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By Hildegard Westerkamp
the Proceedings of The Global Composition
2018, Conference on
Sound, Ecology, and Media Culture
Media Campus Dieburg, Hochschule Darmstadt, Germany, October 4-7, 2018
of you who were present then, on August 13, 1993, will never forget when, a
short moment after the organization had officially been sanctioned, there was a
knocking sound on the window of the hall where we had gathered. One of the
frequent visitors to the grounds of the Banff Centre, an elk, was standing
outside. His antlers had done the knocking! We were already in a celebratory
mood, happy that we had brought together a community of like-minded sound
professionals by forming the WFAE. The timing of this unusual sonic event added
a touch of magic to the occasion and unleashed a wave of heart-warmed laughter.
Let’s celebrate this anniversary in a way that allows us to notice how our
listening and voicing can build bridges and deepen the connections between the
many diverse disciplines, approaches and interests among us.
It is the afternoon of August 28, 2018 on Cortes Island, a small paradise, a day’s journey and three ferry rides away from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I am leaning against a big log that floated here probably many years ago after it came loose from a log boom, transporting hundreds of logged trees to saw mills along the coast. I hear a few crickets among other such logs and rocks behind me, seagulls and oyster catchers in front of me and occasionally even a loon calling from way out on the water. A group of women have gathered here for the workshop The Story from Hear, women who are interested in storytelling, listening and sound. Quite a few of them came with years of professional experience, working in various media contexts, where they learnt the tools of the trade. But here they are eager to push through the learnt professional boundaries to tell stories in creative ways, without the restrictions set by official media formats.
I am hearing a helicopter pulsing in and out of the quiet among the surrounding islands, wondering whether this sound is related to the many forest fires in our province. After a few clearer days, I notice that smoke is moving in again. A distant boat motor mingles with the throb and then disappears. Now I hear the actual motor of the helicopter, as it comes closer, but nothing is straight forward about this sound. Motor and throb are processed in varying ways by the water and land formations, bouncing and reflecting here and there. Every detail is audible, allowing me to descend with my ears, my whole being, into this sound mix, that unfolds in front of me, mapping the sounds onto this landscape. Six Canada geese just passed right in front of me, flying at eye level through my ocean view frame, not even a metre above the sand, disrupting my helicopter sound map with their calls in flight.
world needs to slow down--- is my thought at this moment. There is a sense of
refreshment in such moments of listening, as if taking a deep breath. For once
my time and space perception is in synch with the time and space that the
sounds occupy. My mind is not racing ahead to comment and interpret, to plan or
to meet a deadline.
Twenty years before the founding of the WFAE in the summer of 1973, my colleague Barry Truax and I had just been hired to work with the World Soundscape Project (WSP), which was then in full swing with our colleagues Howard Broomfield, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse, under the direction of R. Murray Schafer. They were in the middle of producing and releasing The Vancouver Soundscape, a document consisting of 2 LPs and an extensive booklet. A 4-page list of research projects had been created and each one of us put our names to those that interested us the most. Each of these topics was defined and outlined in further detail, a type of guideline that showed the vast potential for further study of the sonic environment. For example, to name just a few, there were research suggestions such as: the creation of a Glossary of Sound in Literature, collecting evocative quotations concerning sound from all over the world’s literature; an Archive of Lost and Disappearing Sounds; an investigation of Community Soundmarks; a design project for the construction of an Acoustic Park; an investigation of music in restaurants entitled A Listener’s Guide to Good Eating; a study of The Sound Environment of Schools; Soundscape Notations, experimenting with notating soundscapes graphically; a study of the Semantics of Sound; or a series of Sound Association or Sound Preference test. Most of these were ongoing projects for study, results of which ended up in Schafer’s seminal book The Tuning of the World. Many of them continue to be relevant topics for study and could be picked up by interested scholars of today.
