Hildegard Westerkamp was born in Osnabrück, Germany in 1946 and emigrated to Canada in 1968. After completing her music studies at the University of British Columbia in the early seventies she joined the World Soundscape Project under the direction of R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Her involvement with this project not only activated deep concerns about noise and the general state of the acoustic environment in her, but it also changed her ways of thinking about music, listening and soundmaking. Vancouver Co-operative Radio – founded during the same time - provided an invaluable opportunity to learn much about broadcasting, and ultimately enabled her to produce and host her weekly program Soundwalking in 1978/79.
One could say that her career in soundscape composition and acoustic ecology emerged from these two pivotal experiences and found support in the cultural and political vibrancy of Vancouver at that time. In addition, composers such as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros have had a significant influence on her work.
While completing her Master's Thesis in the 1980s, entitled Listening and Soundmaking - A Study of Music-as-Environment, she also taught acoustic communications courses until 1990 in the School of Communication at SFU together with colleague Barry Truax. Since then she has written numerous articles and texts addressing issues of the soundscape, acoustic ecology and listening, has travelled widely, giving lectures and conducting soundscape workshops internationally.
In 1993 she was instrumental in helping found the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (www.wfae.net), an international network of affiliated organizations and individuals who share a common concern for the state of the world’s soundscapes. She was chief editor of its journal Soundscape between 2000 and 2012.
In 2003 Vancouver New Music (VNM) invited her to coordinate and lead public soundwalks as part of its yearly concert season. This in turn inspired the creation of The Vancouver Soundwalk Collective, whose members are continuing the work on a regular basis. For some years now she has mentored a variety of younger composers, sound designers, soundwalk leaders and people pursuing careers in soundscape studies and acoustic ecology.
Hildegard’s compositions have been performed and broadcast in many parts of the world. The majority of her compositional output deals with aspects of the acoustic environment: with urban, rural or wilderness soundscapes, with the voices of children, men and women, with noise or silence, music and media sounds, or with the sounds of different cultures, and so on. She has composed film soundtracks, sound documents for radio and has produced and hosted radio programs such as Soundwalking, and Musica Nova on Vancouver Co-operative Radio.
In a number of compositions she has combined her treatment of environmental sounds with the poetry of Canadian writer Norbert Ruebsaat and Sharon Thesen. She also has written her own texts for a series of performance pieces for spoken text and environmental soundtrack. In addition to her electroacoustic compositions, she has created pieces for specific "sites", such as the Harbour Symphony and école polytechnique. In pieces like The India Sound Journal she explores the deeper implications of transferring environmental sounds from another culture into the North American and European context of contemporary music, electroacoustic composition, and audio art. In 1998 she collaborated with her Indian colleagues Mona Madan, Savinder Anand, and Veena Sharma on a sound installation in New Delhi entitled Nada - an Experience in Sound, sponsored by the New Delhi Goethe Institut (Max Mueller Bhavan) and the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).
In 2000 she created together with photographer Florence Debeugny, At the Edge of Wilderness, a sound installation about ghost towns in British Columbia, commissioned by Vancouver's Western Front Society. And in her 8-channel composition Für Dich—For You, based on poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and its translation by Norbert Ruebsaat, she explores the theme of love and connectedness with the sounds and languages of her German-Canadian existence.
More recently she involved her two grandsons in the creation of her work Once Upon a Time and collaborated with composer and recorder player Terri Hron on Beads of Time Sounding and with pianist Rachel Iwaasa on Klavierklang. The latter had its world premiere at ISCM’s World Music Days in Vancouver, November 2017. Her compositional work has been discussed in various articles, but most extensively in Andra McCartney's dissertation Sounding Places: Situated Conversations through the Soundscape Work of Hildegard Westerkamp, York University, Toronto, 1999. Her compositions draw attention to the act of listening itself, to the inner, hidden spaces of the environments we inhabit and to details both familiar and foreign in the acoustic environment.
Some of Westerkamp’s compositional work appears in US filmmaker Gus van Sant’s Elephant and Last Days. See Randolph Jordan's article: "The Work of Hildegard Westerkamp in the Films of Gus Van Sant". CDs of both soundtracks have been released in France by mk2 music. In 2016 she contributed to the sound design and composition in the film Koneline, Our Land Beautiful by Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild.
Finally you may enjoy listening to the 2017 CBC IDEAS program with host Paul Kennedy here.
Photo: Jens Buss