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Interview with Steve Heimbecker

Montreal, November 30 and December 1, 2004

The following two part interview was originally commissioned for Steve Heimbecker’s Songs of Place book and 2-DVD 5.1 box set (2005). It is re-printed in eContact! 9.2 with the generous permission of the interviewer, Vincent Bonin, and the co-publishers OBORO and Qube Assemblage, Montréal.

Copies of the Songs of Place box set, with articles by Anna Friz, Barry Truax, F. Scott Taylor, Christof Migone and Steve Heimbecker can be ordered from DIFFUSION i MéDIA and ABC Art Books Canada. Stereo audio excerpts of Heimbecker’s Songs of Place compositions can be found on CEC’s and on Musicworks #94 (CD).

Part I — November 30, 2004

Is there a connection between Songs of Place and the soundscapes created by R. Murray Schafer, for example?

Steve Heimbecker
Heimbecker quadraphonic concert at The New Gallery, Calgary, Alberta, 1997.
I was fortunate enough to be in an exhibition that was associated with the first international acoustic ecology conference entitled The Tuning of the World, off R. Murray Schafer’s important book of 1977. (1) I was already working with multi-channel sound systems, in natural environments. I think of acoustic ecology as a way of being critical about the shape and sound (related to) the architecture of an environment. It is a way of having tools to be critical. I prefer those tools to musical tools, because musical tools don’t really envelop or encompass the tonality or the spontaneity of acoustic environments: real time, sort of random. Over years of working, I am not even sure about the randomness of sonic events in the environment. There is definitively rhythm and repetition. So I learned to listen in a different way. Therefore, when I listen and produce, I am thinking of those architectures in a much different kind of pattern recognition than what would be associated with music. It is a much longer kind of envelope or periodic envelope of repetitions. And these things, I think, we (acoustic ecologists and I) would all have in common. The approach and manifestation of our explorations I think can be quite different.

Please describe briefly the series of concepts underlying the alternating audio and video editing in Songs of Place.
As you know, I have been fascinated by this idea of the squaring of the circle, and the squaring of the circle is an idea of proportions. My first relation to it was when reading texts about alchemy (2) but it’s also an architectural representation of proportions. What really struck me when starting to work with eight-channel sound design is that the speaker placements made essentially two squares placed on top of each other at forty-five degree angles to each other. The points of those two squares created a circle. Those eight points, in the sense of the circle, can be divided up like a pie to find a centre, which is the sweet spot of the surround sound system. That sweet spot is something I try to identify in the cityscape when I record for the Songs of Place series. I look for a sweet spot, the centre space, which is the most obvious centre point of the architecture of the city. The city that is developed over decades or centuries, by the people who have lived there, so it is an organic process of growing as far as I can tell, even though it is systematic and measured. My idea is to find that sweet spot and go outward with the idea of the squaring of the circle, which also represents the four cardinal directions and the secondary directions. So there is a lot of layering of information related to the system of proportions, which is very nice for me. I really feel that within that context, with the usage of that kind of language, we can really stretch the boundaries of what that representation might be and still have a common solid ground to stand on in the work. The eight recordings that I make are all surround sound recordings. They each include the four cardinal directions and when they are edited together, they are edited with a process of very short edits. The end result of that is at times a little bit overwhelming, especially when you are not familiar with it. That’s my own experience with it until I started learning how to listen to it.

When I began the Songs of Place series, the first project (Halifax) was actually an audio-only portrait. So it’s Songs of Place: Ile de Montreal, that is the first time I brought together visuals and audio (in this series). (3) The video is typically shot at the location of the sound recording and it is intended to be shot at the same time as the audio recording. In this series of 4, I do not take the video camera and look at the centre of the city or that sweet spot, I look externally with the video camera, outward, from the sweet spot. What ever happens within the frames of the video is what happens in the audio space. The videos are a visual reference to the occurrences of the sound space as they are “swooshing” and being edited in this very systematic but sort of abstracted way. To me they do help to give the people experiencing the piece added information to ground themselves in the process of understanding the piece. I have tried to make the video non-linear in the sense that there is so much video information at any one time, that it is impossible to watch all of it at once. The only way that they can be observed is that the viewers makes their own choices of edits by their sense of observation, so that audio cues may inform them to look at an image or maybe images make them understand an audio cue. They are designed specifically to empower the viewer or the listener. For me, the delineation between video and audio is too difficult sometimes.

