center for contemporary non-objective art

Hildegard Westerkamp

*1946 in Osnabrück (Germany)

Lives & works in Toronto (Canada)

Westerkamp was born in Osnabrück, Germany in 1946 and immigrated to Canada in 1968. After completing her music studies in the early seventies Westerkamp joined the World Soundscape Project under the direction of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver. Her involvement with this project not only activated deep concerns about noise and the general state of the acoustic environment in her, but it also changed her ways of thinking about music, listening and soundmaking. Her ears were drawn to the acoustic environment as another cultural context or place for intense listening. The founding of Vancouver Co-operative Radio during the same time provided an invaluable opportunity to record, experiment with, and broadcast the soundscape. One could say that her career as a composer, educator, and radio artist emerged from these two pivotal experiences and focused it on environmental sound and acoustic ecology. In addition, composers such as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros have had a significant influence on her work.

While completing her Master’s Thesis, entitled ‘Listening and Soundmaking - A Study of Music-as-Environment’, she also taught courses in Acoustic Communication together with colleague Barry Truax in the School of Communication at SFU until 1990. Since then she has written additional articles and texts addressing issues of the soundscape and listening and has traveled widely, giving lectures and conducting soundscape workshops, internationally. She is a founding member and is currently active on the board of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) as well as the Canadian Association for Sound Ecology (CASE). Between 1991 and 1995 she was the editor of ‘The Soundscape Newsletter’ and is now on the editorial committee of ‘Soundscape -The Journal of Acoustic Ecology’, a new publication of the WFAE.

Her compositions have been performed and broadcast in many parts of the world. The majority of her compositional output deals with aspects of the acoustic environment: with urban, rural or wilderness soundscapes, with the voices of children, men and women, with noise or silence, music and media sounds, or with the sounds of different cultures, and so on. She has composed film soundtracks, sound documents for radio and has produced and hosted radio programs such as ‘Soundwalking’, and ‘Musica Nova’ on Vancouver Co-operative Radio.

In a number of compositions, she has combined her treatment of environmental sounds extensively with the poetry of Canadian writer Norbert Ruebsaat. (‘Cordillera’, ‘A Walk through the City’, ‘Cricket Voice’). She also has written her own texts for a series of performance pieces for spoken text and tape. In addition to her electroacoustic compositions, she has created pieces for specific "sites", such as the Harbour Symphony, and École polytechnique. In pieces like ‘The India Sound Journal’, she explores the deeper implications of transferring environmental sounds from another culture into the North American and European context of contemporary music, electroacoustic composition, and audio art. In 1998 she collaborated with her Indian colleagues Mona Madan, Savinder Anand, and Veena Sharma on a sound installation in New Delhi entitled ‘Nada-an Experience in Sound’, sponsored by the New Delhi Goethe Institute (Max Mueller Bhavan) and the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts. And most recently, she created together with photographer Florence Debeugny ‘At the Edge of Wilderness’, a sound installation about ghost towns in British Columbia, commissioned by Vancouver’s Western Front Society.

By focusing the ears’ attention to details both familiar and foreign in the acoustic environment, Westerkamp draws attention to the inner, hidden spaces of the environment we inhabit. Her compositional work has been discussed in various articles, but most extensively in Andra McCartney’s dissertation ‘Sounding Places’ with Hildegard Westerkamp.

Her audio work ’Soniferous Garden - for two-channel tape’ (1998, revised 2000), was part of the CCNOA experimental audio program ‘Earrwitness’ 2002.

’Soniferous Garden’ was the fourth and final space that visitors entered during the sound installation ‘Nada - an Experience in Sound’ at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, India, December 25, 1998.* ’Nada’ was conceived as a listening journey from noise to silence, from the external to the internal, from acoustic onslaught to acoustic subtlety, from worldly to sacred sound experiences a journey to discover listening itself, to allow our inner being to be touched through the act of listening. Here, ‘Soniferous Garden’ is presented as a space of its own, a space and time to enter from noisy, hectic daily life to access inner quiet and contemplation.

The soundscape composed for ’Soniferous Garden’ consists of sounds from sacred places in India: temple bells, muezzins calling, prayers from Hindu temples and Gurdwaras, churchbells, OM, etc. One also hears water sounds from Goa and Canada, the sounds of chimes, some soft breathing sounds, and a drone which underlies the whole piece and weaves in and out of silence throughout. Occasionally human voices appear, such as Swami Brahmananda (from Rishikesh) asking "what is God", some Indian friends saying the names of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses, my whispering voice saying the word "silence" and quoting Kirpal Singh "When there is no sound, hearing is most alert" (actually an excerpt from my very first composition ’Whisper Stud’y). Occasional silences punctuate the flow of this piece. OM occurs repeatedly throughout the piece, inviting the visitor to join in.

While we were working on ‘Nada’ my Indian colleague Veena Sharma said,

"Although the idea of soundscape came from Canada originally, the recognition of the importance of sound is universal. Every culture, every tradition has used sound to contact the Divine. Therefore, even if the idea soundscape emphasizes listening to the environment, it transcends cultural barriers. It sets up a resonance between peoples at a fundamental level when we manage to cut through the divisive character of noise. To contact the subtlety of sound is to contact the ocean of consciousness from where everything arises. To contact sound in it subtlety is to become creative, to be whole, to be sound."

The CD for viewing on the computer and the folder on the table both entitled ’Soniferous Garden’ offer, the visitor an opportunity to read the texts and see some of the images created for the original installation by Mona Madan, Savinder Anand and Veena Sharma. They were adapted and reconstructed for this CD by Sonja Ruebsaat.

The seed for ’Nada’ was planted in 1992 when I was invited by Max Mueller Bhavan (the German Goethe Institute) in Delhi to conduct a soundscape workshop. Two young architect students, Savinder Anand and Mona Madan, were among the 15 or so participants. Four years later, by this time they had established their own architecture business, had participated in a few more soundscape workshops, and had done much of their own reading and research they decided that some action regarding soundscape activities in India was long overdue. They came up with the idea for ’Nada’. I was invited to collaborate on the project as composer/sound designer. Veena Sharma, also a participant in the 1992 workshop, contributed to the installation with her deep knowledge about sound and the sacred. Financial support for the project came from Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi, and the building the Mati Ghar (the mud house) was made available by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. (Hildegard Westerkamp) westerka/

Soniferous Garden
(photo GDB)