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The Microphone Ear. Field Recording the Soundscape

Hildegard Westerkamp
mars 2022

DOI : https://dx.doi.org/10.56698/filigrane.1150



Dans cet article, la compositrice Hildegard Westerkamp explore les liens qu'elle a pu développer, au cours de ses longues années d’expérimentation, entre les promenades sonores, le design sonore, la composition, la radio, l'écologie acoustique et les manières dont nous écoutons l'environnement. D’abord, elle retrace comment la possibilité de prendre part à un projet de radio communautaire lui a permis d'explorer la radio à la fois comme un moyen artistique d'expression sonore et comme un forum pour partager ses préoccupations en matière d'écologie acoustique. Puis, elle discute du rôle du microphone en tant qu'outil technique qui a un impact sur notre écoute, ainsi que des stratégies d'enregistrement qu'elle a déployées dès le début et qui ont continué à être utiles tout au long de sa carrière. Dans ce contexte, elle propose les concepts de « microphone mobile », de « microphone en recherche » et de « microphone stationnaire » et souligne l'inclusion de sa propre voix dans sa pratique de l'enregistrement sur le terrain – initialement compris comme un lien entre l'auditeur de la radio et le paysage sonore, mais offrant finalement une transparence sur la présence de l’artiste preneur.se de son dans tout field recording, toute pièce d'art radiophonique ou toute soundscape composition. Même si tout cela a commencé il y a une quarantaine d’années déjà, les idées semblent être tout aussi pertinentes aujourd'hui, et leur application encore plus urgente dans notre monde menacé par les crises écologiques multiples et le changement climatique.


In this article, composer Hildegard Westerkamp explores links that she has developed in her longtime practice between sound walks, sound design, composition, radio, acoustic ecology and the ways in which we listen to the environment. She traces how early access to a community radio station allowed her to explore radio as both an artistic medium for sound expression and a forum for sharing concerns about acoustic ecology. Importantly she discusses the role of the microphone as a technical tool that impacts our listening, as well as the recording strategies that she has deployed from the start and that have continued to be useful throughout her entire career. In this context, she proposes the concepts of the ‘moving microphone’, the ‘searching microphone’ and the ‘stationary microphone’, and highlights the inclusion of her own voice as part of her field recording process – initially understood as a link between radio listener and soundscape, but ultimately offering transparency about the recordist’s presence in any field recording, radio art piece, or soundscape composition. Even though this started forty years ago, the ideas seem to be just as relevant today, and their application even more urgent in our world threatened by ecological crises and climate change.


Texte intégral   

1. Introduction

1I was 9 or 10 years old when I first experienced how a microphone listens. My oldest brother had bought a mono reel-to-reel tape recorder. When we played cards or board games, I delighted in secretly recording my parents’ and siblings’ voices. Listening back to the recording with the whole family was the best part, full of laughter and surprise, even consternation at hearing the rather strange and different sounds of our own voices. I also used to love playing around with the radio dial, switching quickly between stations, listening for two entirely different sound sources to line up with each other, often creating an absurd and funny collage effect. Most fascinating was the ever-shifting white noise between stations, with faint voices or music seeping through the acoustic ether, sounding like a type of radio ‘fog’, as if from outer space. It was not until years later, after I had immigrated to Canada, that I reconnected with tape recording, microphones and radio, and remembered those early playful experiments, which had been my first hands-on encounters with audio media.

2 Two organizations, which were founded in the early to mid-seventies in Vancouver, had a profound influence on my entire career, and changed my ways of listening and my understanding of sound. More specifically they inspired interest in field recording and shaped my approach to recording the soundscape. The first was the World Soundscape Project (WSP), a research group at Simon Fraser University, directed by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, which opened my ears to the sounds of the environment. The second, the newly licensed community radio station Vancouver Co-operative Radio, provided the opportunity to organize and broadcast these sounds and thus to ‘speak back’ to the community with the sounds of its own making. Both made me think about sound design, composition, radio, acoustic ecology and how we hear and listen. Even though all this happened over forty years ago, the ideas seem just as relevant today, and their application even more urgent in our world threatened by ecological crises and climate change.

