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Interview with  Hildegard Westerkamp

For the Canadian Music Centre’s Influences of Many Musics Project

Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer who focuses on listening, environmental sound and acoustic ecology. She was a member of the original World Soundscape Project, working with R. Murray Schafer; has taught courses in Acoustic Communication at Simon Fraser University with Barry Truax; has worked with writers Norbert Ruebsaat and Sharon Thesen, with photographer Florence Debeugny and is conducting soundscape workshops and giving concerts and lectures internationally. Some of her compositional work appears in US filmmaker Gus van Sant’s films Elephant and Last Days. She is a founding member and is currently active on the board of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE). She is a co-editor of Soundscape The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, a publication of the WFAE.

A. Cultural Heritage

A.1 Describe the culture of your country of origin.

Born in 1946, I grew up in post-WWII West-Germany — an extraordinary, specific time in this country’s culture, marked by the collapse of the Nazi era, the loss of the war and the accompanying destruction, loss and devastation. Germany’s cultural life was slowly re-emerging in those years after much of it had either been suppressed by the Nazi regime or could not be kept alive during the war.

As a child I remember seeing ruins of bombed-out buildings, men without limbs begging or selling shoe laces and brushes, pictures in magazines and papers of soldiers missing in action. I remember hearing refugee/war stories on a daily basis from family members, strangers, from anybody really and, because my parents and older siblings were craving for musical culture after years of nothing, I also heard a lot of classical music at home on the radio or on first record players.

A.2 What is unique about your cultural heritage — instrumental forces, orchestration, melodies, harmony, texts, as well as geography, society, economics, and politics — as it relates to your music?

As a child and young teenager I was exposed mostly to my family’s preferred musical styles: from the Baroque and Classical, sometimes the Romantic periods. Initially in the postwar period one heard a fair amount of chamber music on the radio and gradually as the orchestras were re-established, more and more orchestral music. I also heard my mother and siblings play the piano and recorders in the tradition of Hausmusik, i.e. the classical music one could play as an amateur at home. It seems as if I absorbed these musical styles into my whole being from very early on. Later on of course I listened to the music much more consciously, studied it in high school, eventually took piano, recorder and flute lessons, and attended classical music concerts from fairly early on.

One aspect of German radio needs highlighting here, as I think it had a very strong influence on me. Postwar Germany has had a strong radio tradition, with its Hörspiel (radio drama) as one of the most developed cultural forms. As a child and teenager I listened to both radio drama and recited stories or poetry frequently. I remember most of all the ones that I heard as I got older and that had a particularly dark and sometimes surreal “tone”. Aside from the spoken voice, they contained much weighty silence and well-composed sound effects/soundscapes. Much of the postwar short story literature — of which we read quite a bit in school — had a similar tone.

B. Current Compositions

B.1 Do you consciously incorporate elements of your country of origin and/or cultural heritage into your music? If so, which elements? If not, why not?

For yearsI incorporated elements of the German culture intuitively . Only after years of composing with environmental sounds did I become aware that the experience of hearing Hörspiel regularly on the radio as a young person had a significant influence on my ways of working with sound; that such prevalent sounds in the German landscape as churchbells must have informed some of my harmonic preferences; that living in the countryside and having parents who always stressed the wonder of our natural surroundings, helped create a strong sensitivity towards environmental issues and situations; and finally, that much exposure to classical music, dance and drama, and some modern theatre and radio drama familiarised me with forms and structures in those various genres.

B.2 How is your cultural heritage integrated into the piece of music you wish to feature in your “Composer’s Portrait?”

Interestingly enough Für Dich — For You is the first piece in which I grapple intentionally with my cultural background and consciously work with the sounds and words of the German culture. It is a type of reconnecting with what I love about that culture and what I left behind when I emigrated to Canada.

How is it integrated into your music in general?

I would say that it is integrated as a type of undercurrent in my compositions — as described in B.1. — through its general “tone” and structure.

B.3 Do you feel compelled to maintain or to transform your cultural heritage in your music?

I do not feel compelled. No. But I know that since my cultural heritage is part of me, it will always accompany my compositional work and will play its role in some way. Different aspects of it may emerge or recede at certain times, depending on the stage of my life and consciousness at any given time. In other words, it is there, it will always accompany me and I will listen to it, converse with it, as part of the creative process.

C. Musical Identity

C.1 Do you think your music identifies you as being from a particular cultural heritage?

