If you know me, there is a good chance that I have, at some point, talked with (at) you about Hildegard Westerkamp. I am the (unofficial) president of her (imaginary) fan club. Westerkamp is a composer most closely associated with a scene that began in Vancouver during the 1970s which emphasized soundscapes, field recordings, and careful attention to the sounds of the world in which we live. Today, I chose a Westerkamp piece I hadn’t heard before, her 1997 work Talking Rain (her notes and a link to an interview can be found here, which I’ll check out after writing this so that I can listen with my own ears).
I listened to Talking Rain while observing the snowy scene outside my window. This didn’t prevent me from being transported to the shifting scenes implied by the piece’s metamorphoses. Talking Rain sounded like a journey, a voyage. There were some concrete destinations (a street scene, a beach) and others that were more abstract (Perhaps that was the sound of rain on a window pane? Maybe that was two buckets collecting the drops from a leaky ceiling?). The marvel of this piece, for me, is the way that Westerkamp moves from one suggestion of place to another. She connects the various water sounds seamlessly, moving gradually until we’re in an unmistakably different place but are not sure how we got there. It takes the patience and craft of a master composer to execute this effect with such subtlety.
This piece also made me think about the sounds themselves. Part of Westerkamp’s project is to train the ear to hear the musicality of the sounds which make up our environment. I felt the ordinary become musical in this work especially when Westerkamp played with pitch. I’m not sure of the exact methods used, but it seemed as if she often used very soft sine tones and light processing juxtaposed against the more pitched moments of the bare rain sounds. The produced pitches were thus in counterpoint with the pitches created by the water sounds, highlighting the latter’s musicality through contrast and placement. This may be what I appreciated most about Talking Rain (and Westerkamp’s music in general) — her methods reveal so much by using mostly juxtaposition through editing, with little processing. Without changing the identity of the sounds, she is able to make them sing.