3 My very first exposure to field recording occurred when I was a researcher with the WSP. Schafer was writing his seminal book The Tuning of the World (later retitled The Soundscape)1, at the same time as the group was also producing a large-scale project, The Vancouver Soundscape2, published in 1973 in the form of two LPs and a book. One of my many and varied jobs was to listen to, catalogue and make notes about the environmental recordings made by my colleagues in and around Vancouver, and later across Canada and in various parts of Europe. In other words, my first introduction to field recording was through listening. Making my own field recordings came some years later.

4 Not only did I listen to hundreds of hours of such recordings then, and literally knew every minute of the WSP’s environmental sound collection, but we also listened to certain recordings as a group. Our follow-up discussions had the effect of informing my listening experience even further. It was a constant learning process, each recording a new ear opening. Vancouver revealed itself through its soundscapes and connected me – a relatively new immigrant – to this city in entirely new ways. I realised then that I had always been a listener, but had not been conscious of it. I felt at home in this ear-minded atmosphere of the research group, where everyone was always noticing sounds, pointing out acoustic phenomena, commenting on the field recordings and their quality, and studying sound in all its multi-disciplinary iterations. In such a working context with inspiring colleagues, who also related to the world through sound and aural perception, it was inevitable that my own listening awareness was animated and deepened.

5 In the process of such intense listening, I learnt of the choices that the sound recordists made: how and where to place the microphones, and indeed which areas of the city and surrounds they were drawn to, concerned about, or interested in. The recordings were made with a state of the art stereo reel-to-reel Nagra recorder. This meant that they could never be longer than 15 minutes, at which point the reel would run out and would have to be replaced with a new one. This of course required strategic decision-making about when to record and when not. It involved some risk taking and a real sense of uncertainty, as one could never be sure what one might capture or miss during such a short time span – an experience that is quite unfamiliar to today’s field recordist, whose technology allows for many uninterrupted hours of sound recording.

6 Our group listening also included the more technical aspects of sound quality. The high-end recording equipment as well as the WSP’s state-of-the-art, analogue Sonic Research Studio afforded us an electro-acoustic environment of sonic clarity. We were able to create documents that presented the soundscape, any soundscape, in its full frequency spectrum, with spacious clarity and without extraneous noise (such as tape hiss). As we were deeply passionate about educating people about the sonic environment in all its manifestations, whether it was pristine quietness, a community ambience or extreme loudness, it was felt that excellent sound quality was essential in order to capture people’s listening attention and to enrich their aural experience.

7 My second and most significant exposure to field recording occurred during my work with Vancouver Co-operative Radio. My family’s radio had been a magical listening place as I grew up. In particular I was drawn to the Hörspiel (radio drama), which was a highly developed radio format in Germany then. It could transport me into totally new worlds and different atmospheres all by merit of sound alone. I was reminded of this, when I joined Vancouver Co-operative Radio, which was licensed in 1975 as a non-commercial, co-operatively-owned, listener-supported, community radio station. Its mandate, which differed significantly from most other radio stations at the time, involved the community in the making of radio. The idea was that its sound would embody the voice of the community and would make audible what was regularly ignored or silenced in the commercial media and on the CBC. Anyone could become a radio maker, who in turn would become an increasingly active listener. Resonance thus created between the community and its radio station had the potential for a participating listenership – that is, participating not simply as more active listeners to the broadcasts but also to the community’s life. This was perfect territory for both our generation’s leftist political activism and for experimentation with radio as an artistic medium.

2. The Soundscape on Radio3

8Thus Vancouver Co-operative Radio could make room for a program like my own, Soundwalking. In earlier soundscape or noise workshops I had taken groups of people on soundwalks where we did nothing but listen to the acoustic environment. From that experience the idea emerged to transfer this practice of soundscape listening to the radio medium. This was a rather unusual proposition at the time, as it challenged traditional broadcasting as well as listening habits. Without knowing it then, I was attempting to create radio with a phenomenological approach to broadcasting, similar to what Schafer suggested later in his article Radical Radio.

