Hildegard Westerkamp

Breaking News
3’18’’ – 2002

Sensitive Chaos
for two-channel tape
12’05’’ – 1995

MotherVoiceTalk 
15′ – 2008

Breaking NewsThese are not so much programme notes but rather a series of thoughts that occurred while working on Breaking News.

My grandson was born two and a half months after September 11, 2001. Many children have been born since, breaking the news to us, like he did, of birth and new life and thereby tipping the balance in our lives in favour of love and joy, rather than hate and terror. And still, the news of life in that sense is relegated to personal life and does not carry the same weight and importance in political and public life. It seems to have no bearing on the war actions of those in power or those vying for attention and power through crime and terror, whether they are politicians, terrorists or large corporations forcing their economic visions onto the world. Most broadcasting media play along with this view of what is important news: breaking news in the media tend to be preoccupied with death, war, crime, disaster, terror, not with birth and new life. And the loss of human life in these contexts becomes “collateral damage” in the language of those who cause the deaths

This piece, Breaking News, is an attempt at a tiny balancing act by bringing into the forefront the sounds of new life—an embryo’s heartbeat, breathing, breastfeeding, a young baby’s voice, etc. These are sounds that we rarely hear in the media and yet they represent a most important driving force in our lives. They speak with energy and resilience, they tell us of vulnerability and how fragile life really is, they make us happy and sad, they speak with urgency, immediacy, with desperation, with joy, with need and desire. Every moment brings new information, every sound brings dramatic news of how this new life is growing into this world. The sounds tell us whatis at any one moment.

September 11, 2001 had terrible news of death and destruction for us. Within less than 24 hours of the terror attacks in New York, many TV stations had created a visual logo, a headline and theme music to announce these breaking news with additional drama. Suddenly the terror attacks were being produced for TV, as if they were a movie. What was beginning to terrorize TV audiences in addition to the actual events was their fictionalization in the media. In this context I recall the story of a young child who asked her teacher why the airplanes were crashing into the high rises again and again and again…

Breaking News attempts to comment on all of this and at the same time carries irony in its very core. The sounds of new life are produced into a radio event, framed by sounds that seek attention, and that dramatize—not unlike the way in which CNN produces the war in Afghanistan, supplied by George Bush with various misleading titles and headlines such as “Enduring Freedom.” Breaking News also is a media production, with a title and a dramatized soundscape—but this time around the sounds of new life. It also wants to stir and unsettle the listener with its sounds, change the pace of regular radio broadcasting. It also wants to surprise. In other words it tries to do the same as the regular media. But it refuses to transmit feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Instead it wants to energize, revitalize. It celebrates new life, love, human warmth and energy in the media framework of “breaking news.”

Many thanks to Sonja Ruebsaat and Luke Martin for recording their son Caleb and for generously allowing me to include his sound makings in this piece—such as breastfeeding on his first day of life, breathing, crying, gurgling, making first vocal sounds, and laughing. I hope, Caleb can forgive me in his later life for using his voice in the framework of this important media event, the first anniversary of the September 11 events.

Breaking News was commissioned by CBC Radio for its September 11 special programming.

Sensitive ChaosThe German romantic writer Novalis called water Das Sensible Chaos (the sensitive chaos) and Theodor Schwenk wrote a book of the same name examining the formations of water and air. Both their work inspired me to explore water in its sonic musical shapes: water’s surfaces and depths, its playfulness and its dangers, its frozen and moving shape; never static, always in motion, fragile, sensitive to the smallest environmental changes, at the same time powerful, dangerous, shaping its path into landscapes.

Water sounds tell us about landscape formations, about the “architecture” the water moves through (creeks and riverbeds), into (caves), over (ground surfaces) and against (seashores). And vice versa, the landscape formations produce water’s many and varying voices and resonances. When we listen to water we can hear in its voices that it is a life-giving and life-preserving element of the earth. In Sensitive Chaos I did not only want to explore water sounds in detail but also the realm of experience they offer to the listener.

Sensitive Chaos was commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the 1995 Winnipeg New Music Festival with the financial assistance of the Canada Council.

 

MotherVoiceTalk 

 

The making of MotherVoiceTalk was a journey in search of resonance with the work and life of Roy Kiyooka. My task as I perceived it, was to ‘listen’ to Kiyooka’s artistic and personal voices on all possible levels and bring them into dialogue with the musical, sonic tools of my own compositional and personal voices. The final piece emerged out of this process of listening and was, to say the least, a bit of a surprise to me! Perhaps I could call it a ‘thought piece in sounds and words’.
It was created within the context of Marginalia, re-visioning Roy Kiyooka, a project by Vancouver New Music. Three other B.C. composers—Jocelyn Morlock, Stefan Smulovitz, Stefan Udell— and I were commissioned to compose works that would emerge out of a process of researching, getting-to-know, grappling with, and creating an inner dialogue with Kiyooka’s divers artistic output.

From the start I was curious about the relationship between Kiyooka’s Japanese-Canadian past—his coming of age during WWII and thus inside Canada’s so-called enemy-alien culture and language—and his strong position inside the contemporary English-Canadian cultural scene during his adult life. Like so many other Canadians, myself included, he carried within himself another language and culture and learnt to integrate it into the cultural environment of the Canadian world around him. This makes for a unique inner dialogue and is bound to find its expression in any artistic work, however conscious or subconscious it may be.
Kiyooka’s book Mothertalk, created from interviews with his mother, accompanied me throughout the making of MotherVoiceTalk. Roy seemed to connect frequently and strongly with his mother in her old age, just as I have been connecting with mine for many years now—connecting in other words, with their powerful female presence in us, their stories and thus the language of our childhoods.

Listening to some of the tapes that Roy Kiyooka had made himself or that were made of his readings, musical improvisations and presentations, I was struck by the multitude of moods and expressions in his speaking and sound making. Short excerpts of these became the sonic/musical materials for this piece, e.g. sounds from his zither, or ‘harp’ as he would call it, from a whistle, and his spoken voice. The Japanese voice of his mother Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, and the German voice of my own mother, Agnes Westerkamp, both found their way into the composition.
Many thanks go to Giorgio Magnanensi and Vancouver New Music for setting up this impossible challenge and to Matsuki Masutani and Fumiko Kiyooka for unearthing some of Roy’s recordings. And my special thanks go to Peter Grant, Margaret and Tom Taylor, Agnes Westerkamp with Renate Buck and Jolanta Penrak. They provided me with the places and times for retreat that I needed in order for this meeting between two artistic/personal languages to occur and MotherVoiceTalk to emerge!