The viewer, as he or she begins watching one of the Songs of Place, tries to establish a link between the audio and visual sequences, between the sound and its source. And, after a while, this surveillance-like approach slips towards a more meditative mood… In this fragment of time, video and audio end up being different. The sequence of images calls for judgement and comparison, whereas the sounds lead to an immersive, enveloping experience. Since the sounds here are never divorced from their sources, the electroacoustic notion of the sound object (the composer breaking down the sounds to the point of granulation) is also put to the test. (4)
A friend of mine, very early, in Calgary, said to me “the nature of amplification is distortion.” I don’t find myself particularly fascinated by the process of amplifying to distort. I am more interested in synthesizing from the opposite way around. These ideas for these grand, large-scale sound gathering projects, which are the Songs of Place process, are about synthesizing, and distilling something new from a large pot. It’s like bringing a soup down to a good base. So this is my interest, and in that, I also to try to keep the sense of the space, which is the emptiness. But the process of observation by the listener or viewer is not about surveillance in the external way, or in the typical way we associate surveillance, because surveillance is typically looking outward from our centre point. And because I am already doing that, the viewer has to look inward, because the reflection is back, not outward. And in that sense, the surveillance is of the viewer. The surveillance is the viewer becoming self aware of his own edit decisions and choices when listening and recognizing the different occurrences of the piece. And I think it is the most powerful part of the meditations that are set up by theses pieces. At some point, the listeners becomes aware that they are listening. And that’s an interesting moment for me.

On this account philosopher Henri Bergson made a distinction between measured, metered time (mathematical time), and duration, a temporal flow understood only through consciousness. (5)
It’s one of the areas of interest that I have had. It’s the idea of event time, that it is separate from clock time. I am actually disillusioned by the idea of standard time, which was invented by a Canadian. (6) I am a proponent of event time. Through my studies of Einstein’s relativity theory, and so on and so forth, I started looking at sound and the frequency of sound, as being a measurement of an event (because sound is a combination of time and space). This is also a postulation related to the macrocosm and the microcosm of listening, and actually to the vibrational universe, and the idea that everything is vibrating, from sound and light frequency down and to atoms and so on. There is a location in the relativity of that measurement, that vibrational measurement. If we want to identify ourselves outside of the clock, we can do it through sound. Because what is beautiful about sound in that discussion, is that the actual physical length of the sound waves are very much human scale). (7)

In a 1993 piece called The Acoustic Line as the Crow Listens, you built an audio environment by capturing simultaneously eight sound sources, creating for the listener (or visitor) a sort of reproduction of the sound environment, impossible to grasp on the site where the sounds were captured. I think this work used a very unusual process at the time. I would say it is one of the founding examples of a sound environment that restores the third dimension. (8) You later coined this method “Acoustic Mapping Process.” Stemming from this process, Songs of Place allows henceforth the visitor to transfer the experience of sound in a familiar, domestic space. It always has to do with a translation of recorded events into a sort of container, a medium, but the gallery is not the only site of reception here…
Pitch change is a really interesting thing in the idea of using (sound) frequencies to measure distance or space. Because if you pitch change, what you are doing is either changing the scale of the environment in which the sound exists or you are changing the scale of the listener. (9) By slowing down the pitch, you expand the waveform, and by expanding the waveform, you represent more space (shrink the listener). In Acoustic Line, the space was shrunken: it’s a variation on pitch change. If space and time are equal, or manifested simultaneously then it is just a different take on pitch changing, but what it does is change the scale of the listener. And the second point of that particular piece was a fascination upon the realization of changing the scale of the listener. By changing the scale of the listener to being a scale that could actually traverse 64 feet, which was the scale of the model, faster than 5.5 seconds, and the 5.5 seconds are important because it is the speed of sound over a mile, is that the scale of the listener would be such that they could conceptually travel faster than the speed of sound, because the acoustic mile had been shrunken so greatly. But it’s really a pitch change, a pitch change effect. I remember that particular piece in the sense too as a visual artist and coming in to an exhibition space as being terribly intimidated by my own process, in the fact that I hung speakers, hand made custom speakers, on the ceiling. There was nothing else in this huge space. And so the architecture of that gallery space, and the architecture of my creation were as much implied as created. And I found that fascinating in the piece as well.