What I am urging is a phenomenological approach to broadcasting to replace the humanistic. …Let the phenomena of the world speak for themselves, in their own voice, in their own time4.

9Soundwalking gave me the opportunity to explore radio both as an artistically expressive medium and as a forum for issues of environment and acoustic ecology. I was attempting to make radio a place of environmental listening by broadcasting the soundscapes that listeners experienced in their daily lives. With that I hoped to create a state of resonance within listeners, so that, when they encountered sounds in the actual environment, the Soundwalking broadcast would be recalled and would alert listeners more actively to the soundscape in which they lived. Resonance thus created would evoke new meanings for the listener and would have the potential, so I hoped, of creating participating listeners.

10 But at the time it was still relatively unusual to hear environmental sounds or soundscapes on the radio. Soundwalking stuck out like a sore thumb, as it disrupted even Co-op Radio’s more progressive radio rhythms both in format and content. No matter how sensitive a cross-fade was made from the prior folk music show to my program, the pace of radio was bound to slow down drastically. To broadcast ocean waves for example, creates a different pace for listening than a three-minute piece of folk music; or, the sounds of a shopping mall a few days before Christmas followed by footsteps in a quiet snowy landscape, have a different effect on the listener than Christmas music. Indeed environmental sounds constituted an entirely new sound world on radio in those years.

11 I called it ‘Radio that listens5’ and proposed to imagine radio that, instead of numbing us to the sounds, strengthens our imagination and creativity; instead of manipulating us into faster work and more purchasing, it inspires us to invent; instead of fatiguing us, it refreshes our acoustic sensitivity; instead of moving us to ignore thoughts and surroundings, it stimulates listening; instead of broadcasting the same things over and over again, it does not repeat; instead of silencing us, it encourages us to sing, to speak, to make radio ourselves; instead of merely broadcasting at us, it invites us to listen through it to the world.

12 Soundwalking aimed to do exactly that. It was a first attempt at a program that listened into the soundscapes of Greater Vancouver. It did not report about them. For one hour each Sunday afternoon during 1978/79 it brought soundscapes into people’s homes, such as the quiet winter landscape of the nearby mountains, where my footsteps, my voice and the snow falling from trees were the loudest sounds. Or I went to the harbour, a shopping mall, a forest, a factory, or a park, to a Henry Moore metal sculpture called Knife Edge, drawing out its inner resonances by playing on it, to a residential area located under the flight path, to the beach on a foggy day, or simply through neighbourhood streets.

13 Even though I had found out much about field recording when listening to the WSP’s tape collection, the real learning happened while recording for the show, and precisely so because I was doing it regularly for a whole year. Without knowing it then, it built a firm foundation in my recording approach for many years to come, which turned out to be entirely different from that of the WSP. First of all it was more ‘low-tech’, because I couldn’t afford a Nagra and the broadcasts were happening on Co-op Radio, a mono station at that time. I had bought one of the first portable cassette recorders, a Nakamichi, which was rather large and heavy and needed eight D batteries. But it allowed for more flexibility, as I could record 30 – 45 minutes at a time and cassettes were changed more easily than tape reels. Two good-quality cardioid AKG microphones gave me more than acceptable stereo recordings and my high fidelity headphones allowed me to monitor them with acoustic clarity.

14 But the most significant difference was the addition of my voice. In each soundwalk I opted to speak ‘live’ from the location of the recording directly to the listener. I had learnt enough about aural perception during my work with the WSP to know that an ambient soundscape habitually gets relegated to the background of our aural perception, as seemingly more pressing matters, such as voices in the family, certain work tasks or even our own inner thoughts take our listening attention. I knew that the same would happen, if I were to broadcast straight environmental sound recordings on the radio. They would easily become background ambience. But since my main intent was to raise awareness about the soundscape and issues of noise in our community, I decided that my presence-in-voice would be beneficial and perhaps even necessary to hold radio listeners’ attention.

