Writing by Hildegard Westerkamp

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Listening and Soundmaking: A Study of Music-As-Environment (in MA Thesis)

By Hildegard Westerkamp

Master of the Arts Thesis, Department of Communication, Simon Fraser University, 1988


The thesis argues that the existing delicate balance between listening and soundmaking in quiet environments is vulnerable to the influx of externally imposed "voices". It proposes that "music-as-environment" - that is, music designed not to be listened to (traditionally called background music or Muzak), but piped into a location to accompany other, normally commercial activities - is such a voice, and encourages "distracted" listening habits and silences our own voices. Proceeding from the soundscape and acoustic communication perspectives developed by R. Murray Schafer and Barry Truax, it argues that music-as-environment has a "schizophonic" effect on the human soundmaker/listener and thus dislocates him/her from the physical present and the self.

A personal case study at the centre of the thesis demonstrates how during my own childhood music constituted an imposed voice that prevented the development of confidence in my listening and soundmaking capacity and later influenced the way in which I experienced music-as-environment and myself as soundmaker/musician.

The thesis builds on the writings of Attali (political economy) and Adorno (critical theory), both of whom provide a perspective on music in its social context. It also builds on the work of Deleuze and Kristeva who discuss culture and creative process from philosophical, psychoanalytic and semiological perspectives. The thesis argues that a balance between listening and soundmaking (sound input and sound output) is essential to the health of the human acoustic psyche, and that the perceptive immediacy of childhood and the cultural work of artists offer strategies by which such a balance can be regained - even as contemporary urban soundscapes attempt increasingly to erode it. It is suggested that the creative process is a balancing agent against an overload of sound input, and that one's own sound output or creative expression not only lessens the authority of externally imposed voices, but also offers a new voice of vitality and energy.

The discussion focusses finally on the human body as the soundmaking/listening "instrument", and concludes that sound experienced (produced and received) as ~hvsical Process can be an effective counterbalance to attempts by commerce and technology to transform it into product or commodity.


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