It seems that in this piece the sound produces a more direct experience of space, introducing referential data in a phenomenological way.
Yes sure, and again that piece was very much about the architecture of space, so it’s an architectural space, it’s a sculptural space and it’s an immersive space. The speakers are designed as a corridor, the speakers are very much beam like. They are exactly eight feet from the floor, and eight feet apart to create sixty-four feet, and they are eight feet across. The corridor is eight by eight by eight times eight (or eight by eight by sixty-four). This proportion has continued in my work and will continue I am sure. To take the next step on that in the creative element of it, and go back to the idea of the expanded universe being shrunken into a smaller universe are really issues of resolution. If you take, no matter how the object is recorded in the first step and reduce that image, its resolution becomes denser and denser. This is a strategy that I used from the beginning: increasing the density of the resolution by looking large and replaying small.

In another context you talked about the illusion of repetition in sound occurrences. (10) There is a similar phenomenon with the image: multiplied in one space, each occurrence is distinct and thus adds layers of meaning.

Well, it’s like an echo, and I actually believe not only in the illusion of repetition. When looking at our environment, we often have the impression of seeing the same day over and over again, but it’s never the same day. And that goes back to the idea of the observer changing the observed, but all of us are doing that. So there is an illusion of repetition. Also the idea of echo, which is another element like pitch change that I use because echo is a representation of space, reverberation and echo are representations of a representation space. Echoing a video image is no different than echoing a sound to me. And I do believe in the sense of relativity and in the sense of making the large small and recalibrating ourselves. Echo does not necessarily have to be related to the past, echo can also be projected (forward in time).

Part II — December 1, 2004

I’d like to discuss the notion of non-linearity in Songs of Place. Although the editing of sound material proceeds from fragmentation, there are sounds that exceptionally establish a sort of narrative continuity…
When you record something, it becomes linear because it is a recording. It plays out over time and space, but generally what I have always enjoyed about audio was the possibility of audio to be omnidirectional, or that it is omnidirectional. We experience sound all around us and continuously, so in a sense, when we choose to remember or comprehend sound occurrences that triggers some spark of interest in us, we are making edit decisions within ourselves from that omnidirectionnal architecture. That’s fundamental. From that realization, as an artist, the question is: How do you articulate an omnipresent space, or how to you articulate a construction such as that? And how do you have some control over it? So the idea of it is really to cut it up into sections, which is no different than the first perspective devices and the first grid type drawing machines. (11) Peter Greenaway’s film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, has an excellent demonstration of that process. When we start talking about the resolution of that omnipresent space and try to articulate that space, you have to divide it into sections that become pieces of a puzzle that can be reassembled, or expanded or compressed or any number of things. This is a non-linear process to me because even though the event happened in a linear fashion perhaps; the actual architecture of the cut-up is a non-linear representation of a linear activity.

Dürer - Underweysung der Messung
One of Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations for his perspective machines, “Underweysung der Messung” [Instructions on Measuring], 1538. In this case a grid net is used by an artist to draw a nude figure with foreshortening. This technique is an early influence for Heimbecker’s development of his Acoustic Mapping Process.

