artcore journal

Hildegard Westerkamp: A Pioneer in Sound Art and Perceptual Appreciation by Sophie Arkette

Events reported by the ear

Are soft or loud, not far or near,

In what is heard we only sense

­Transition and impermanence:

A bark, a laugh, a rifle-shot,

These may concern us or may not.

 W.H. Auden[i]

Danish poet, Henrik Hertz (1797–1870) wrote the play King René’s Daughter[ii] in 1845. The synopsis of this fictional piece is an account of Iolanthe, René of Anjou’s daughter, who is kept in seclusion because her father, in his capacity as protector, does not wish her to be aware of her own blindness. Spending most of her day in the garden, she comes to view the world in a way not dissimilar from Helen Keller (1880–1968), an American deaf/blind author and activist. For her, the world is richly furnished with all manner of sounds and smells; her world is not depleted by the absence of vision, for she has no understanding of this so-called loss. Her sensory omission only comes into question when she has an unexpected encounter with a prince, who perceives her inability to differentiate a red rose from a white one. For her part, she fails to make sense of his sentiment, not comprehending her loss. With the help of this prince and her attending physician, she obtains visual perception. But her experience of seeing does not happen instantaneously: in order to perceive her surroundings visually, she must learn to correlate her newly acquired visual experiences with those of the older, dominant senses of touch, sound and smell.

The trials and tribulations of sensory knowledge (when the sensory apparatus is lacking) have been attested by both Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Keller[iii] understood speech by placing her hand on the speaker’s lips, or sometime against the speaker’s throat. She acquired great sensitivity to the tangible: in the differences between the velvet of the rose and of a peach; in the many vibrations made by a violin, she sensed tone and rhythm.

Did Iolanthe, in acquiring her sense of vision, obtain further sensory experiences? Clearly she did, and one can point to her experiences of color, for instance. But she may have also, over a period of time, become desensitized to the properties of sound: to a sound’s spectral features and how those features indicate the spatial configuration of her environment. John Hull[iv], who wrote about his experiences of blindness, notes the differences in tone and quality of rain when it falls on grass, on the roof, on the pavement, and of his sensing his environment as ­­continuous and unbroken. By virtue of the rain, he is able to sense for example, a dip in the garden; and his sense of his body becomes, as it were, a sounding board for the many patterns and textures. “Nothing corresponds visually to this realization.” He observes:

Instead of having an image of my body, as being in what we call the ‘human form’, I apprehend it now as these arrangements of sensitivities, a conscious space comparable to the patterns of the falling rain. The patterns of water envelope me in myriads of spots of awareness, and my own body is presented to me in the same way…My body and the rain intermingle, and become one audio-tactile, three dimensional universe, within which and throughout the whole of which lies my awareness…If the rain were to stop, and I remain motionless here, there would be silence. My awareness of the world would again shrink to the extremities of my skin.[v]

For those of us who have inhabited the world of vision all our lives, it is difficult to imagine a world without light and without illuminated objects arranged spatially. Given the way we have come to view the world: of our visual perception dominating the other senses (so much so that even in audio engineering sounds are edited and manipulated according to the visual information displayed) it is no surprise that the other sense modalities have been pushed back into a subsidiary role.

Of late, there has been a move to make reparation in respect of the other senses, in industry, in the arts, and in environmental proposal directives. But what of this change in attitude? I cannot speak of tactual and olfactory senses, but of the auditory sense I can point to a body of work, which emerged out of the communications department in the 1970s at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The main proponents of this work were R. M Schafer, Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp. This work, which has been subsumed within the area of acoustic ecology, has done much to generate interest in the use of sound as an artistic material, and in the emergence of an artistic area, which has been termed Sonic Arts. It was formed by a group of musicians, ecologists, and artists who viewed the sonic environment not just as ambient noise, but also as a way of understanding social and geographical change. To perceive the sounds in the environment did not solely entail that one was aware of an evanescent phenomenon whose properties changed over time. Although, a person’s awareness of the internal dynamics of a sound, plays an important formative part in an appreciation of the soundscape, and it meant that a person was also aware of a host of distal events; traffic noise, barking dogs, a creaking door, and some of which were outside of visual range.

