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The smallest sound heard
by the human ear
at its absolute threshold
can only be heard when the clouds of aural irritations
are dispersed.
Then the light of a tiny candle
Thirty miles away is as clear in the human ear
as it will ever be.
Only unobstructed can such things be heard.

I imagine... That this is a wild place. There is water, there are creatures of the bog. They croak their dominance of the space. That is until someone–a human, perhaps? Or a humanoid at least–encroaches. She walks on a gravel path. The click of the small stones alerts the jungle to her presence and the creatures fall silent. She pauses and whispers, something too quiet to be understood. A few steps closer she proceeds and speaks again, but once more the words on the edge of hearing. A final time she moves and this time stops, now that her audience may hear her. She stands in a clearing, the stillness of pooled water making little contribution to the aural setting. And her poem begins.

Perhaps it is two places. Not one. Perhaps one is a prologue. Perhaps if this was a camera shot, there would be a steady pan across dark dank caves then a sudden vertical rise–through the sodden earth. And now the scene is a forest. Dark, but filled with a musk of fir trees, not mold and fungi.

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4 Westerkamp, Hildegard. WHISPER STUDY (1975-79)

Like drops in a cave, with a strange whispering wind, distorted like frog croaks.
Deep space. Dark vibrations. Low.
The rib-bits of the frog. Bloated throats opening and deflating.
It is a swamp? Things grow louder, deeper and high pitched tinkling emerges then dominates as the rest quiets in a sudden change
“When there is no sound, hearing is most alert.”
What might have been silence for a moment then the sound of feet on gravel
Nearly a whisper: “When there are no sounds
hearing is most alert.”

The feet draw nearer.
the crunch of small stones
“When there are no sounds
hearing is most alert."
There are places in the imagination where the
sound folds into itself
like freezing
where the soft crackle of ions
moves into the air on snow feet
made of fine wire
suddenly you are there
from behind a boulder
where you have been watching the moss begin
and it’s as if someone were filling a strangely shaped cup with water from a tap
somewhere close to your ear
and you have the memory of vast distances with hawks on the horizon
where the world became a kind of ache
a species of limb that is part of the larger universe
and suddenly nothing is so real as these hands wanting always to touch things
or these eyes which disappear immediately into the rivers
like a breed of nocturnal salamanders”
A horn trumpets low and clear.
“at night
you can hear the bones of the forest
the ancient ones making terrible love
you can hear the wind
the godfather
beating his ice wings”
The sound is of wooden chimes beating together.
It is a storm of lightest hail, or sharp raindrops.
A frog with a rumpled back.
And the footsteps have returned and recede, the chimes grow higher and faster.
The feet pause before restarting. It is as the beginning.
Footsteps fade. The chimes quiet as well. Tinkling to emptiness.

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The WSP was created in the late 1960s, the brain child of R. Murray Schafer. Schafer led young composers and students in a movement to raise awareness of “noise pollution.” Noise Pollution, defined by the US EPA is “unwanted or disturbing sound.”

The movement began and largely developed in the Canadian Simon Fraser University. Online I found copies of The Soundscape Newsletter published through the university’s Department of Communication. The newsletter represented the “voice” of The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE). Acoustic ecology is there defined as “the study of the relationship between living organisms and their sonic environment or soundscape.”

It all comes off as new age and experimental, a true 70s movement.

The complete form of Whisper, composed by Hildegard Westerkamp is 11:30 seconds long. The opening line, “When there is no sound, hearing is most alert,” is a quote from Kirphal Singh, an Indian mystic. Hildegard is the narrator’s voice reading Norbert Ruebsaat’s poem, “When there is no sound.”


  • Ruebsaat, Norbert. "When There Is No Sound." Comp. Orld Forum for Acoustic Ecology. The Soundscape Newsletter 7 (Jan. 1994): 17-18. WFAE. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.
  • Truax, Barry. "The World Soundscape Project." WORLD SOUNDSCAPE PROJECT. Simon Fraser University, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
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  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Noise Pollution." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 16 July 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
  • Westerkamp, Hildegard. "Whisper Study (1975/79)." Hildegard Westerkamp. Simon Fraser University, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Are you listening?

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Ashli created a piece, 1:29, a homage to “Listening Through Walls.” The piece is unnerving, hollow, eerie and echoing. Aside from being a tad long, I was really quite impressed with her interpretation. (The length can be forgiven, as she mistook measures for seconds).

Really it was super creepy, as she intended. The high-pitched whispers were nicely balanced by slow and deep hollow sounds. She in fact used a cough, slowed considerably, to create a low boom sound, which opens the piece. Ashli later used scratching sounds behind the nonsense jumble of the vocals to add an urgent, frantic element.

The audio climaxes at about 48 seconds. The sound reaches an all time crescendo. This is, however, almost in the middle of the entire piece. I would say leave the climatic moment closer to the end perhaps.

The final half minute is much quieter, a dream fading back into reality. The slowing pace serves somewhat to alleviate the unnerving qualities of her homage. I do, I admit, wish the words had had some meaning. Words are very important, and while we often overlook or miss the specifics of text, it can add or detract meaning.