Do you posit the principle of non-linearity at the same level as randomness?
I am not convinced random ever has existed. I can say that within the issue of resolution, resolution and comprehension. In reality, if we where able to actually comprehend all of the factors that motivate and influence all of the other factors simultaneously, is there then a pattern or randomness? I am not convinced that it is random. I think that there is a causality occurring that is programmable, which is programmed, and predictable. But it’s at a resolution of such magnitude, that there is really virtually no way to actually comprehend it as anything other than randomness. But there are certainly evidences in modern physics that have been described through the centuries as magic or as a cult kinds of occurrences, and instances of synchronicity that C.G. Jung talked about where answers arrive in separate continents at the same time. What is that about? I’m not talking about Butterfly Effect. I think in the division of the omnidirectional world, trying to break it into sections and analyze it, led me to concepts based on the idea of multiple simple machines. That complexity really comes from the multiplicity of simplicity. I don’t think it’s magical, I don’t think it’s strange. I think it’s an issue of resolution, resolution and reception. Resolution really is also about having the proper lens to look at a particular situation. Of course, if you are looking at things in very, very tight details or close details, you are likely excluding a lot of other information. In our time constraints, in our time space manifestations, or existence, I think reality is really about focal points, and theses focal points are non-linear, but they are not necessarily isolated from each other. I like a good story; there is nothing wrong with it. I am not against that model of representation, but I am very much interested in theses pockets of focus, in these pockets of perceptions, and how we arrive at theses, which is very much non-linear. But that’s not to say unconnected or random.

You seem open to the reading that the viewer can give of your work. I think that you work in a quite systematic way, like thirty years ago; an artist would talk about systems to repress metaphors. He would say: I am using systems because I don’t want to create images. Your work is quite complex, it is quite multi-layered, and you are also open to that kind of metaphorical reading, even a narrative reading.
To be honest as an artist, the most important path I have is my own process. If you follow the path of the logic I present here, the idea of the vibrational universe, the idea of measuring time / space with vibration, of event time through vibrations, and tying that to relativity theory where the mass of the object has a position in the relativity of it’s space so that the individual is very well defined, and has to be absolutely an individual. The make-up of which is not just a mass but how a mass travels through space. This affects everything they understand, every focal point that they ever had, because it’s slightly different from everyone else up to the milligram. It can’t help but be different. It’s the only way possible. In languages, in systems and in architecture, we set up a kind of consensual reality. I think reality is consensual. We are all consumers and projectors of reality simultaneously. So it’s flexible, there is no position that can possibly be hierarchical. So if people want to understand my work through metaphor… I think that is the way we understand our lives anyway. We are making analogies; we are making metaphorical assertions all the way through our lives as to how to relate to every piece of our lives. It’s very rare (as an adult) that we actually say: this is a new situation. I never experienced this before. That is a point of departure that I think is interesting: to be able to produce an artwork that, for a moment, can take a person to a place they never been. But it’s certainly going to create new metaphors, new analogies. That’s ok with me. We make it together, this thing we call reality.

Do you have an ideal viewer?
An ideal viewer?

Or an ideal listener… someone with the appropriate knowledge to understand the work according to the program you put into it?
That’s me!

It’s you?

For Songs of Place, you choose a site that you consider to be the centre of a city. The four or eight points where sound is recorded, which are also sites, stem from this initial choice. At the end, the sites selected through your system are often far from offering significant pictures of the city (at times, they are almost interchangeable from one city to another). It means therefore that the notion of authorship (one person making aesthetic decisions) is being challenged by the system you’re using.
This is a very contemporary question. For me, one of the great things of some of the electroacoustic composers or modern composers has been the issue of scoring, and so the artwork is the score. And what results from the score is another unique artwork of a particular moment in time and space. But it’s with the recognition that as closely as you can follow a score, even the most specific score, it can never be duplicated. And this is something that is a new awakening. The repeatability of something is essentially impossible. So then you go back to the issue of process. When I make up my rules, it’s basically a score.

So there is always some sort of choosing involved in this systematic method of producing occurrences. For example, the grid placement of video images is not based only on a graphic or æsthetic decision.
But it’s within the score’s framework. If my site says that I have to be standing in a tunnel, I am not going to get interesting sound, so I modify it. This is, as far as I’m concerned, my right as an individual (artist)… I do make choices to modify the rules as they go. I enjoy the process of making my rules, to be restrictive as possible and open as possible at the same time. I prefer to think of art as life, so I try to build pathways that are extensions of my own life as an artist. However, I don’t think it is possible to make art without intent. If you did not intend to make art from the beginning, you cannot call it art at the end, that’s my opinion. Yes any manifestation can be beautiful but it’s been a long time since beauty had anything to do with making art.