In the view of many, including Westerkamp, the industrial age and then the technological age brought about irrevocable imbalances to the sound environment. The most important change was the ability to convert soundwaves into electrical packets or radio waves, which could be transmitted around the globe almost instantaneously[vi]. Whereas a naturally occurring sound is constrained by the properties of its producer, including the force of impact of one physical object on another, an electrically produced sound has no such constraints. It can be as loud and as long as the medium permits. For Westerkamp and the others, the emergence of these artificial kinds of sounds brought about changes in human auditory perception: the amount of incoming auditory information, the types of information received by the ear, were of a magnitude that is difficult to process by the auditory system. A continuous sound heard over a length of time ceases to be heard after a while. Its presence might form part of the person’s auditory experience, but no awareness of it. Such changes in experience have since been confirmed by studies on the rates of neural spikes, when a subject is exposed to a continuous sound. In other words, the auditory system had evolved to show preference for sounds that had a certain internal structure and way of transformation; any deviations from this template made the processing of auditory information harder to complete or less effective.

Sound walk Westerkamp led in Kerkyra, Corfu, in 2006. Image by Simona Sarchi (Westerkamp had asked photographer Simona Sarchi to make photos during this walk, concentrating on her listening while making photos – with a ‘listening eye’).

From Westerkamp’s point of view, any changes made to the sound environment are presupposed by a listener’s attentiveness. A person may instigate change, but only if they are receptive to the soundscape in the first place. Although Westerkamp does not explicitly make reference to the differences between hearing and listening, through her writing on audition one gets a sense that this distinction is what underpins her work. But what is the difference between these two modes of perception? One obvious distinction is in the manner in which a person is aware: to hear, one could say, is to experience the sound world passively; one hears and one is aware of the sounding event. However, it seems wrong to suppose that the hearing is undertaken in the way that an action is undertaken. It is merely a means of recording distal events. When engaged in listening, on the other hand, it is not clear that a sound is required to facilitate perception. A person can listen in expectation for something to occur even though throughout the listening period no sound has met the ears[vii]. Another distinction, a more compelling distinction in the case of Westerkamp, is the way attention not only brings definition to a sound, but reshapes the auditory experience of that person: to bring one sound into prominence enables the listener to experience tiny modulations of pitch, amplitude and timbre. In doing so, the attention that a person assigns to a portion of their perception pushes all other sounds into the peripheral range. A change in attention will alter the auditory experiencing of that listener. Shifts in attention are what concern much of Westerkamp’s work, most notably, the sound-walk; and it is through the sound-walk that the subject comes to appreciate the relations between sounds. In S­ilent Zone (1985–86) a participatory project in the Mexican desert, the act of listening in silence to an uninhabited landscape prompts awareness of sound material; the sound of wind moving the sand or of it softly moaning against a rocky outcrop, sound that might otherwise be considered sonic debris or registered as subsidiary content rather than experienced as an object of perception. In such an environment, when many of the sounds are soft and barely audible, the participant is required to direct attention by listening, rather than hearing, in order to discern the sound environment entirely. An environment, in some cases, give sound its context, providing meaning, as is the case for navigation by way of the sound echoed back from a foghorn. The distance between a ship and a cliff-face, for instance, could be calculated by the length of time between the outgoing sound and the incoming reflections. In Westerkamp’s Harbour Symphony (1986) she drew inspiration from such uses when composing a piece for 100 foghorns[viii].

For Westerkamp, the sound-walk participant, through listening, is able to experience details sounds, the juxtaposition of one sound with another, the rate of decay between sounds in a reverberant space, or the shift of dynamic between sounds of one region and another. But the soundwalk is not just an exercise in listening, it is a planned event, and it is the job of the organizer to compose the route, to specify the way that the participants walk through an environment, in respect of walking speed, of what sounds follow from each other, of what sound effects might be experienced at a particular time, and of the relation between overlapping sound environments. The organizer might well specify that the participants are exposed to the Doppler effect of a passing train or the noon-day chimes from church bells. Either of these sounds would require participants to be positioned within earshot of these two types of sound; and the organizer needs to ensure that the group is positioned in places at specified times that take advantage of a particular auditory occurrence. It might be that a participant can only take full advantage of the sound when she is positioned in front of a wall, or under a dome. Her attention might be directed towards the faintest of sounds available at a particular time, or to the constant hum from a distant factory, or to the tones of the many car horns in a busy street.

Sound walk Westerkamp led in Kerkyra, Corfu, in 2006. Image by Simona Sarchi (Westerkamp had asked photographer Simona Sarchi to make photos during this walk, concentrating on her listening while making photos – with a ‘listening eye’).

