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.