Is there a relationship between your definition of the art-life continuum and a certain conception of silence present in your work?
I think silence like sound is simply contextual. Issues of signal to noise for instance are like a weed in a garden. You could have the most beautiful orchid in a middle of a lawn, so is it a weed? It’s contextual; silence and sound are mechanisms to help us find some definitions, some resolution in the articulation of our reality. I think they are interchangeable. When I was studying visual arts, the first thing I was fascinated with was the idea of contour lines and combined with that, the idea of negative space. When you draw the lines of let’s say, this desk, there are two ways to do it. You can draw that line based off the desk itself: the object is the desk. Or you can draw it from the position of space related to the object. I always thought we have a tendency to feel that the object takes more value than the space. But they really are equal, they have equal place. So one strategy that I developed years ago was to emphasize the negative space of an object and not the object itself. You end up with a similar representation of the object, it’s just looking at it from the opposite side. And that is silence to me, that’s part of my definition of silence.

So it’s not about sound presence and absence?
No, not necessarily. It’s about binaries creating a middle point. The binaries create a middle point.

You talked about your involvement in æsthetic decisions… I’d like to return to the notion of authorship. John Cage used chance to trigger events that later became his source material. Supporters of conceptual art have pushed further this logic and consider that a system or machine will produce utterances regardless of the artist’s choices. In formulating rules that become your pieces’ structure, (12) do you position yourself in relation with these experiences? Or do you see yourself as an artist expressing himself, the artwork being an expression of your decisions.

An expression?
An expression, for sure. Because it would never be the same again the next time I try to do it.

But there is no mythology in your work.
No, that’s not true.

The systems I develop are completely about my own mythology and history. (13)


The phenomenon of ubiquity, made possible by technology, is frequently discussed nowadays.
In my work, there is the idea of the omni and non-linear that perhaps could be defined as a network or a matrix. We could go back to the issue of the focal point and the focusing on multiple points simultaneously. I think we have the capacity to do that. But what people consider multitasking is for me just overworking ourselves and not going anywhere. When we are consciously mindful, and have for a moment, a flash or a dejà vu, I think we exist at two places at once; we have a perception of multiple focal points. I also think we can train ourselves to exists in multiple focal points. Installation view of SoundPool: The Manufacturing of Silence, Illingworth Kerr Gallery, 1996. Eight bi-directional seven-foot square servo electric speakers create a low amplitude 3Hz vibration.

The reason that we don’t get to those multiple focal points is that we are too busy objectifying and building up our reality so that there is no escape from it. If you want to exist in multiplicity, you have to simplify the objects, take them down to the base core, so that a tool is a tool. Or you must get faster... faster processing, faster frequency — which brings us back to pitch change, relative time/space, and resolution.

A number of audio artists come from a musical or visual arts background, and get into the network of galleries and artist-run centres for lack of venues for this type of project.
The alternative art galleries responded to it (audio art), and saw it as a new expression of creativity. And having my background as a visual artist, it did make sense. So I could make a case reasonably well in the applications to follow that train of thought. But I’ve also got into performance art festivals by saying that the multi-channel sound work that I was presenting, was performative because the audience, while they listened, while they moved around the space, could make up the composition as they moved between speakers and this movement was performative. I’ve also been in many situations (with art galleries) where I have been totally rejected. The problem with a bar is that if you play quite subtle sounds, it doesn’t work. I’ve done concerts outside too, but even being outside is noisy, that’s a different kind of interaction, a different kind of relationship: the signal to noise ratio is very different. Art galleries seem to be reasonably quiet, they are probably the cleanest spaces for sound artists to present their works, without the filters of a lot of noise… unwanted noise. A lot of sound artists do enjoy that noise and want to incorporate it. And I’ve done that with pieces, having open microphones and reintroduce into the mix, the speaker output combined with the live sound space, as the piece is being built / performed. (14) So using the sound space of the sound to augment the sound of the sound space… And it gets in this big feedback loop and fold back situation which is a live measuring device of the space (and the audience) that I am performing in. (15) I think the issue is to modify or to use the right conceptual framework to best produce and present your work. And certainly, it’s been the visual arts that supported my career as an audio artist until such a time when audio art was sanctioned at arts grants level (in Canada in 1989), and later it came under the new media umbrella.

