silence

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

ayesha barmania - quiet contemplations

Quiet Contemplations was produced and recorded by Ayesha Barmania about the relativity of quiet moments.


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Ayesha says:

I have been really inspired by Ad Reinhardt's 'Abstract Painting' from 1963 which depicts nine very subtle shades of black. At first glance, the viewer sees a flat black canvas. Over time, the viewer notices the subtle tone differences - one is more red, another blue, one slightly green. The viewer wonders: which is the true black?

That concept has resonated with me when I contemplate the subtleties in silence. I don't think we can ever experience true silence - we can only ever get close to it. Even if I were in an anechoic chamber I'd still hear the sound of my heartbeat and my body moving. And it poses an even greater impossibility to broadcast or podcast silence. Yet we still know quiet when we hear it, in the same way that we know a colour is black when we see it. The relativity of quiet in relation to noise intrigued me and I wanted to explore the relativity of quiet in relation to other quiet moments.

Over this past summer, I backpacked around Canada, traveling by bus, train, plane and foot from East Coast to West. Along the way I spent a lot of time being quiet and listening to the sounds around me. This piece is a scrapbook of those quiet moments, and through the juxtaposition the listener can hear the subtleties of quiet.

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Inspiring Ayesha in the world of sound:

The drone and noise art community in Peterborough continues to thrill and inspire me. Artists like B.P. Hughes challenge the idea of attractive art and attractive performance with harsh and aggressive noise. His work and the artists he curates has helped me think about noise and silence.

And outside of it:

Haruki Murakami's writing inspires a lot of my ambient sound work. I love the feeling in his books of the world washing over the main characters, in some ways I have similar experiences when I go out and record the natural sounds around me.

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Constellations Says by Amita Kirpalani:

Ayesha’s piece operates in a space we could call the acoustic sublime.  The sublime feels so outmoded right now that I wanted to go back a bit and play with a wiki-Latin breakdown: sub =  underneath, limen = limit or threshold. This definition moves us away from the sublime’s more bombastic connotations of  ‘loftiness’, ‘grandness’, ‘greatness’ etc. That Ayesha’s piece moves from and around stillness, and rises up against silence, reveals the work’s complex interior logic.

Sorry, one more step backwards. In Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke titles a chapter, “Why Things Not Dangerous Sometimes Produce A Passion Like Terror”. In the text, Burke positions the sublime in relation to the edges or boundaries of what is felt. And this sublime contravenes expectation; the example he quotes is moving downstairs, mis-stepping and taking a step that isn’t actually there. “Quiet Contemplations” is a journey of steps like these, a construction of tonal shifts and textures which, for this listener rouses ecological concern. A portrait of the artist at one with and distinct from nature. So more broadly, because of this particular socio-political moment, will references to nature in art always hold climate change connotations? And will this always make secondary a Romantic metaphysical reading of the work?

Pushing against this is Ayesha’s stated reference to Ad Reinhardt’s iconic black painting, Abstract Painting (1963) as an instructive communication of purity and silence with a not-always-apparent geometric structure operating below the surface. This painting was a break with a fashionable formalism of the day, and reaches for atemporality and ahistoricism through a monochromatic (or in fact colourless) endless expanse. In “Quiet Contemplations” Ayesha uses nature as the expanse and the editing of the sound wave as an underlying geometric structure.  Footsteps at once disrupt and offer a guide or edge for this notion of ‘nature’. “Quiet Contemplations” could be heard as an impractical attempt to capture ‘room tone’ in the world. Ayesha signposts to place towards the end of the piece, but ultimately situates their gathering-of-nothing-and-everything simply outside or beyond. “Quiet Contemplations” is a singular and momentary meditation on nature as it drops in and out of an impossible universalism.

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Ayesha Barmania is an independent journalist, sound designer and audio producer based in Peterborough, Ontario. Their work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and in many independent podcasts, as well as published in Canadian magazines and newspapers. They are the host of the Sounds Like Life audio art podcast and the Peterborough Currents current affairs podcast. Find them on Twitter @AyeshaBarmania.

Ayesha is working on a collection of spatial audio recordings that will be released as an album on Bandcamp some time in 2019. Watch their website and Twitter for those. "