not “cinema for the ear” but a “novel for the ear” (something like The Name of the Rose?)! However, the form and structure of this work is by far more of a narrative nature than strictly abstract-musical.

It was Robert Normandeau and the youngsters of trans_canada who were most abstract, and therefore the strongest advocates of a true “invisible music.” It was not only not to be seen, it was not to be imagined. There was nothing real, nothing you could get hold of, it was more or less a complete deconstruction of sounds, ideas, narration. They appeared not to start from any landscape, be it imagined or real, inside or outside the head; they started from ideas, ideas of sound, ideas of form. Even the antique Writing Machine in the work by Nicolas Bernier was more a (slightly exotic) sound than a sense, more a historical reminiscence than an element of form.

Coincidence shows her unaccountable face, experiment and surprise follow. You could hear experience and mastery in the work of Robert Normandeau, of course. You were always sure that it was him who played with coincidence and not the other way round. His world premiere, ZedKejeM, was highly dynamic, with the energy and rhythm from a dancefloor, but still showed the deepness, density, and versatility of a deep-thinking organizer of energy and fantasy. Every single sound seemed well calculated, the effects carefully set.

The music of his younger colleagues, Mr. Bernier and Louis Dufort, was more spontaneous, wandering dreamily through all the possibilities of technique and sound, to find out what would happen. Mr. Dufort spread a richness and variety of colors in a free, open structure that simply followed the beauty of the sounds created. In contrast to that, Mr. Bernier followed an intellectual plan, he set his rules and let them work. One always sensed the will behind the music, one always tried to follow and understand the experiment instead of just enjoying the result. But, on the other hand, this method produced a certain strong energy in the work. This composer had the power to raise and hold the intellectual interest of the listener.

All in all, it was fascinating to take in over a few days such a wide range of styles and personalities, and to learn a little about their methods.

trans_canada also provided the chance to meet the composers in person. Each of them delivered a paper about their work. They could only give a rough survey, of course, in a 45-min talk. Rather than concentrating on techniques or software, most composers just tried to acquaint their colleagues and the small number of other interested people with their sources of inspiration, their opinions, their philosophy. Remarkable was the clear delivery of all the composers and the relaxed atmosphere of these sessions. There seemed to be no need to impress anyone, and not so much need to discuss, let alone debate. Everybody was open-minded and respected the others, as if trying to learn and understand, not to question fundamentals.

It was like a good talk between colleagues and friends. Mr. Normandeau provided insight into his large archive of sound and his permanent work on the human voice. Mr. Gobeil expressed his preference for the sound of exotic instruments (like the Daxophone) and his dislike of techno music (inducing him to write a techno-piece). Mr. Dhomont talked about the relation between accident and control in his work, marking his own position somewhere between Pierre Boulez and John Cage:Boulez would say: ‘This is incidental, throw it away;’ Cage would say: ‘This is incidental, so I take it;’ I say: ‘Look, there is an interesting incident, but should I take it?’” He also used the opportunity to call for more polyphony in electroacoustic music instead of the exclusive concentration on creating the most original, most exotic new sound: “In an orchestra, you mix different instruments, but the single instrument becomes not less beautiful.”

The exceptional environment of ZKM supported this beautiful richness of sounds and the inventiveness of the composers immensely. The two concert venues offer exquisite acoustics. They were equipped with 70 concert loudspeakers, placed in either circles or in a kind of “acousmonium surround environment.” This, in conjunction with the timbral and spatial qualities of the works, created an extraordinary musical experience.

… it was fascinating to take in over a few days such a wide range of styles and personalities…

Sounds Around: Field Recordings in Electroacoustics

David Turgeon, electrocd.com, June 1, 2003

Field recordings have always fascinated electroacoustic composers, ever since Pierre Schaeffer’s Cinq études de bruits (1948), featuring processed train sounds. With R Murray Schafer’s Vancouver Soundscape 1973 (1972-73), these everyday sounds are articulated around a discourse which will be termed “sound ecology,” whereby sounds keep their original meaning, and no longer serve as anecdotic content to be used and abused at the composer’s whim. Jonty Harrison synthesises these two approaches in his short text {cnotice:imed_0052-0001/About Évidence matérielle/cnotice}.

