Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer, radio artist, and what she calls a “sound ecologist”. Sound ecology refers to her study of soundscapes. Soundscapes are sounds of an environment. She gets annoyed of critics who feel that her work devalues urban communities. She believes these critics misunderstand her work. A soundscape isn’t only available in “natural settings”, they can include city noises.
She has been listening to the Vancouver soundscape for since the 70’s and has studied how significantly the soundscape has changed over the years. Her work is more significant now than ever with a bigger push for good design focusing on overall experiences. Sound design is a growing field that focuses on something as small as lessening the sound of a fan in a laptop to lowering the sound of trains passing through the subway. Making oneself aware of all the sounds around us makes us more conscious of all the noise we tend to try and ignore on a regular basis.
This is the basis for soundwalks. According to Westerkamp, soundwalks are an exercise to make those involved listen to and become aware of the noises of the environment around them. She believes that by ignoring the environment’s sounds, we train our ears to block them out and aren’t using them to our full potential. These walks are to re-condition ourselves to be aware of all sounds around us.
Living in New York, I like the idea of soundwalks. I know, for a fact, that I have trained myself to block out a lot of environmental sounds. For me as well as most New Yorkers, I think it’s just a means of survival. Living in a congested city with all the sounds of cars driving by, people outside late at night, police sirens, car alarms, fire trucks and ambulances, it would be hard to sleep or think if I wasn’t able to block out that noise. Still, it would be an interesting exercise to see what noises I’ve been conditioned to ignore my whole life. It may even spark an interest for me to design a product that is less noisy in the future (i.e. dental equipment. There is no need for a root canal to sound like a jackhammer busting through pavement).
Westerkamp believes that audio recordings of moments in time can have the same effect on us as video, photo, or written memories. Once we become dependent on the audio recording we rely less on our memory and more on the physical memory, forgetting everything else surrounding it. I found this interesting because similar attitudes were held when written language grew in popularity. Many felt that audio storytelling would suffer because one didn’t have to memorize stories anymore. Now, this is saying to record an auditory experience can take away from a person’s memory of the point in time prior to or after the recording. On the other hand they can enhance our memory of moments in time by triggering a sensory (auditory) memory of that moment.