ArtsWatch Guest Post: Beneath the Surface

The Summer 1999 issue of Musicworks magazine includes a similar version of this article by Portland writer Claire Sykes, who wrote it in response to Westerkamp’s February 25, 1999 talk at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia, titled “Speaking From Inside the Soundscape: Composing With Environmental Sound,” one of the university’s “Lectures of Note: A Series of Talks on Women in Music.” Sykes has graciously allowed ArtsWatch to republish her work, which she has slightly updated for the occasion. 

Hildegard Westerkamp at Portland's Old Church, March 2012. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

By Claire Sykes

A pulsating rumble, a raven’s caw, the cries of seagulls and water rushing by. Then, nothing but rumbling again, and a hush broken by peep and buzz and splash. I am deep in this Canadian old-growth rainforest in Vancouver Island’s Carmanah Valley, listening to Hildegard Westerkamp’s recording of it while I sit in a pew at The Old Church, in Portland. In this place where some of the world’s tallest Sitka spruce pierce the clouds and cedars more than 1,000 years old reign over the forest’s stillness, she pointed her microphone toward the voices of birds and squirrels, flies and mosquitoes, and Carmanah Creek flowing in and out of the silence. Her composition, “Beneath the Forest Floor” (1992) “moves us through the visible forest, into its shadow world, its spirit, into that which affects our body, heart and mind when we experience forest,”she writes in the liner notes of one of her many CDs,  Transformations.

A Vancouver, British Columbia-based composer and educator, and founding member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, Westerkamp draws inspiration and sounds from the acoustic environment; and composes recorded soundscapes richly textured with the rhythms, patterns and nuances of everyday life, whether that of crickets in the deserts of New Mexico or of a busy marketplace in India. She captures the sounds as is, then speeds them up, slows them down, adds reverb (among other manipulations) and layers them in a sonic collage of tone, tempo and tenor, remaining within earshot of the original sound source. Spelunking the depths of sound, she explores its familiar and foreign environments, and excavates its subconscious meanings. In the end, her works transform listeners’ awareness of themselves and the world around them.

“Sound is the voice of a society, of a landscape or an environment,” Westerkamp says. “As a composer, I want to listen to this voice and understand it. That is why I record and select environmental sounds and transform them into the sonic/musical ‘language’ of my compositions. These compositions in turn ‘speak’ through their own sonic/musical properties about environment, perception and society. They are never abstract. They attempt to draw the ear into the minutest details of a soundscape and are intent on creating their own time frame for listening, as if listening to the soundscape itself. As a composer, I see it as my task and responsibility to touch listeners’ ears and connect them to the acoustic environment.”

Certainly, that’s what happens when the sound of rain pours into your ears with “Talking Rain” (1997). In this piece, which uses West Coast rain sounds as the basic compositional materials, “the listener’s ear,” says Westerkamp, “can travel into the sonic formations of rain, into the insides of that place of nourishment as well as outside to the watery, liquid language of animals, forests and human habitations—all of which are nourished by the rain.”

When listening to Westerkamp’s work, the sounds of your own body, of your breath or your heartbeat, maybe a cough or a sigh, are as much a part of the experience as her compositions.

“You, the listener, inevitably contribute to the quality in which this time passes in this environment: the quality of your listening influences the quality of this soundscape. Your listening also influences the quality of my sound-making in this place during this time . . . I am fascinated both by the complexity of our aural perception as well as the complexity of environmental sound, itself. When we hear, we can never be quite sure whether what we hear is real or whether we are filling in, imagining sounds, composing them as we hear.”

Who would recognize the bicycle bell, its bright chirp decelerated to a deep, raspy utterance in Westerkamp’s provocatively titled “Gently Penetrating Beneath the Sounding Surface of Another Place” (1997)? Here, she takes us meandering through the streets of New Delhi, India, with its cacophony of street vendors’ shouts, bicycle bells, scooter horns and clanking metal buckets.

“In most of my compositions, I like to combine the processed version with the original sound. In that way, the pieces are not abstract; they remain connected with their environment.” With her works, we are given a microscope for sound, and our ears peer into the hidden aural territory that thrives beneath the surface of our sensate world. Like molecules, these sounds are always there, even if we can’t hear them.

Discoveries often emerge for Westerkamp during the construction of her compositions. While processing the sounds for “Gently Penetrating,” she realized the piece was not about the vendors’ voices, as she had originally thought, but about the two sides of India, she says, “one dark and difficult, the other glistening and colorful,” represented by the scooter horn and the bicycle bell, respectively.

“If we truly want to reveal the meanings through environmental sound compositions and truly draw the listener inside these meanings, then we must not only transmit remarkable sounds and their transformations, but also something of our experience with these sounds, something of our inner sound world, like any composer would do. Instead of bamboozling our listeners with technology, we may want to invite them into the place of our creative process and our imagination.”

Westerkamp does just that—managing, as well, to invite us into a similar place within ourselves.

© 2012 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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