Actually, every composer seems to have their own unique approach towards field recordings. If sound ecology has seen the burgeoning of microphone artists such as Claude Schryer and of course Hildegard Westerkamp and her famous {cpiste:imed_9631-1.3/Kits Beach Soundwalk/cpiste} (1989), sound travels such as French duo Kristoff K Roll’s CD Corazón Road (1993) are, in this respect, closer to the art of documentary film. Meanwhile, Brooklyn-based composer Jon Hudak starts off with an extremely minimalist palette so as to seek out the “essence” of sounds, which, to the listener, translate into soft, dreamy soundscapes. A student of the aforementioned Jonty Harrison, Natasha Barrett conceives beautiful landscapes of sounds with very discreet field recordings, that retain an aesthetic likeness to the acousmatic tradition.

Many young composers settle into this landscape (of sound…) and their work is of such interest to us, it would be a shame not to let them be heard. We shall first mention the California-based V. V. (real name Ven Voisey), who organises his found sounds into an architecture reminescent of “old school” musique concrète—doing so, he uncovers a previously unheard aesthetic affinity between Schaeffer and Merzbow… With Relisten, Austrian composer Bernhard Gal guides us through his carefully selected episodes of “found musics” (that is, musical structures that preexist within the environment.) Finally, because of its numerous ideas and its incredible pacing, the surprising flume ridge.halifax.lisbon (2001) from Montréal composer Cal Crawford will undoubtedly seduce listeners looking for unheard acousmatic grounds.

Two small treats to end with. First, the pretty Aenviron: one mini-CDR is a simple thread of five pure field recordings (with no processing!). After all, if there is such a thing as cinema for the ear, why shouldn’t there be a photo album for the ear! And to close the loop, may we also suggest to make a stop at Lionel Marchetti’s recent mini-CD with the evocative title, Train de nuit (Noord 3-683) (1998-99). This work for one loudspeaker, dedicated (couldn’t you guess?) to Pierre Schaeffer, remind us again of the ever renewed importance of environmental sources in feeding the electroacoustic ocean.

Review

Joyce Hildebrand, Encompass, October 1, 2000

Remember that afternoon on the beach just a few months ago? The flash of sunlight on water, the feel of hot sand under your feet, the tang of lemonade on your tongue. Chances are the sounds of children laughing and icecubes tinkling will come to mind last, if at all. Why does hearing so often take a back seat to vision or taste? Have we been suppressing unwanted noise for so long that we have dulled our capacity to hear? Vancouver-based composer Hildegard Westerkamp offers our ears a wake-up call, reminding us that sounds are as much a part of place as images and smells.

Westerkamp records whatever reaches her microphone in a particular place and then transforms and combines those sounds electronically. Her “instruments” include everything from creeks and ravens to truck brakes and train whistles. “I transform sound in order to highlight its original contours and meanings,” she says in the extensive liner notes of her CD Transformations. “This allows me as a composer to explore the sound’s musical/acoustic potential in depth.”

If you are thinking “Solitudes” music, you’re on the wrong track. The first composition on the CD, A Walk Through The City, explores the sounds of Vancouver’s Skid Row’ carhorns, jackhammers, voices. Although perhaps the most challenging of the five works on this recording, it captures the beauty and complexity even in those sounds that we often try to filter out.

In Kits Beach Soundwalk the “intimate sounds of nature” like clicking barnacles and sucking mussels are set against the pervasive hum of the city, blurring the line between nature and non-nature. Beneath The Forest Floor offers an opportunity to experience the deep peace that the composer felt while recording the sounds of BC’s Carmanah Valley.