The Internet and social media would have served us well then, especially for projects involving international participants and other cultures - such as A World Survey of Community Noise Bylaws; an investigation of Onomatopoeia in Different Cultures; or an international Car Horn Count, and more. We used to gather such information by postal mail. Even fax did not exist, let alone email. Just recently two posts on the Acoustic Ecology list, highlighted to me once again how easy it can be to gather similar such information nowadays. One was researching warning signals such as pedestrian traffic light sounds designed for the visually impaired. He posted a request for short recordings of these sounds, a photo and information about the location. “I’m interested in surveying possible cultural pre-comprehensions, cultural biases, underlying the acts of both listening and designing sounds.” The other one was studying back-up truck alarms in the city of Genoa, Italy, but was also interested in sources and information from other countries, such as the US and Canada. “I am looking for laws, requirements, regulations, enforcement, and exceptions; alternatives such as white noise technology; studies/publications on the environmental impact on human and non-human animals. Has this strand of noise pollution been specifically researched, yet?”
The Internet has enabled all sorts of new forms of expressions and sound activities that could not have existed in the ‘70s. I’ll just mention one in particular here, mostly because it has engendered various contradictory responses in me: the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Videos showing many different approaches to ASMR can be found on YouTube and are supposed to relax listeners/viewers, reduce stress and improve sleep. This response – a subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin" – is triggered mostly by various high frequency auditory stimuli. Sounds like crinkling plastic or candy wrapper, fingers brushing through long hair, a soft brush stroking the microphone itself that records all this, the quiet rattling of beads, soft strokes on skin or along the spikes of a comb are presented in a whispering voice and usually by a smiling young woman. “The phrase brain orgasm has also been used, and ASMR videos have been described as whisper porn, although these terms are misleading. Despite the intimate nature of ASMR videos, the sensation itself is distinctly non-sexual and is pleasurable in the same way as a blissful meditative state might be.”
as this seems, it is perhaps not surprising that millions of visitors
frequent these sites, as if there is a social need for such listening
sensations. It also brings to mind Alfred Tomatis’ claim that listening to high
frequencies stimulates our brain. In my own soundwalks - it occurs to me - I also
and inadvertently have performed ASMR when I have picked up materials such as
dry leaves, seed pods, rocks and sticks during a walk, and made quiet small
sounds with them close to each participant’s ears. Quiet environments inspire
such actions, but also years of recording, experiencing similar listening sensations
through headphones, when leading the microphone close-up to a sound, such as a
water trickle in the forest, plucking the spikes of a cactus in the desert, or playing
on icicles in winter-white silence. There is indeed something delicious,
intimate and stimulating in hearing such close up sounds.
The tide is moving in quietly and calmly in these inter island waters that are very still today. No big waves, no wind. I am beginning to hear delicious little gurgles as the water creeps up closer, finding its way through rocks and pebbles. The smoke is getting thicker, I cannot see the coastal mountains anymore. The more distant islands have disappeared in the fast but silently encroaching smoke. This is distressing. The one day of rain has not stopped the fires sufficiently.
Our time here in the context of The Story from Hear puts a profound and different emphasis on the world of hectic and density from which we all came. We are working hard here during our five days of intense listening, recording, and sound production, developing a sense of this place through sounds, voices and stories. This place is quiet, but alive with sound. At times however, it can be so quiet that the microphone-ears are hungry for sounds. Rocks, wood or any material become potential soundmaking instruments. The results are clear recordings, with individual discreet sounds voicing their place in this environment. We do not need a sound proof studio to get clear recordings. Our ears and microphones are not bombarded by constant sound input, not occupied with continuous work stress, even though we are working very hard. We can safely open up to this place. In turn our perception, our physical and psychic being opens up to a world we can trust, not to be attacked by loud noises, hostilities, deadlines. From such a feeling of safety we learn to listen differently.
This situation is an extraordinary luxury and the question becomes, how can we build something like this into our daily lives. Taking the time to listen goes against today’s 24/7 status quo of hectic and stress, of racing towards riches and success, of never having time and always being importantly busy. In this larger context soundwalks become a conscious practice in learning to change our pace in a society dangerously speeding out of control. It means that we conduct soundwalks in all types of environments - including those that are filled with a 24/7 atmospheres - in order to understand what the characteristics of soundscapes are in a stressful work environment, in a hectic lifestyle, or how certain soundscapes contribute to increased stress and hectic. In those types of soundwalks in particular, it is crucial that we plan them with a sense of safety in mind, with opportunities for participants to search out places of sonic repose, or create sonic breathing space, whatever that may be for any given situation.