Yes, from the Canadian heritage. Anything to do with soundscape is strongly identified with Canada by people from other cultures.

C.2 Describe what you believe to be your musical identity?

A combination of both cultures. Although it is not that clear cut, one could perhaps say that in its concrete musical expression my musical identity is Canadian. And whatever I brought over from my German background seems to move as an undercurrent throughout my work.

C.3 Which features of your country of origin and cultural heritage are distinctly associated with your musical identity?

The specific cultural atmosphere of postwar Germany, of a divided country, of a country trying to remember its cultural identity before the Nazi regime, rebuilding its environmental, cultural, economic and political landscape with tremendous energy and most importantly perhaps dealing with the terrible truths of the holocaust — all that made it impossible for me to stay within the boundaries of conventional, abstract classical music forms. Folk music for my postwar generation was not an acceptable music to engage in, unless it was excavated from times before the Nazi regime and pure classical music eventually became too much of a “bourgeois” involvement for my postwar-becoming-sixties generation. We were a questioning generation, wanting to break secretive silences and uncover difficult truths. Ultimately this energy (or perhaps compulsion) was part of what drove my creative work, which only emerged after I came to Canada. The invitation (through my work with the World Soundscape Project in Vancouver — see below) to open my ears to the whole world appealed to the inquisitive, critical mind that I had brought with me, but also revealed a strong aural sensitivity towards the acoustic environment in me of which I had not been conscious before.

D. Impact and Influences

D.1 How has living in Canada shaped your composition?

Not only has Canada shaped my compositions it has made them possible. In fact, I believe that Germany would not have been a conducive environment for me to discover my creative skills. What seemed to me — as a total newcomer to Canada — like a cultural emptiness, but which I would now call a cultural openness and spaciousness, gave me the inner space and time to find a creative voice and to believe in it. This was a very precious and exciting experience and has given me a tremendous sense of home on the west coast of Canada.

How has Canadian culture affected your work?

The late 60s and early 70s made it possible to let creative impulses emerge, especially here on the west coast. Economically our generation was in a good situation, as government moneys and grants were made available for new projects and ventures in the cultural and social arenas. It was at that time that places and organisations like Vancouver Co-operative Radio, the Western Front, Video Inn, and some environmental organisations originated. Also during that time, the World Soundscape Project under the direction of Murray Schafer was started and — together with Vancouver Co-operative Radio — formed a most important base for my emerging work as a composer. It was a highly energetic, experimental and creative atmosphere here then, which gave me a great sense of relief and excitement, as it seemed to be totally devoid of cultural competitiveness, judgementalism and destructive criticism and allowed for true creative freedom and experimentation — perfect conditions for someone like me who had easily been intimidated by some of the overbearing aspects of German culture.

D.2 Do you think that your music has affected other composers in Canada, and if so, how?

Working with environmental sound in a compositional way — which is what I do and have done from the beginning, i.e. since 1976 — has acquired a name or category now and is called “soundscape composition”. As consciousness about the soundscape and about acoustic ecology issues has spread, as recording technology and sound software has become widely accessible, the use of environmental sounds in composition, in sound and radio art, in installation work and sound design in film and other visual media has also expanded. Aside from those larger social and economical trends that have influenced artists, it seems also true — if I believe the feedback I get from other composers as well as radio and sound artists, visual artists integrating sound into their work, etc. — that my ways of working with environmental sounds, my ways of listening, have influenced or inspired them in their work.

It is a sign of the times that ecological concers now inform much artistic work, including that of many composers. Just as the combination of environmental, social, cultural and musical/perceptual concern in the World Soundscape Project’s activities and research inspired my own work, so do my compositions seem to transfer this inspiration to others. It was my great fortune that I could work with the WSP at a very early time in my life and thus was given the chance to develop compositional work with environmental sound for a good 30 years now. The ways of listening that are expressed through my work (also in soundscape workshops) seems to attract particularly those interested in expanding their own listening stance towards the world and deepening their understanding of the listenign process itself.

D.3 How has your music changed you since you came to Canada?

Coming to Canada has enabled me to find my music.

E. Education

E.1 What impact would you like to have on students who experience your music through your “Composer’s Portrait?”

That it connect them to their own sense of listening and composing in a profound way. That it makes their own creative work more deeply exciting and meaningful.

January 10, 2007

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