Soundwalking with Westerkamp Part 2: The present of Acoustic Ecology

When Hildegard Westerkamp spoke at this year’s Happening 2012 Festival of New Music & Media (January 25th – 28th) at the University of Calgary, she described and then played a work that she had premiered just the week before in Vancouver called “Once Upon A Time”. Though she loves the construct of abstractions as a sound composer, and the depth of the acoustic environment to which she’d like our attention drawn, sometimes she just wants to tell fairy tales.

The symbolism of some fairy tales may be a bit more obscure, but usually adults, and often the children themselves, know perfectly well what’s going on, just for the sake of a good story. As she mentioned during our earlier interview, “Some pieces may be more didactic, in that I want you to listen to THIS.” (laughs). There’s a piece called “Kitts Beach Soundwalk” where the narrative really leads the listener like that. But some pieces are simply there to draw you into a listening that definitely is not didactic: there’s that spectrum, and then the listener can really take it wherever they want to. That’s really the ideal for me as a composer: that they feel free to be immersed in this piece and that they feel free to listen in ANY way they want, however they can get into this piece. And they come out enriched in a way that their listening is enhanced. That’s really my main interest, because that’s what happens to me in the compositional process, and that’s what happens to me when I enjoy pieces of music.

Brown haired mature woman with purple scarf and jacket.
“Once upon a time there was a little girl…” named Hildegard. Image courtesy the Artist’s website.

“‘Once Upon A Time’ is basically about a witch that poisons the world with music. It’s about a little girl who, through the doings of a sorcerer, loses her own voice and is given a music machine. She ends up becoming quite evil, and becomes a witch and puts music into absolutely every nook and cranny of society, and inside people’s ears through their headphones. So it’s a comment about the (omni)presence of music in our society.

“The only way the girl can be saved is through a magical bird. And this magical bird, in the end, is one of the loveliest birds that we have in Canada, and in the end you become immersed in this absolutely gorgeous soundscape that this loon creates. So it’s a completely OBVIOUS message: “Let’s think about how the corporations have habituated us to the presence of music, and a kind of addictive sense that we have to have music around all of the time. It’s a little bit unreal, but it’s also very real.

Acoustic ecology is often misunderstood to say ‘Nature good; quiet good; noise bad or city bad.’ That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, ‘Let’s open our ears to everything.’ That’s the big misunderstanding that keeps happening. When we worked with (R. Murray) Schaefer and the World Soundscape Project, we studied every aspect of the sound environment: of noise, of noise measurement, of how our ears function, the medical aspects. We wanted to know everything about sound and acoustics.

“Our belief is, from that knowledge, we can begin to create a soundscape that is not abusive of our bodies, or animals’ bodies. It’s an ecological movement in that respect: in that it wants to create a balanced soundscape from the human perspective, where we can hear each other without having to shout, where we can hear our own body movements (like our footsteps), and a lot of soundscapes are NOT like that. A balanced environment would be where the birds in the cities DON’T have to become louder because it’s so loud around them, which is what’s happening.

We have situations in the world which are really imbalanced. And the experience of silence is being actively rebuked by corporations like the Muzak corporation, . . . They did say in the early days they did create music not to be listened to. So there is an active element from the corporate world to cover up silence and, in a way, shut US up, in the sense that they want us to move to their tune, which to me is very sinister; a very serious situation that has become addictive for many, and made them unconscious.

Ms. Westerkamp feels we need to be made aware of these things in the same way “we’re conscious of the food we’re taking in. That’s the activist in me, that says ‘Okay, let’s listen up to this, so that we know what the hell comes into our ears.’

So, dear reader, what the hell comes into YOUR ears?

Posted by Allen Thai

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.