I am suggesting, that our listening be an ongoing practice, so that we build up understanding of and resilience towards all kinds of sound environments – a listening practice so present and attentive that it asserts change inside us over time, and as a result eventually in the soundscape, in our communication with others, in society at large. It is a state of ongoing attention. The intent really is to set a framework that allows soundwalk participants to move deeply into their experience of listening, no matter where the walk takes place. By extension it begs the question, how we might develop soundscapes, social environments, living spaces, places of learning or work, for safe and open listening, with all living beings in mind. Starting in our own lives is a good beginning, establishing a more grounded footing from where we can branch out.
I had just started to work for the WSP when I was asked to go to Ambleside Park in West Vancouver, sit on the beach and count airplanes for one hour on three different days. My task was to count seaplanes in particular, plus any other aircraft, and mark them down on a prepared time graph, on which I was to draw my subjective impressions of the planes’ loudness levels.
Figure 1: The diagram shows the
amount of time the sky over Stanley Park is filled with aircraft noise, from
the moment each aircraft appears on the acoustic horizon until it disappears.
In 1973 this amounted to 27 minutes per hour.
Ambleside Park is located across from Stanley Park in Vancouver and near Lion’s Gate Bridge. The seaplanes that take off from Vancouver’s harbour, fly over the bridge, and those that descend for landing in the harbour, fly over Stanley Park, all of them at very low altitude in their ascent or descent.
The story has it that these seaplanes were the culprit: they had disturbed Schafer while composing, when he lived in West Vancouver near Ambleside Park in the late 60s. Eventually that experience triggered this small study with interesting results. “In 1969 we conducted a social survey on seaplane noise among 32 residents on Sentinel Hill, next to Ambleside Park, where we made our counts. We repeated this again in 1973 among 30 residents in the same area. The most startling fact in this survey is the discrepancy between the number of planes residents imagined they heard per day and the number that were actually present: 1969 – compare 8 with 65; 1973 – compare 16 with 106.”
This summer by chance while mentoring two young women, we discovered that the three dates on which these counts had been done, fell on the exact same weekdays as 45 years ago: Monday June 18, Monday July 2, (a holiday on the Canada Day long weekend), and Wednesday July 11! This was enough impetus to repeat the count, do it at the exact same times of day and replicate the findings on similarly structured graphs.
Figure 2: The three airplane counts
done this summer (2018), executed by Elizabeth Ellis, who worked with me as a
student in acoustic ecology, with emphasis on soundwalk training and other
forms of listening.
When comparing this summer’s counts to those of 1973, we found the following results:
Generally speaking one can observe that more minutes per hour were occupied by aircraft sounds in 2018, in comparison to 45 years ago. The busiest hour occurred on July 11, when there were only 9 minutes without any airplane sounds. More significantly, these pauses were filled by drones from passing boats, traffic from Lion’s Gate Bridge and nearby building construction. Elizabeth’s notes elaborate on that situation:
Between the aircrafts, boats, nearby construction, the traffic behind me on Marine Drive and on the Lions Gate Bridge, there was a constant loud hum. At times I thought I might have heard a plane but couldn’t see it, and it was difficult to discern its sounds against the other drones – likewise, I could see some distant planes but could not hear them distinctly. So there were likely more planes in the airspace than what I had tracked on paper.
She also observed that the passing boats masked the bridge traffic, which in turn masked the approaching seaplanes. They only became audible when they reached the same height as the bridge and appeared “as if out of nowhere”, as she noted, from behind the traffic hum. The other aircrafts in this study were mostly helicopters, one of them circling over downtown for at least 6 minutes. This is a marked difference from the 1973 study, where the other aircrafts were mostly jet planes (and comparatively fewer in number). Some of the ‘other aircraft’ noted on July 2, 1973, most likely were private small aircraft, that is, recreational activity on a sunny Canada Day long weekend. I don’t recall helicopters from those counts, most likely because the helicopter pad located downtown by the harbour had not been built yet.