But it is not solely the observation of the emergence and decay of particular sounds in designated places that makes up the experience of the soundwalk, it is the effect of sound intermingled with sound: of the combination, for example, of the white noise of a fountain against the soft ambience of distant traffic. Westerkamp describes these relations:

Walk toward the fountains and continue to listen to the city sounds until they disappear behind the sounds of water. If the fountains are not on, keep on listening to how the city sounds change. On your way you are passing through wooden arcades which give a particular acoustic quality to your footsteps, and to those of others. Steps on wooden walkways used to be a common sound not only in Vancouver but also in many small towns or old forts all over British Columbia.[ix]

There is, inevitably, some latitude in respect of the sounds that emerge during the soundwalk. Sometimes a predetermined environment, chosen for its quietness, turns out to be resonating with sound, as was the case when Westerkamp took a group of listeners into an underground space. She wrote:

On a soundwalk in Melbourne I had planned to lead a group from a noisy street into a relatively quiet but reverberant underground space to give the ears some relief. But the moment we descended into this space on the day of the official soundwalk, a very loud street cleaning machine entered! Initially I was shocked. But when we stopped and listened we found ourselves immersed in a reverberant broadband sound room, which shimmered with all manner of frequencies amplified and remixed into a stunningly woven timbral quilt.[x]

When Westerkamp writes of the experience of sound, she does so with the sound-producer in mind. To be attentive to a sound is not solely a question of being aware of the spectral fluctuations internal to that sound’s life. The sound is something that occurs in relation to an event of some kind; that it points to some physical happening is what gives the sound its particular auditory character. And the onus is on the participant to appreciate the sound. And yet, it is an auditory experience, one that is distinct from experiences derived from the other senses. A listener is not just experiencing the waterfall or the traffic as such, they are experiencing the audible manifestations of these two respective events, and may experience them in a way that is not possible in any other sense modality; for instance one might experience two overlapping sounds or the quality of sounds coming from behind some kind of barrier.

In speaking of listening as the enabling condition for auditory awareness, Westerkamp is identifying the act of listening, as something agentive, as an acute type of awareness that allows for attentional shifts of focus. But it is also a fall-out of the ability to listen that enables change in an acoustic environment: of an environment being redesigned based on its acoustical features. This might include the amplification of a sound-marker such as a bell by the addition of an acoustic mirror, or the use of types of wood as the predominant material in a city quarter, or the use of a particular type of tree in a city square known to produce a certain sounds.

What Westerkamp has achieved through her work is to reinstate the benefits of considering a soundscape as something akin to an art form. If there is anything that marks Westerkamp out from others who engage in sound art or acoustic ecology, it is her non-interventionist approach, of her considerations for the perceiver and her subsequent experiences. For the soundwalk is something that is experienced through the ear and, not by virtue of recording or transmitting equipment. Her pieces, if anything, are contained in the participant’s mode of listening, and in the relation between listening to and the subsequent re-evaluation of the acoustic environment.

Sophie Arkette is an artist, researcher, and consultant in sound and auditory perception. Her work spans the areas of acoustic ecology, history of sound design, audio technology. She is currently undertaking research into echolocation and visual impairment.


[i] Auden, W. H.: Epistle to a Godson, and other poems, New York, 1972, 21

[ii] Hertz. H.: King René’s Daughter: a Danish Lyrical Drama, trans. T. Martin, London, 1850

[iii] Keller, Helen: The World I Live In, London/New York/ Toronto, 1904

[iv] Hull, John: Touching The Rock: An Experience of Blindness, London, 1990

[v] Hull, John: Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, London, 1990, 100

[vi] For further discussions on electrically generated sound and the way these sounds change an environment: of the ability to replicate sounds, to extend the life, or distort a naturally occurring sound, see Murray Schafer, R.: The New Soundscape, Canada, 1969 & The Music of the Environment, An Occasional Journal devoted to Soundscape Studies, No. 1, Canada, 1973.

[vii] For a comprehensive description on listening, see Brian O’Shaughnessy: Consciousness and the World, 2000, 379-406).

[viii] Commissioned by the Canadian Pavilion for the Expo 1986 launch, Harbour Symphony is a composition that requires at least 100 boats to sound their horns during a specified time. Neither the pitch nor the amplitude of each horn was determined in advance.

[ix] Westerkamp, H.: Soundwalking, in Sound Heritage, Vol. III, No. 4, Victoria, BC, 1974; revised 2001, 2

[x] Westerkamp, H.: Soundwalking as Ecological Practice, in The West meets the East in Acoustic Ecology. Proceedings for the International Conference on Acoustic Ecology, Hirosaki University, Hirosaki, Japan; November 2-4, 2006.