Music production has seen a huge technological shift in recent years, but what has not been as quick to change is the diversity of the people behind the soundboard. Innovators Hildegard Westerkamp (BMus'72) and Kiran Bhumber (BMus'14) talk about tech, gender, and trusting your inner voice.
By Aryn Strickland
When Hildegard Westerkamp (BMus'72) looks back on her decades-long career as an experimental composer and sound ecologist, she marvels at how much music production has changed. During her student days, there were no computer screens, no visualizers, no such thing as ‘digital.’ Everything was analogue and you relied solely on your ear as you edited. She remembers working in her studio, surrounded by pieces of audio reel that she had cut, marked, and hung up for quick reference until they could be spliced — literally taped together — into ambitious compositions that embraced unpredictability, merging music, found sounds, and field recordings.
Her chosen instrument — the sounds of the environment — and the limitations of the technology available at the time necessitated deep listening and spurred creativity: “I tried to find the musicality in the sounds that I had recorded,” Westerkamp says. She experimented with painstaking production techniques such as pitchshifting (that is, slowing down and speeding up the recordings), filtering and equalizing, and delay feedback among others, to achieve the effects she wanted.
In so doing she helped pioneer the field of ‘sound ecology.’
Hildegard Westerkamp, The Edge of Wilderness (2000)
Westerkamp and the other composers and producers of her generation — she cites R. Murray Schafer and Barry Truax as important influences — developed ideas and techniques that during the shift to computer-based production became standard tools in the producer’s repertoire.
“Working in the studio totally aurally then as opposed to now, where soundfiles are displayed visually on computer screens, makes an absolute world of a difference,” she says.
Indeed, new technologies have both democratized music production and made new things possible: “Anyone can be a bedroom producer nowadays, and that is a very powerful thing in itself,” Kiran Bhumber (BMus’14), a graduate of the School of Music’s Music Technology program, says.
The up-and-coming composer, producer, and performer cut her teeth on software like Cubase and Garage Band while still in high school. At UBC she created work that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago, blending cutting-edge technology, visuals, and using some of the same compositional techniques Westerkamp helped to develop. In the Digital Performance Systems class (SUBclass) at UBC, Bhumber developed RUBS, the ‘Responsive User Body Suit,’ which melds composition and performance.
“I was thinking, I wonder if there is a way we can look at contact improv and use technology as a bridge between triggering a music sample or changing a visual on screen,” she says.
The RUBS suit allows performers to compose music as they move and dance on stage, touching or stroking different sensors sewn into the fabric to trigger sounds and sequences. Her innovative suit has brought her recognition from within the electronic music world with an invitation to present her work at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last year and a coveted spot at the University of Michigan to continue her work in the Masters of Media Art program there.
“I am interested in fusing not just music but also emerging technologies, dance, interaction and visual arts together,” Bhumber says.
Excerpt from "Raula," a piece by Bhumber (using the RUBS bodysuit) and J.P. Carter (trumpet)
Westerkamp long ago made the switch to computer-based production, and she embraces some of the visual possibilities new technologies present. But she remains committed to the idea that listening — slow, deep listening — is central to the art of composition. In installations such as Seascapes (2008), her compositions are paired with photography and sculpture by other artists. But her most visually performative works are the sound walks that she leads together with members of the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective every year around Vancouver, where she teaches people how to appreciate environmental sound. For Westerkamp, hearing is still the dominant sense.
Westerkamp, Schafer and the other members of the World Soundscape Project created soundwalks in the 1970s. Today, Vancouver New Music runs annual soundwalks open to everyone. For an hour, participants walk in silence taking in sounds that are usually written off as noise. According to Westerkamp, soundwalks do more than just teach people how to listen. “When you do that kind of listening in a safe context, inspiration emerges, new ideas emerge and when you get that inspiration you can tackle the world quite differently,” she says.
Hildegard Westerkamp, Kits Beach Soundwalk (1989)
Much of her time is now spent organizing and travelling to international conferences about sound ecology. “People are really interested in acoustic ecology and soundscape studies. There’s just a huge amount happening — at universities, there are many scientists who are now realizing that if they do any studies on sound they have to include the listener as an important source of perceptual information about the sound environment into their studies, into their data,” she says.
If technology has influenced the course of both Westerkamp’s and Bhumber’s development as artists, gender is another important factor. Music production and electroacoustic composition was — and remains — a male-dominated field. Although the World Soundscape Project (WSP) was a source of inspiration early in her career Westerkamp was surprised by her male colleagues attempts to relegate her to jobs at the typewriter and the photocopier. “The group consisted of five men and me. I was passionate about my research work. This and a basically good relationship with my colleagues enabled me to nip in the bud these unconscious assumptions about the work given to a woman.”
Ultimately, though, Westerkamp was forced to leave the WSP because of gender discrimination. Her enthusiastic and committed contributions to the group’s research inexplicably caused problems within the group, she says. Refusing to be deterred, Westerkamp decided to strike out on her own as an independent artist.
Bhumber arrived in the industry at a very different time, not long before the rise of #MeToo and what has become a wholesale reconsideration of gender and gender discrimination in the workplace.
But while the example of women like Westerkamp and the hard work of generations of feminist activists have opened up the conversation about equality, and while the move to digital production has opened up the industry to people of different backgrounds, women remain greatly underrepresented.
Particularly, Bhumber says, women of colour: “There was never someone that looked like me growing up, there was never anyone that I could relate to identity-wise,” she says. “It’s tough because it’s not just music production, all these tech fields are male-dominated it’s not just music production itself.”
Her experience within the Digital Performance Systems class (SUBclass) that reignited her interest in music technology is an exception, she says.
“I think [because it’s an interdisciplinary program] you are going to get people coming from different backgrounds, including gender. So I think that’s one of the main reasons, because if it was just an engineering or music tech engineering group it might not be that diverse.”
Bhumber and Westerkamp believe that greater equality is inevitable, but change depends not just on movements but on individuals.
Westerkamp’s advice for young women starting out in music? Trust your own internal voice: “Listen to where your passion is located, where your skill is located and how that resonates with which part of society. Trust your own ears, trust your own inclination on, especially for women, where your interests lie.”