Although the time grids of the other two days this summer show a few more minutes without aircraft sound (15 ½ and 16 ½ minutes), the general sense is, that these sounds were as much part of the overall and constant drone as the road and boat traffic, as well as the nearby construction. Not so in 1973. In fact, I remember that I could trace the seaplane sounds from beginning to end, that is, they were not masked significantly by other transportation noises. It may be precisely this that made them stand out so much from the general ambience and as a result the planes would have been perceived as a real nuisance - not just by Schafer but as I recall, also by people working in offices near the harbour’s waterfront. Were we to conduct a similar social survey now with residents in the area as was done in 1973, my conjecture is that the seaplane sounds might be noticed even less than 45 years ago, precisely because they seem to blend more smoothly into today’s denser mix of transportation sounds. It could also be that seaplane motors have become quieter since then and therefore no longer stand out as much. Nowadays it may indeed be the helicopter sounds that would be noticed the most.
This study was executed entirely through listening and could be understood as an ear witness account of airplane behaviour in this part of Vancouver. Like a soundwalk it revealed the character of this soundscape. But unlike a soundwalk where participants are usually encouraged to open up to all possible sounds, the listener in this study was asked to focus on one type of sound only. The result was that a very specific aspect of the soundscape was highlighted while awareness of the sound environment as a whole was maintained.
To engage seriously in the field of acoustic
ecology requires, as it does for all ecologists, to know, what Pauline Oliveros
calls the two “attention archetypes. These two modes are ....focal attention
and...global, or diffuse attention. These attention archetypes are
complementary processes. Both modes are necessary for survival and for the
success of our activities.” Applied to acoustic ecology it means to apply our
focused attention to specific acoustic concerns while staying connected to all knowledge about the acoustic
environment. It is like listening
itself: lending an attentive, focal ear to detail while at the same time
hearing, being aware of the soundscape as a whole.
No boat motors at this moment. One cricket keeps sounding and the gently lapping water of the incoming tide sounds closer now, like an intimate whisper near my ear. It is extraordinarily quiet. But there is something unsettling about it. I hear no birds. It is as if the smoke has silenced them. Suddenly the cricket sounds desolate. The air around us is ever more thickened by the smoke that has crept in gradually and quietly. It is a grey and static stillness, enlivened only by the lazily lapping wavelets and an occasional breeze around my ears. Take a moment and compare this soundscape to your own. Yes, do open up to it and listen to it in all its detail, as if it was totally new to you. How does it affect you? Does it sound like a safe environment? Do aspects of it unsettle you?
Acoustic Ecology is still a relatively new field of study and is continually in the process of defining itself. But one thing is certain: that its concern about the relationship between soundscape and listener and how the nature of this relationship makes out the character of any given soundscape, puts it squarely into the centre of ecological thinking. Listening to the soundscape, in the context of this work, is at least as important for deepening our understanding of the soundscape as is research and study. In fact, it is perceived as the crucial and meaningful link between all fields of study in sound and the need for action towards soundscape improvements. In other words, listening is believed to be the very focus that makes all study in sound environmentally and ecologically meaningful and effective. Thus, a combination of rigorous aural awareness of our environment and in-depth studies of all aspects of sound and the soundscape is a way in which the acoustic ecologist can attempt to tackle the sound issues in today’s world. 
Field recordist and musician Peter Cusack tackles an urban soundscape ingeniously and tells us about it in his beautiful small book Berlin Sonic Places, A Brief Guide:
City residents get to know particular sonic places very well. Indeed, those at home or on regular travel routes become so familiar that they virtually disappear from our awareness. This does not mean that they are unimportant. On the contrary, their very familiarity means that they are essential to personal city knowledge, key to our sense of place and vital to our navigation through urban geography. Berlin Sonic Places: a Brief Guide is an attempt to draw attention again. Not only to the number and variety of sonic places in the city, but to their intricacy, interest and continuing significance. They are the small beauties of everyday sound and, sadly, too often ignored.