Your work seems self-generative. It stems from a conceptual matrix, yet its ways of manifesting and articulating concepts are always singular.
I can go back to an early lesson I had from a teacher at art school: he told me that artists only have a handful of things to express, a handful of questions in their lives. That is the path we have to follow, to express that handful of questions. This at first can seem rather limiting, but in the exploration.... the manifestation of that exploration is unlimited. And that’s the path I have always taken.


  1. R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited), 1977.
  2. C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1967.
  3. In 1988 Heimbecker used video in a performance entitled “Have you ever thought to ask?” in conjunction with Camera Obscura, a series broadcast on community TV in Calgary.
  4. To define what he meant by sound object, Pierre Schaeffer analysed the concrete aspect of recorded sounds (pitch, tone) and thus updated the strictly perceptual dimension of listening. See Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des objets musicaux : essais interdisciplines (Paris: Éditions du Seuil), 1966.
  5. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind (New York: Greenwood Press), 1968.
  6. In 1879, Canadian railroad engineer Standford Fleming invented the norm of universal time by dividing the globe into 24 time zones. The norm was internationally adopted in 1884.
  7. The wavelength of a 1kHz test tone (for example: the tone on a TV when there is no programming) is approximately 0.344 metres long.
  8. The Acoustic Line as the Crow Listens was presented in conjunction with the conference The Tuning of the World, in Banff, Alberta, in 1993. To give an account of an audio environment by recording it, poses problems since several sounds occur at the same time within the site, giving it its complexity. Instead of presenting the sounds sequentially (as an inventory), this piece adds the impression of a third dimension to the linear sampling. One can walk within the transmitted sound mass while experimenting virtually, yet physically, the sound distribution.
  9. The pitch of a sound depends on its vibratory frequency and is measured according to a relative position. It thus rests on the listener’s perception, which is above all subjective.
  10. “No sound can be repeated exactly. Not even your own name. Every time it is pronounced it will be different. And a sound heard once is not the same as a sound heard twice, nor is a sound heard before the same as sound heard after.” R. Murray Schafer, “I’ve never seen a sound,” Le son dans l’art contemporain canadien / Sound in Contemporary Canadian Art (Nicole Gingras ed. Montreal: Éditions Artextes), 2004, p. 67.
  11. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) illustrated plans for the first drawing machines in “Underweysung der Messung mid dem Zyrkel und Rychtscheyd” (1525).
  12. At first seemingly random, the editing process used by Steve Heimbecker is different from editing as a form of writing, since it largely depends upon the characteristics of the environment recorded with the Acoustic Mapping Process. The Dynamic Voltage Mapping works with sound filters that interrupt certain sounds, enabling others to manifest themselves. Since this process balances the sound/noise ratio, the listener is able to distinguish recurrent units within a complex sound mass. Heimbecker thus manages to create a sort of audio cut-out of a place, hence the title Songs of Place, which presents the environment as the mediator of its own representation (the place producing in fact its own song).
  13. Within this history, since the 1980s, Heimbecker has had rare moments of extreme personal disturbance in concerts that are too loud and mixed too harshly. When it happens Heimbecker reports that, “I have to get out of the room and get those vibrations out of me, because they are physically destabilizing for me. I can get upset and sometimes sick, which has been intensified by an inner ear infection condition I caught in the early 1990s. On these rare occasions, my equilibrium is effected, making my world spin for several minutes.”
  14. Andres Bosshard, a Swiss composer who attended The Tuning of the World conference in Banff in 1993 with Heimbecker, introduced to Heimbecker the term “sound sailing” from his own research.
  15. Steve Heimbecker’s compositions Tic Talk (1993) and Drip Doodle (1995) use a similar process. Both are included in the artist’s collection of works entitled Steve Heimbecker: anthology: The Enormouslessness of Cloud Machines (Québec City: Ohm éditions), 1998.


All photos of the artist © Steve Heimbecker and used with permission.

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