15 In this style, so I hoped, my voice would form the link to the radio listener. By speaking about the sounds or soundscapes, but also about aspects extraneous to the recording, i.e. commenting on the weather, time of day or night, the ‘looks’ of a place, the ‘architecture’, or my experience of it, my aim was to transport the listener into each specific soundscape that was broadcast. The voice was used sparsely, however, as a type of punctuation or anchor in the seemingly random flow of environmental sounds. But purposely I wanted to be explicit about the recordist's presence in the environment and about the fact that this presence can create a specific acoustic perspective for the listener. Furthermore I felt it important to be clear that this particular microphone, this particular recording, presented one truth only about the environment. But in doing so, I hoped to create awareness or at least curiosity in the individual listener about their own unique acoustic perspective.

16 Years later I discovered another interesting aspect of these voice recordings that may be worth discussing here. Listening back to these early recordings highlighted the fact that not only did my voice once sound a lot younger, but its expression was different depending on the environment in which I was spending time. This was not intentional, it simply occurred as a natural response to where I was. A distinct difference in tone-of-voice and pacing is audible throughout the recordings, as if influenced and shaped by the atmosphere of any given place or moment. For example, in the quiet winter landscape my voice was extremely calm and quiet with long pauses between speaking, in order not to mask the subtler sounds of this location; or in the hustle and bustle of a shopping environment, my voice projected more loudly, spoke faster and sometimes with a sense of irony; and in the very reverberant acoustics of a tunnel, it was loud and slow, trying to articulate every word clearly to the listener.

17 In other words, without knowing it then, the ‘voices’ of the acoustic environment and my own voice quality collaborated in highlighting the unique acoustic character and atmosphere of each place that was recorded. They revealed sonically what should be obvious to us all: that human beings and their environments are intricately intertwined with each other. If we learn to listen in depth to our interactions with soundscapes, we can hear when we are in tune with our environment and when we are not. It highlights sonically that human beings do not exist as separate entities in this world. This fact in my opinion underscores why we need to listen extra seriously to indigenous cultures who have always known this and have lived accordingly and who – despite years of silencing, oppression and poverty – have retained vast knowledge of how to live with the environment, and not in opposition to it.

3. Microphone Ears

18Like the voice, the microphone can also play an anchoring role for the soundscape listener, when its movements guide our ears through any given environment. However, the microphone does not make any choices. In itself it is without culture: the way it ‘listens’ is determined entirely by its technical specifications and each recordist’s position and perspective, the physical, psychological, political and cultural stance shaping their choices. The object for me as field recordist was to capture the sounds of the environment. That was the main focus. But how I would go about it would depend entirely on the context in which I found myself and whether I was recording for a specific medium, project, or for no specific reason at all. As a result I cannot say that I ever developed one systematic approach to field recording.

19 Generally I preferred to be as mobile and flexible as possible, and opted for equipment that was relatively easy to carry around even in rugged places. If I was to describe the various approaches I took towards field recording, I would call the most dominant one the moving microphone. An extension of that I came to call the searching microphone. But on quite a few occasions it seemed more appropriate to apply a stationary microphone. All of these approaches could be part of one recording session and could flow into one another as contexts and conditions demanded. But for the sake of clarity, let me discuss them separately here, along with specific examples for each.

4. The moving microphone

20For Soundwalking I mostly recorded with a moving microphone, as I just mentioned. The experience of being out there, walking, listening and recording constituted a new way for me of participating in the life of the environment. It created a fresh perspective and was an altogether inspiring way of getting to know a place in more depth – an activity that may be even more relevant nowadays than in 2005 when Rachel McCann wrote:

Movement through time and space is arguably our most fundamental mode of interaction with the world, and information technology has irrevocably changed this experience. The internet collapses time and space, bringing us images instantaneously from around the world. We are at once connected to and disconnected from everything as we google toward a piece of information as if rocketing through a wormhole6.