Ever so often a journalist is hit by the reality that noise is an ecological issue, can dangerously affect our health and interferes not just in human communication but also in that of the animal world. At that point we typically get an article in the newspaper with titles like Sonic Doom: how noise pollution can turn deadly, one that was published recently in the Guardian Weekly. Alarm bells ring for a while, but nothing changes. There is little or no follow-up, let alone real action towards reducing the noise problem. I have observed this pattern ever since the 1970s. But at least the journalist’s ears have been touched enough to move him into the action of writing.
Such singular articles usually start with a personal account of the journalist’s experiences with noise in their lives or even while trying to write the article – just like I sprinkled this text with my impressions of the soundscape in which I am doing the writing. It is a moment of listening, almost like in a soundwalk, that grounds the writer in his or her sonic reality and enables a type of sonic writing, a tone that hopes to draw readers into listening to their own soundscapes and be touched by the information in the article. Someone will always be touched.
Without knowing what enters our ears and without understanding the environmental, social, cultural and personal implications of this input, there can be no study of acoustic ecology. Daily practice of listening develops in each one of us a conscious physical, emotional, and mental relationship to the environment. And to understand this relationship is, in itself, an essential tool for the study of the soundscape and provides important motivation for engaging with today’s acoustic ecology issues—no matter whether the context is our personal or our professional life. In addition, listening creates the much-needed continuity in an otherwise fragmented field of study or area of environmental concern.
Max Dixon in London, speaking from the
perspective of town planning and urban design, emphasizes this for today’s
The soundscape approach recognises the complexity of human responses. Its focus is on the meaning of sounds. Evaluation is largely through perceptual effects. It recognises the limits of acoustic measurement. It adopts a holistic approach. Perception is governed by the relationship between an individual and specific environment, as currently experienced, as influenced by memory, or by expectations or meaning.
Although none of this is new to those of us who have worked in the soundscape field since the 1970s, his rewording into a language appropriate for today, for younger ears, is invaluable. What is new since then, is the fact that these words are coming from someone whose professional focus is in urban planning and design. He also reminds us, that
Guided listening walks, in which we bring the powers of ‘the audience’ to bear, can be valuable engagement. Practitioners also need to develop new ways of observing people’s actual behavior, rather than just asking them what they think. …Public engagement should not mean a lowest common denominator or what is already ‘popular’. We need to develop new modes of co-creation. We need to respect local autonomy and a wide range of human needs differing across time and space. We need to encourage creative specialists such as sound artists to offer new possibilities with integrity. …Developing such innovation will require a range of skills, from acousticians to planners, architects and other designers. But we also need visionary impulses to inspire new thinking. In short, we need a new “Sonic Land Art”.
Recently we have been warned by the US publication of a ‘heat map’ which charts road and aviation noise, in which parts of the country the din from traffic and airplane noise is the most unrelenting. “It also reveals where sound is an environmental justice issue. Some of the loudest urban neighborhoods are also the poorest.” And an earlier article from 2012 suggests:
Maybe it’s time to start looking at townhouses and bus shelters with the same acoustic care engineers have long given to concert halls and schools. In doing so, it’s possible we could make the city sound not just quieter – but, in a very real way, more pleasant.
Imagine if all sound-related disciplines added soundscape listening, analysis and topics of acoustic ecology to their course curriculum. Imagine if, for example, future nurses, doctors, and medical staff were trained to conduct soundwalks through hospital environments followed by critical sound analyses and connect the results of such study to questions of convalescence and healing. Imagine if architecture students were requested to analyse acoustic environments of existing buildings with the same intensity as music students are asked to analyse existing musical compositions; or if students of urban planning were asked to analyse acoustic environments of existing parks or residential areas; if sound design and soundscape analysis were as high a priority in film schools as visual design and script writing; if environmental studies departments made courses on sound ecology a high priority; if business courses emphasized silence as a marketing tool for all machinery; if police education would teach the complexities of law enforcement in noise issues; if clothes designer courses would teach about the sound of fabric; if journalism courses would create ear cleaning courses focusing on the sound of language, voice, sound and music in media; if school teachers and principals were trained to create school soundscapes conducive to learning?
of this type of education, I am sure, already exists in many parts of the
world, probably in small pockets, where an individual or group are seriously
concerned with the quality of sound environments. It may exist formally as a
course in an educational institution; or less obviously as a subtle influence
on listeners in public spaces through conscious design; or informally in daily
life where an intensely listening person influences those that cross his or her
I am grateful for being around indigenous
sensibilities from the three young women in the workshop, who believe in
uncovering, recovering, their culture, stories, myths, languages, histories.
