50 years later, Vancouver-composer remembers birth of soundscapes

In the late 1960s a team of SFU researchers set out to define the term soundscape and change the way we listen to the world around us.

'I was surrounded by people who were listening all the time' says Hildegard Westerkamp

The World Soundscape Project team at SFU in 1973; left to right: R. M. Schafer, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, Barry Truax and Howard Broomfield. (World Soundscape Project)

A Vancouver-based composer says the 50th anniversary of a seminal B.C. project in the field of audio soundscapes should be celebrated.

"We're so used to designing an environment for the eye, but we're not naturally inclined to design an environment for the ear," said Hildegard Westerkamp, a musician who began her career recording sounds around the city.

In 1968, the composer R. Murray Schafer started the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University.

The goal was to record and catalogue the sounds of the physical environment, and to explore ways to preserve the sounds of the natural world in harmony with the urban sounds humans make.

Today, there's an area of study called acoustic ecology, which stemmed from the World Soundscape Project — and some of the project's early participants are now renowned composers.

One of them is Westerkamp, whose music revolves around her recordings of soundscapes all over the world. 

Hildegard Westerkamp in the the World Soundscape Project tape library in 1982. (World Soundscape Project)

In honour of the World Soundscape Project's 50th anniversary, Westerkamp revisited the location where she made one of her soundscapes — Kits Beach in Vancouver.

"I find all the beaches in Vancouver interesting," said Westerkamp. "You get that interesting combination of urban soundscape and beautiful water sounds."

Westerkamp's piece, Kits Beach Sound Walk, was recorded in 1989. Since then, she says the soundscape of the beach has changed.

The beach and water sounds are similar, she said, but the urban sounds have ramped up to a degree.

The "urban hum," as she calls it, has grown due to more shipping traffic and residential developments surrounding the mouth of False Creek. Also, the sound of airplanes is far more prolific, she said.

In the late 1960s a team of SFU researchers set out to define the term soundscape and change the way we listen to the world around us. 17:44

Westerkamp got involved in the project in 1973 after hearing Schafer give a lecture at the University of British Columbia, where he presented one of the first soundscapes. 

"We were doing sound work, we were doing sound counts, all sorts of things to get at the qualitative aspect of the Vancouver soundscape," said Westerkamp.

"I was surrounded by people who were listening all the time."

The 1970s team would listen to each others' recordings in an effort to define an urban soundscape.

Schafer's project ran into the mid-1970s, but the work has continued for decades through similar endeavours. Schafer's work resulted in two educational booklets, The Book of Noise and The New Soundscape.

The project also laid the framework for several Canadian noise bylaws.

With files from North by Northwest