21Cardioid microphones have always been my preferred recording tools, as they most clearly recorded spatial movements and changes. The smallest shifts in direction are made audible, because of the specific nature of this technology. For example, a natural fade away from the soundscape is created easily by re-directing the microphones towards my voice and vice versa. Equally, any movement from side to side produces new listening perspectives, similar to how our hearing changes, when we move our head from side to side. These audible transitions have always been of particular interest to me, as they tend to grab listeners’ attention – and the recordist’s for that matter! It is in this way that the moving microphone can become a linking element between environment and listener, circumscribing a clear acoustic motion, where no additional words are necessary. When for example in one case the microphone captured the chaotic general ambience of a gaming place and then moved in on the loudspeaker of just one game, the general ambience receded and the one game became the foreground sound. The movement of the microphone itself told the story clearly enough to listeners’ ears.

22 I had discovered this more active approach to recording by coincidence on one special occasion in the early days of my field recording ventures. While I was recording a gently flowing creek I kept hearing a tiny clicking sound, whose origin I could not find anywhere. When I started to move the microphone slowly across the water’s surface, the sound came closer and closer until I discovered the source. A dry leaf had fallen from a nearby maple tree onto a small rock. Its thin stem lightly obstructed the flow of the water and caused the clicking sound. The microphone had acted like the sonic equivalent of a zoom lens in this situation.

23 The movement of the microphone along the creek also highlighted something else: as the water spilled over different sized rocks or moved through the ever-changing formations in the creek bed, the sound of the flowing water changed. The moving microphone foregrounded these changes and revealed acoustically the ‘architecture’ of the creek. Since then, I have often brought the microphone within inches of moving water, whether it was a creek, or the shoreline of a lake or the ocean, exploring with a curious ear how water and shore create these fascinating sounds together. Similarly, when I zero in on footsteps with my microphone, not only does it make the walking surfaces and its textures audible, it also reveals the walker’s mood or state of mind. Footsteps and surface textures together produce this information through their sound ‘language’. Experienced film sound designers are familiar with such meanings of sound and work with them to underscore the drama or mood of a situation.

24 When I was in India I ended up recording a lot of temple bells in all shapes and sizes. Whenever people entered a temple they would ring a bell to wake up the Gods for worship. Every person rang it differently and every bell had its very own resonance. I would record this process from the distance as we were approaching a temple, until we got very close and could hear them in all their musical fullness. In one case, with a larger, particularly beautiful and rich sounding bell of a Jain temple in Delhi, I moved the microphone right inside the bell. Even though this proximity distorted the loud attack of the clapper – which I knew I could edit out later – it captured clearly and close-up the harmonically rich and stunningly beautiful resonance, which reverberated for quite a long time inside this bell. Needless to say, while recording in this fashion, I was imagining a musical role for this sound in some future composition involving Indian soundscapes7.

25 And lastly, when I first heard the sound of barnacles on Kits Beach8 against the backdrop hum of the city of Vancouver, I used my microphones to focus in on these tiny little sounds. In my experience of recording and working compositionally with other such close-up sounds, this process always highlighted their beautiful sonic complexity on the one hand and amplified on the other hand the small creatures’ irreplaceable role in the ecological chain of natural life. In my mind, these small and quiet sounds then become symbolic for those parts of nature – and society for that matter – that easily get trampled on, and whose significance in the ecological and social balance of things is often not understood or honoured properly.

26 The technique of moving the microphone from distant to close, as described in the above examples, reveals the sonic textures, rhythms, timbres and resonances of sounds in all their subtlety and richness within the larger context of the place in which they occur. I have found that it is precisely this back and forth between the soundscape as a whole and the fine details within it, that has become the essence of my compositional approach. When bringing such field recordings into the studio, we bring with us the lived, embodied experience that we had in the field, which in turn informs how we continue to listen to and work with these recordings in the context of a radio program, a composition, a sound installation, perhaps a film soundtrack. I have discovered that I love exploring the musical aspects of some of those close-up recordings even further by processing them. The experience of such sonic transformations is magical and powerful, full of surprises and much like finding a whole new instrument or a new voice, that deepens our engagement with a soundscape composition and by extension with the environment about which it ‘speaks’. It is like receiving a sonic gift, which reveals the treasures inherent in any soundscape to anyone who cares to listen.