They are here to explore the aural dimensions of their own indigenous culture,
finding ways that connect to their aural roots and retelling their stories and
existences through the sound medium of radio and podcasting. Aware of the
damage that has been dealt them, their families and ancestors, they are putting
their energies into rebuilding, re-growing their cultural roots and their
confidence. And they are doing this courageously from the few remains that have
survived the destruction, having – really - to reinvent, because so much
knowledge has been lost, working with whatever tools are available to
them. I sense how much their
creations are driven by the love to their children and elders, by their
connection to the land and their deep respect of the natural world. Meanwhile
they are teaching us – the non-indigenous – something through their
grounded and quiet ways of listening – something that is almost too
ephemeral to grasp, let alone articulate. Will those of us who are not
indigenous, take the time to listen to indigenous voices? Will indigenous
people allow for our questions and inevitable mistakes that are bound to occur
along the way of reconciliation? Will we listen with them through their
silences – silences that often seem rather long to us, but in actual fact
are active pauses in time, places of a listening-to-the-heart, in search of
words that will truly voice the essences of their cultures?
Remember, we are in the inevitable tow of ecological gravity, not economic haste. Ecosystems spiral slowly forward in time-—evolving—and if they are to survive, economies will have to eventually synchronize with the ecologic tempo.
And I might add, …with the indigenous tempo that has traditionally been in tune with the ecologic one. Some have observed that, by setting up a situation where listening is the central focus for learning, information gathering, mutual understanding and reconciliation, a whole new dynamic emerges: respect for everything and everybody that is heard and an equalization of differences and hierarchies. In other words, it is not so much the pedagogical approach or an educational method that deepens the understanding of ecological, social, and cultural relationships, but the action of listening itself.
 The WFAE was founded at the end of The First International Conference on Acoustic Ecology, The Tuning of the World, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta Canada, August 8-14, 1993.
Quoted from: Hildegard Westerkamp, The Disruptive Nature of Listening, Keynote Address ISEA2015, Vancouver, B.C. Canada, August 18, 2015. http://www.hildegardwesterkamp...;title=the-disruptive-nature-of-l
 The Vancouver Soundscape booklet, World Soundscape Project, Document No. 5, Simon Fraser University, 1973, p. 49
 Ibid. p. 49
 Hildegard Westerkamp, Editorial, Soundscape – The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol 1, No. 1, Spring 2000. P. 4
 Peter Cusack, Berlin Sonic Places, a Brief Guide, DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, 2017. P 8.
 Richard Godwin, Sonic Doom: how noise pollution can turn deadly, Guardian Weekly, July 13-19, 2018, p. 34
 Hildegard Westerkamp, Editorial, Soundscape – The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol 1, No 1, Spring 2000. p. 3
 Dixon, Max. “Towards a new Sonic Land Art”, in Berlin Sonic Places, a Brief Guide by Peter Cusack, DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, 2017. P 9.
 ibid. pp. 8/9
 ibid. p. 11
Diana Budds, Urban Poverty Has A Sound—And It’s Loud, May 30, 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/90107856/urban-poverty-has-a-sound-and-its-loud
Emily Badger, The Science of Quieter Cities, May 26, 2012 https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2012/03/science-quieter-cities/1577/
 These last two paragraphs are quoted from: Hildegard Westerkamp, Editorial, Soundscape – The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol 2, No. 2, December 2001. p. 3.
 Tom Jay, From an address to the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators, in Port Townsend Washington, August 2, 2000.