Review

Katharine Norman, Array Online, 1 mars 1999

The pieces on this CD provide a powerful retrospective of Westerkamp’s work with environmental sound sources. And it is ‘work’ that we hear: these are not unadulterated soundscapes—pristine aural documents of time and place—but carefully wrought sonic forms in which the composer performs a subtle non-invasive surgery on our listening. Sometimes her intervention is more overt; as in Kits Beach Soundwalk where her speaking voice becomes the guide that leads us through a transforming world, suggesting her own sonic dreamscapes and depicting them in sounds along the way. Here we travel together through the shimmering chatter of barnacles to birds, beeps, watery tricklings and even a ghostly thread of Mozart before the low-pitched ‘monster’ of the city returns. This is perhaps the most didactic journey on the CD, but in the most forgiving and imaginative sense of that word.

Another piece, A Walk Through The City also includes speech, but this time as a poem spoken by its author, Norbert Ruebsaat. His voice, sometimes confined in short-wave radio timbres, sometimes real and reciting, sometimes whispering in the listener’s ear, is the central all-knowing presence in this tale of urban sounds. Westerkamp did not record all the original sounds herself (many are from the World Soundscape Project’s admirable collection) and it sometimes shows in some obviously ‘archival’ recording perspectives. But perhaps this kind of distancing is appropriate in a piece which veers from personal to impersonal, taking the listener on a swooping flight above the real city, where layered children’s voices, reminiscent of Gesang der Jünglinge or evocative mouth-organ strains, emerge unexpectedly from evolving traffic sounds and sliding drones and glissandi. The closing gesture, three separated descents—a tough and final punctuation—is inspired, while the use of spoken poetry in conjunction with such a rich sonic world makes for challenging and ultimately rewarding listening. This is a piece that asks, and deserves, to be heard again and again.

An earlier piece Fantasie for Horns II, dating from 1979, is for live horns (Brian G’Froerer) and tape; the tape using the sounds of other horns: cars, trains and whistles. An harmonic world characterized by slow drones and filtered timbres becomes the background for a surprisingly Mahlerian horn part.

Cricket Voice begins with looped rhythmic patterns that are almost minimalist in character, but soon the layered sounds, derived from the cricket’s call, weave a peculiarly tactile fabric. This is a composer who loves beautifully sculpted timbres, often focussing on high frequency and carefully ‘hand-tinted’ spectra, or using low and high pitched sounds in an almost metaphorical sense. Many of the sounds have the clear, crisp hyper-reality of the acousmatic world, but Westerkamp has different stories to tell.

The final piece on the CD, Beneath the Forest Floor is the most recent, dating from 1992. This forest grows from a low-pitched rhythmic drone and blooms as a primeval world in which birds cross the densely populated space suddenly and without warning. In the other pieces Westerkamp seems, to me at least, present and accompanying the listener: her words, or her musical processes, travel with us. Here, I felt comfortably lost—abandoned in an only occasionally familiar world which rose into an ecstatic sunlit reiteration of piping tones, birdsong and watery oscillations. Just when kitsch-ness was on the cards the music shifted a gear upwards and became a more abstract, transcendent encounter. Reading the liner notes I see this work is, for Westerkamp, about peace and the ‘inner forest’ in each listener. As with all the pieces here, she suggests a signposted listening path. But one gets the feeling that it’s fine to walk around in the woods awhile.

… carefully wrought sonic forms…

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