5. The searching microphone

27An extension of the moving microphone is the searching microphone, which finds the interior resonances of otherwise silent objects. It requires for shapes and materials of a place to be touched and actively explored sonically. A simple action such as banging on metal railings, bicycle racks, lampposts or sculptures can reveal surprisingly rich interior acoustics. Sometimes this kind of soundmaking is encouraged on soundwalks. But often these unique sounds can only be heard properly when the ear is brought right up against the surface of the structure. An unexpected magical moment of listening occurs, like the revelation of a secret! Participants who are shy to move in on an object this closely do not know what they are missing. Contact mikes are best at revealing and amplifying the sonic richness inside such structures and objects.

28 I have never used contact mikes, but heard the results of this approach when others integrated it into some of our Vancouver soundwalks. However, on many of my early soundwalk recordings, my curiosity was triggered when encountering – as mentioned earlier – a sculpture like Knife Edge by Henry Moore, playing on it with hands and fingers and capturing some very deep and richly booming resonances as well as eerie squeaky ones. Another early example of this kind of exploration is from my Soundwalking show, when I came across icicles hanging from a cabin roof. The extreme quiet of this very white sparkling day in the forest made me curious about the sounds of these icicles. I broke off one of them and used it like a mallet to play the remaining hanging ones like a percussive musical instrument. I was fascinated by how the different lengths and thicknesses created many different pitches and resonances. Inadvertently I had become a sound maker, playing with the materials of the place I was recording.

29 When I was making field recordings in the extreme quiet of a Mexican desert, I was literally searching for sounds and ended up playing on the various cacti and dried up palm leaves that were part of this landscape. Plucking on the spikes of cacti, a kind of liquid sounding interior was revealed; or rubbing my hand along the thick leaves of the Maguey plant, the raspy texture of its skin resonated deeply inside and revealed changing pitches along the changing thickness of the leaf. The dried up palm leaves were curled up and when I tapped on them from the outside along its length, a similar but much dryer, ever-changing pitch resonance could be heard. These sounds eventually made their way into my composition Cricket Voice9, in both their original and their processed form.

30 On another occasion when hiking up Tunnel Mountain above the town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies, I noticed two pipes sticking out of the ground. Curious, I inserted my stereo microphone into the pipe and the reverberance of a large underground water reservoir was revealed, with water dripping in different pitches and rhythms. Any additional sound I made, like tapping on the pipe or singing long tones into it, was amplified by the large space and reverberated in duo with the reservoir’s resonant frequencies or Eigentones. Even the sound of a train horn was captured and transformed in this way. The richness of that acoustic space inspired further soundmaking, while all along the microphone was recording these sonic explorations.

31 Similarly when I was making recordings in abandoned mining towns in the interior of British Columbia, I banged and tapped on old wooden and metal structures and explored them for interesting resonances. The resulting sounds became sonic materials for a sound and photo installation, entitled At the Edge of Wilderness10.

6. The stationary microphone

32The ‘perspective’ of a stationary microphone remains the same for the duration of any given recording. In this approach the microphone listens, witnessing whatever occurs sonically in this one place. The recordist remains still or is perhaps even absent while the microphones record. Magical moments can happen precisely because the recordist is not moving or not present. Many nature recordists take this approach with carefully placed microphones and often with extraordinary results. Occasionally I would take a similar but rather more casual approach, as in this example of a thunder storm at my parents’ place in Germany, when I set up the microphone spontaneously under a terrace roof and left it to listen with its microphone ear. The result was a dramatic one-hour long recording, in which several thunder storms and violent downpours passed through this landscape from various directions – reminding me of the fear I felt during similar storms in my childhood.

33 In a very different example, the single cricket that presented me with a pristine two-minute solo ‘performance’ very close to my microphone while I was sitting very still in the darkness of a desert night, stopped abruptly when I made a slight but unintended move, never to be heard again at such close proximity.