Cricket Voice emerged from a Mexican desert region called, strangely enough, the Zone of Silence. The cricket’s high-pitched trills become the desert’s heartbeat when slowed down in the studio. Cacti spikes, dried up roots, and the echoes of an old water reservoir provide the instruments for background percussion.

Westerkamp thinks of sound as a part of ecological systems and is careful not to overmanipulate it. “I feel that sounds have their own integrity and need to be treated with a great deal of care,” she says. She also recognizes that her compositions, played far from the places in which they originated, become part of another “soundscape.” Indeed, my dog spontaneously howled through Fantasie for Horns II, adding his voice to those of foghorns, train whistles, and a French horn!

More recently, Westerkamp has been working with photographer Florence Debeugny on At the Edge of Wilderness, a sound/slide installation about ghost towns left by industry in BC. It opens as part of a larger exhibition on September 8, 2000 in Vancouver. She also travels widely, giving workshops, lectures, and concerts, and she plans to put out a double CD in the next year with works based on her experiences of India.

… captures the beauty and complexity even in those sounds that we often try to filter out.

In Review

Andra McCartney, eContact!, no. 1:1, February 1, 1998

Hildegard Westerkamp says: “I hear the soundscape as a language with which places and societies express themselves.” Her Transformations CD presents five of her soundscape compositions, reflecting work composed from 1979 to 1992, each sounding the depths of a different place, creating a different inner landscape each time I hear them. She works with the sonic and sociopolitical potentials of each place, recording, mixing, and subtly transforming sounds to heighten listeners’ awareness and appreciation of these sites. She is a skilled and careful interpreter of their languages.

You make it with the skin of the desert night

Cricket Voice is a musical exploration of a solo cricket song, recorded by Westerkamp at night in a Mexican desert region called the Zone of Silence. The acoustic clarity of this place frames the cricket song, accompanied by soundmaking with the spikes of cacti and other plants, and electroacoustic transformations of these sounds. This composition is as expansive as the desert, intimate as the voice of a single cricket.

Listen to our cities

Two of the works, A Walk Through The City, and Kits Beach Soundwalk, are both based on urban soundscapes. In the downtown core, I can become numb to the constant sounds. These works challenge me to listen, to transform, to make quiet places in the city. A A Walk Through The City takes us through Vancouver’s Skid Row area, guided by Norbert Ruebsaat’s poem of the same name. Kits Beach Soundwalk begins at Kitsilano Beach, in the heart of Vancouver, yet at the same time a border. I hear the throb of the city balanced with the tiny sounds of barnacles feeding in the lapping tide. This piece explores many borders—between dream and waking, city and country, water and land, documentary and composition. When it enters the dreamworld of high frequencies, I remember where quiet places in the city can take me.

Soundmarks and Sitka

Fantasie for Horns II is the earliest piece in the collection, composed from the sounds of Canadian trainhorns, foghorns, factory and boathorns, and a live part for French horn. Horns are especially evocative soundmarks that give us a sense of place. Each time I hear this piece, I remember growing up by the sea and listening to the moan of the coastal foghorns, reminding me of the awe-inspiring power and energy of the sea. The latest piece on the CD is Beneath The Forest Floor. Most of the sounds for this piece were recorded by Westerkamp in the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island, and the piece evokes the stillness and peace of this old-growth rainforest, home to Sitka spruce and cedar trees over a thousand years old.

I have always found Hildegard Westerkamp’s work to be a particular source of insight and inspiration. It takes me to familiar and new places, encourages me to listen to the sounds around me, and to “transform through listening,” as Pauline Oliveros also notes about Westerkamp’s work. Her music urges me to listen to the language of the soundscape and to express my own relationship to it by working with soundscapes myself. I hope it does for you, too.

… a particular source of insight and inspiration.

More texts

The WholeNote no. 10:7, Radio Patapoe: Adventures in UNsound no. 76

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