Like a Memory (2002)

for piano and 2-channel audio
by Hildegard Westerkamp
Commissioned by Jamie Syer and the Valhalla Summer School of Music
Premiere: August 16, 2002, Valhalla Summer School of Music, Silverton, BC, Canada
Performed by Jamie Syer, piano

Length: 11:21

This composition explores that area of aural perception in which we hear music in sounds and sounds in music, where scrap metal structures become musical instruments and the piano becomes a strange sound sculpture.

Many things came together in this composition. In 1985 I took my tape recorder and microphone and walked along Slocan Lake in the interior of British Columbia, Canada, to an abandoned old house I had discovered some days before. Among the few remains inside was a piano. Many strings had broken, pieces of wood, some rusty nails and wires were lying among the strings, and rats had nested in its sounding board. Some keys were missing and of the remaining ones, not all keys were working. I had found a "prepared piano" in the deepest Cagian sense and delighted in improvising on this "instrument" and recording the sounds that emerged. I also played and recorded snippets of classical music that I remembered from piano lessons years ago. They sounded delightfully out of tune and "off".

In 2000 I went back to the same region with photographer Florence Debeugny to collect sounds and images for a project on ghost-towns called At the Edge of Wilderness. Fallen down buildings and rusty metal structures became soundmaking devices as I moved through the abandoned industrial sites, "playing" on anything and everything and finding the most fascinating resonances. Whether the sounds came from on an old steam engine or an out-of-tune piano with broken strings, they have become the musical instruments for Like A Memory. The majority of the sounds for the piece-the natural sounds, soundmaking on the rusty structures, of our footsteps and spoken voices- were recorded on the ghost-town sites themselves. Recordings of steam trains and of old machinery come from the environmental sound archives of the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University.


A short time after I had completed At the Edge of Wilderness pianist Jamie Syer contacted me to see whether I was interested in composing a piece for piano and environmental sounds. I told him that I had never really composed for live piano, but that perhaps one could do something with my old recordings from the abandoned house with the piano and from the ghost-towns. It turned out that Jamie knew this area of B.C. very well and that he teaches every summer in the recently established Valhalla Summer School of Music in Silverton, B.C. a small community right in the middle of this area. How could we not do a piece together after discovering so many strands that were coming together around piano composition.

Some of the other excerpts of classical piano music that appear on the digital soundtrack of the piece were played by Jamie Syer and recorded by myself at his home near Calgary, Alberta, in May of 2002.

Like A Memory was commissioned by Jamie Syer and the Valhalla Summer School of Music and was composed with financial assistance from the Vancouver Foundation. It was premiered in Silverton, B.C.-in the area from where all sound materials originated-on August 16, 2002


Hear Here Productions - The Bankhead Project

Bankhead performance

Lower Bankhead, Banff National Park

Luciane Cardassi

Luciane Cardassi in performance.

Hear Here Productions presented The Bankhead Project on July 18th, 2009. There were two performances at 3 and 7 at Lower Bankhead, a ghost town south of Lake Minnewanka inside Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada just near the town of Banff. More information about the site here. The audience was led on a one-hour soundwalk by two guides to visit different happenings around the site including performances of:

  • Giancinto Scelsi’s “Hyxos” for flute and percussion,
  • a premiere performance of Emilie LeBel’s “Taste of Bitter Melon” with text by E.J. Shue, for two narrators, flute, violin, berimbau, hand drum, voice, vibraphone/percussion & piano
  • Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Like A Memory” for piano and two digital soundtracks.

Artists for this event included:

  • Erin Donovan (artistic director, producer and percussion),
  • Camille Watts (flute),
  • Luciane Cardassi (piano),
  • Katherine Duncanson (voice and performance),
  • Sonya Frebold (violin),
  • Catherine Thompson (berimbau, kora),
  • Colin Funk (poetry),
  • Sadie Freeman and Guy Pettigrew (guides)
  • Jane Newman (sculpture).
This project was supported by the Canada Council, Parks Canada and the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Luciane Cardassi in performance

Bankhead (built in 1903 and closed in 1922) had 900 residents who enjoyed water, sewage, and electricity, whereas in Lower Bankhead (the site of our performance) across the road there were around 60 Chinese mine workers who lived amongst the coal slag heaps where they were tasked with separating coal from rock. They were not welcome in the town of Bankhead but were forced to build right on the coal slag heaps with scrap lumber. Most had no English, were not used to winters in the Canadian Rockies and many died in the mines as they were given the most dangerous jobs. The site is still covered in rhubarb leftover from their gardens.

Bankhead performance site
Luciane Cardassi at the piano

Photography © 2009 Chris Siddall