34 On another occasion I wanted to make a recording of the Harbour Symphony that I had composed during the 1988 Sound Symposium in St. John’s, Newfoundland. A group of us went up to Signal Hill above the city to listen, and I decided to place the microphone among some shrubs that offered protection from the wind and were also at a distance from us. Weeks later when I finally listened back to the recording, I was surprised and delighted to hear the song of a red-winged blackbird in the immediate foreground, repeated several times during the first minute of the Harbour Symphony11!

35 A similar surprise occurred interestingly enough in a very different soundscape, when I stationed myself in a neighbourhood located under the flight path of airplanes landing at Vancouver International Airport. As I was standing there, obviously a stranger in this residential area but looking conspicuous with my recording equipment, an elderly gentleman who lived across the street approached me with curiosity, asked me some questions and eventually just stood by my side talking and listening. The result was a very special recording of a relaxed conversation between us – while planes flew overhead - in which he expressed movingly and most naturally with his resonant voice what it was like to live under the flight path. The presence of the microphones had not demanded anything from the speaker, had not asked for specific information. It was simply there, listening. This recording became part of my Soundwalking show ‘Under the Flightpath’12.

36 Already in the early days of the WSP, the stationary microphone had been explored, when my colleague Bruce Davis came up with the idea of Wilderness Radio:

A radio service which ‘listens in’ rather than ‘broadcasts out’…Microphones will monitor the ambient acoustic activity of a specially chosen protected wilderness environment…. In providing observational access to a wilderness environment without significantly altering it in any way, the project would be unique; large numbers of people could experience the place without destroying it by their very presence13.

37Wilderness Radio was never implemented. Even though various possibilities were researched, the technology was simply not available at that time to execute such a forward looking idea. Nowadays however the technology is available! Sound artists Brady Marks and Mark Timmings followed up on Bruce’s idea and created the Wetlands Project14, in which listeners are invited to ‘connect to the circadian rhythm of an endangered Saturna Island marsh. The sounds of birds, frogs, airplanes and more, take over the airwaves for this twenty-four-hour experience in “slow radio” to celebrate Earth Day’. Recently, on April 22, 2021, was the fifth annual Wetlands Project Slow Radio Broadcast. In its first iteration it was broadcast on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, but since then has been picked up by other radio stations across Canada and in the US. Not only is the technology available now for such field recordings and broadcasts, there now is also a listenership for whom such a broadcast is deeply meaningful and no longer as unusual as my Soundwalking show was at the end of the 1970s. The last two Wetland broadcasts occurred during the pandemic and were particularly well received, precisely because listening to such a soundscape can ground us in a gentle, positive and undemanding flow of time that may have the power to counteract feelings of isolation during these lockdown times.

38 Listening in on natural soundscapes the world over has also extended into the scientific community in recent years and extends beyond the original idea of wilderness radio. New recording technologies and data collection tools are used by researchers in the biological and ecological sciences to record soundscapes, to observe life in selected natural locations over long stretches of time, and thus to monitor environmental changes. By listening in this fashion, large amounts of data are gathered to better understand ecosystem dynamics. In the interest of protecting wilderness areas and marine environments, these relatively new approaches are providing additional tools to help prevent further damage to ecosystems and thus potentially slow down the rapid pace of species extinction.

8. Epilogue

39Field recording that listens: it starts with us listening curiously through the keyhole. Then the doors open by themselves and new sonic worlds appear in front of our ears. Recordist, composer and environment speak together. In the end, whether the sound recordings are made for the radio, a podcast, a film, a soundscape composition, or simply for capturing soundscapes without an end in mind, they are made to let the soundscape speak for itself, to encourage listening to it, and to notice what it ‘says’ to us.

40 Nowadays I often find myself not wanting to record at all. Even though microphones and headphones bring the soundscape intimately close, ultimately they separate us from our immediate surroundings. Microphones are only extensions of our ears, not a substitute. They are nothing but a tool. Our ears and bodies continue to be the main receivers of all sounds, including any recorded ones. In the end our listening alone determines how we receive the world, how we speak back to it in our artistic work and how by extension, we act responsibly in a soundscape, indeed in the world’s environmental crisis.


