photo credit: Sonja Ruebsaat

Composer Hildegard Westerkamp focuses on listening, environmental sound and acoustic ecology. At the beginning of her career she worked with R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project, is a founding and board member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and was long-time editor of its journal Soundscape. She has conducted soundscape workshops, given concerts and lectures, and has coordinated and led Soundwalks locally and internationally. Excerpts of her compositions appear in Gus van Sants’ films Elephant and Last Days and more recently she collaborated on the soundtrack of Nettie Wild’s film Koneline. Her newest composition Klavierklang for pianist Rachel Iwaasa had its world premiere at ISCM’s World Music Days in Vancouver, November 2017. Also in 2017 Hildegard’s ways of composing and listening were presented on CBC IDEAS.

This interview has been edited for length and concision.

Annie Corrigan: Help us understand what you mean by “acoustic ecology.”

Hildegard Westerkamp: Acoustic ecologists are not only concerned about and care for the quality of the sound environment, but significantly we also continuously aim to improve the quality of our listening. Our practice is listening itself, noticing what is going on in our soundscapes and how we listen and respond to them. Actions for changing our own soundmaking behaviour in our immediate and daily environments tend to result from such a practice and often encourage awareness in others of their own listening and soundmaking habits. Overload of sound and information input demands a rebalancing in the lives of many. Creating a consciously sensing and listening relationship between ourselves and our soundscapes offers exactly that, and tends to ground us.

This is the ground from which we work, no matter how else we may be connected professionally to sound, acoustics, music, sonic sciences, or any other field of sound studies.

AC: Describe the features that make a certain place a good location for a sound walk.

HW: In a soundwalk, we want to alert participants’ entire being to the richness of soundscapes. So, when planning a soundwalk route we ask what wakes up our listening perception, what sounds or soundscapes engage and inspire us. We discover very quickly that it is not only the choice of a certain walking route or soundscape, but most importantly the willingness of the participants to surrender to a deeper listening experience that make almost any place a good location for a soundwalk. It is the task of the soundwalk organizer or leader to offer an atmosphere of safety for listening, no matter what the location.

AC: At Sound Symposium, we try to emphasize the importance of listening. Can you give us tips for how to listen more deeply to our surroundings?

HW: It’s a matter of noticing our own ways of listening. When you realize that you have stopped listening, remind yourself and start listening again.

AC: You collaborated with Terri Hron on “Beads of Time Sounding.” What drew you to the sound of the bass recorder instrument?

HW: The recorder was my first instrument. My mother and two older sisters all played recorders. One of my sisters knew how to play all of them, from descant to bass, and organized regular recorder ensemble playing in our house. Often I would sit in on these practices, mostly listening. But of course, as the youngest in the family, I also wanted to play. I started on the soprano, basically imitating what I heard, but don’t actually remember learning to play it. One day I simply played it and could also read the notes!

In characteristic German Hausmusik style, our family would make music together, often in the evenings or on weekends, playing mostly Baroque sonatas and suites, duets and trios. My mother would often accompany us on the piano. As a result I associate the recorder with the fun and freedom of music making, not at all with strict music teachers and challenging music lessons.

Hildegard Westerkamp At Sound Symposium XIX*

  • Concert — Thursday, July 5 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Soundwalk — Saturday, July 7 at 10:00am (begin at LSPU Hall)
  • Concert — Saturday, July 7 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Concert — Tuesday, July 10 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Workshop, Listening — Saturday, July 14 at 10:00am (Choral Room, MUN School of Music)

See the complete list of SSXIX artists, as well as the full schedule and ticket information.

*Times and locations subject to change.