radio art

hildegard westerkamp - whisper study

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Whisper Study was produced by Hildegard Westerkamp in 1975 and 1979. We’re honoured to feature this seminal sound artwork here on Constellations.

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Hildegard says:

Whisper Study started out as an exercise in exploring basic tape techniques in the studio, using the whispered voice as sound material. It’s based on the sentence "When there is no sound, hearing is most alert", a quote from the Indian mystic Kirphal Singh in Naam or Word. The content of that sentence appealed to me. I thought a lot about it and then decided I was going to whisper that sentence. I ended up with this very quiet recording of my whispered voice. In doing this, I was challenging myself, because whispered sounds in an analog studio create the issue of hiss and added noise. I learned that I had to make really clear and high volume recordings, then turn them down and therefore reduce the hiss. I learned everything about clarity through my choice of this whispered sound.

Afterward, I experimented with the whispered voice with techniques like delay and feedback, so I would get these overlays of my voice. This would result in certain kinds of textures that had a lot of high-frequency sounds in them. The more I experimented, the more surprised I was with what I was getting. The sound that I processed and developed became my instruments.

The piece starts with a very quiet 's' sound, then there's silence, and then eventually my voice comes up with that sentence. Things get denser and denser with overlays of the whispered sound. When I slowed this dense texture down, I got very liquid, almost watery sounds. This was stunning to me. It was like being beside a creek where you hear all these different sounds and voices. It drew me into this very magical world of transformation.

The piece starts very quietly but it ends with a poem by my then husband, and ends quite quietly with footsteps in the snow and icicle sounds. That was my very first composition.

Except for the distant horns, all sounds were derived from my own voice, whispering the above sentence and the word "silence". Eventually, Whisper Study became a piece about silence, aural perception, and acoustic imagination. 

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The poem When There is No Sound by Norbert Ruebsaat was written in direct response to the first version of Whisper Study and was later voiced by Hildegard and included in the 1979 version of the piece.

When There is no Sound

When there is no sound hearing is most alert.
There are places in the imagination
where the sound folds into itself
like freezing.

Where the soft crackle of ions
moves into the air on snow feet
made of fine wire.

Suddenly you are there
from behind a boulder
where you have been watching the moss begin

And it’s as if someone were filling a strangely-shaped cup
somewhere close to your ear

and you have the memory of vast distances
with hawks on the horizon
where the world became a kind of ache
a species of limb
that is part of the larger universe

And suddenly nothing is so real as these hands
wanting always to touch things
and these eyes

which disappear immediately into the rivers
like a breed of nocturnal salamander

At night you can hear the bones of the forest
making terrible love

you can hear the wind
the godfather
beating his ice wings

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Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer, radio artist and acoustic ecologist. She was born in Germany in 1946 and emigrated to Canada in 1968. After completing her music studies in the early seventies, Hildegard joined the World Soundscape Project under the direction of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver.


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 sound-making. Her ears were drawn to the acoustic environment as another cultural context or place for intense listening.

She is a founding member and is currently active on the board of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE). as well as the Canadian Association for Sound Ecology (CASE). Beyond this and many more accomplishments, Hildegard has composed stunning sound works that you should listen to including Beneath the Forest Floor and Cricket Voice.

These pieces and many more of her other works are available through her website, hildegardwesterkamp.ca

sam leeds - that spiraling place

sam leeds

That Spiraling Place was produced by Sam Leeds and features the voice of Annie Lindsey. It was edited by Michelle Macklem.

It features folk singer Otto Bardarson’s unaccompanied vocals, recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Carmel, California in 1939. Special thanks to the Free Music Archive and the Library of Congress.


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Sam writes:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of escape and bearing witness. And I keep coming back to that saying, “wherever you go, there you are.” This piece began because I wanted to document my trip to Iceland with one of my close friends. We booked it on whim after a breakup. We spent 10 days driving the country during a wintery March in 2018. It was an escape and a chance to exist outside the routines of home.

In working with the tape, though, the piece became more and more about witnessing my friend working through her mental health and all the ways that depression and anxiety don’t really look how you think they might.
The piece mimics the ebbs and flows of mental health and its nonlinear nature.

Sound design is very new to me. This is the first non-narrated piece I’ve produced. So, this piece is also an exploration of world-building through sound. The archival tape and music throughout the piece are both other musicians’ interpretations of Iceland. I feel very fortunate to have access to past and present pieces of art made in response to traveling through the country.

I am so thankful that Michelle and Jess created this platform and for their patience and guidance throughout the many iterations and stages of this piece. I also want to share my gratitude to my friend Annie, whose voice is woven throughout this piece. She drove us around Iceland for most of the ten days and was and is so open to sharing her journey with her mental health.

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Inspiring Sam in the world of sound:

Jeff Emtman and Bethany Denton’s Here Be Monsters, Phoebe Wang, Kaitlin Prest, Nicole Kelly, Phoebe Unter, Avery Trufelman, Chelsea Beck.

I also get nostalgic about sound. I’m moving soon and I’m already missing the whine of the bus passing the stop outside my window.

And beyond:

Andrea Long Chu, Ijeoma Oluo, Natalie Wynn, Jenna Wortham, Sudan Archives, Big Thief.

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Sam Leeds is an independent audio producer and storyteller. She is a former UnionDocs and Transom traveling workshop student, and a future Salt student. You can find her on Twitter @samjleeds.


aidan mcmahon - i/a recording

aidan mcmahon

I/a recording was written and produced by Aidan McMahon.


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Aidan writes:

This piece is about the tension between experience and the impulse to record it. The two, I believe, are incompatible. What happens when the experience you want to record is another person? How does this interrupt the relationship, or improve it?

When I first started this piece, I used a text to speech voice because it was convenient. The voice, named Justine, was eerily passable. After a time, I began to appreciate the voice itself. It was a pure recording. The phrases it recited were entirely new, never having been spoken before.

90% of the sounds in this piece come from my home recordings. Mixed with Justine's cold, chop and paste voice, the tension between these two worlds reflect the odd divisiveness of inscribing living moments into cold media.

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Inspiring Aidan in the world of sound and beyond:

I listened to a lot of Nicholas Jaar, the Chilean/ American electronic music composer, while making this piece. I tried to mimic with my narrative what he does in his music. He blends texture to make very visual, fluid and sensual scenes. Mary Wigman's "Witch Dance," Dreamcrusher, Yorgos Lanthimos, J.M Coetzee, Alice Munro, Artaud's "Theatre and the Plague," "Frog and Toad," the spring, "Queer Voices" by Freya Jarman-Invens, mouth sounds.

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Aidan McMahon is an audio producer and editor currently based in Halifax, NS. His docs and radio drama have featured on CKDU, CJLO, and Radiophrenia. Aidan is currently working on a doc about the Collin's Bay Prison bee-keeping program. Find more of Aidan’s work here.