1 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape – Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books, 1994.

2 The Vancouver Soundscape, World Soundscape Project, Document 5, Vancouver 1973.

3 Hildegard Westerkamp, « The Soundscape on Radio », in Radio Rethink – Art Sound and Transmission, eds Daina Augatis and Dan Lander, Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre for the Arts, 1994.

4 R. Murray Schafer, « Radical Radio » in Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence, Arcana Editions, 1993, p. 142.

5 Hildegard Westerkamp, « Radio that Listens », Lecture presented at Talking Back to Radio - Radio als Zuhörer - Artyści zmieniaj, Wroclaw, Poland, December 6-11, 2005.

6 Rachel McCann, « On the Hither Sides of Depth : An Architectural Pedagogy of Engagement », in Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 2005, p. 17.

7 https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/comp/1/sacred/

8 https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/comp/3/kitsbeach/

9 https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/comp/3/cricket/

10 https://hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/installations/edge/

11 https://hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/comp/3/harboursymphonies/

12 https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca/sound/docs/flightpath/

13 Bruce Davis, « FM Radio as Observational Access to Wilderness Environments », in Alternatives, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring 1975, p. 21.

14 https://wetlandproject.com/intro.php


Hildegard Westerkamp, «The Microphone Ear. Field Recording the Soundscape », Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Articles des membres du projet INNOVART, Numéros de la revue, À l’écoute des lieux : le field recording comme pratique artistique et activisme écologique, mis à  jour le : 22/03/2022, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=1150.


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Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer who focuses on listening, environmental sound and acoustic ecology. At the beginning of her career she worked with R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project and subsequently taught acoustic communication courses in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University with colleague Barry Truax. She is a founding member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and was chief editor of its journal, Soundscape, between 2000 and 2012. She has conducted soundscape workshops, given concerts and lectures, and has coordinated and led Soundwalks locally and internationally. Westerkamp’s pioneering musical works and writing at the intersections of environmentalism, acoustic communication, radio arts, listening practices and soundwalking activate an awareness that sound is a decisive dimension of the world, an idea that underpins contemporary thinking across social, political, artistic and scientific practices of environmental respect and concern. Hildegard’s compositions have been performed and broadcast in many parts of the world. Aside from her soundscape compositions, she has composed film soundtracks and sound documents for radio, and has produced and hosted radio programs such as Soundwalking and Musica Nova on Vancouver Cooperative Radio. https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca

Hildegard Westerkamp est une compositrice dont le travail est centré sur l'écoute, le son environnemental et l'écologie acoustique. Au début de sa carrière, elle a travaillé avec R. Murray Schafer et le World Soundscape Project, puis a donné des cours de communication acoustique à la Simon Fraser University, avec son collègue Barry Truax. Elle est membre fondateur du World Forum for Acoustic Ecology et a été rédactrice en chef de son journal Soundscape entre 2000 et 2012. Elle a dirigé des ateliers sur les paysages sonores, donné des concerts et des conférences, et a coordonné et dirigé des promenades sonores au niveau local et international. Les œuvres musicales et les écrits pionniers de Hildegard Westerkamp, à l'intersection de l'environnementalisme, de la communication acoustique, des arts radiophoniques, des pratiques d'écoute et de la promenade sonore, souhaitent initier une prise de conscience : celle que le son est une dimension décisive du monde, et que les réflexions à son sujet nourrissent la culture contemporaine, à travers les pratiques sociales, politiques, artistiques et scientifiques ayant trait au souci environnemental. Les compositions d'Hildegard ont été jouées et diffusées dans de nombreuses régions du monde. Outre ses compositions réalisées à partir de paysages sonores (soundscape compositions), elle a composé des bandes sonores de films, des documents sonores pour la radio et a produit et animé des émissions de radio telles que Soundwalking, et Musica Nova, sur les ondes de la Vancouver Cooperative Radio. https://www.hildegardwesterkamp.ca