Whisper Study

Hildegard Westerkamp

July 12, 2019 [2019 Season]

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

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. 

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

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

Support Us

We work on the land of the Kulin Nation, and pay our respects to their elders—past, present and future.

© 2024 Constellations. All rights reserved.