by Hildegard Westerkamp and Norbert Ruebsaat

an acoustic environment for a group exhibition of the "Zone of Silence Project",
Museum of Quebec, Quebec City, Dec 85/Jan 86

In December/January of 1984/85, twelve artists from four cultures camped together in the so-called Zone of Silence in north central Mexico to explore the desert environment through their respective disciplines and make art. The participants were: Richard Martel, visual artist; Silvy Panet-Raymond, choreographer/dancer; Lise Labrie, sculpturess; and Jeanne McDonald-Pourier, poet; from Quebec, Canada.-Wanda Campbell, writer; from the United States.-Domingo Cisneros, sculptor and organizer of the "Zone of Silence Project"; Benjamin Medel, filmmaker; Francisco Perez Garcia, visual artist and poet; Gloria Cano, historian; Carlos Majul, filmmaker; from Mexico.-Norbert Ruebsaat, poet/writer; Hildegard Westerkamp, composer; from British Columbia, Canada.- and the two children Ayesha Cisneros (Quebec) and Sonja Ruebsaat (British Columbia).

The Zona del Silencio is known for its strange landscape formations, unusual plant and animal life, for its odd meteorological activity, and for the fact that the earth's magnetic field seems to have a hole here. Tape recorders don't work in parts of the Zona, compasses go mad, etc.

The Zone of Silence has been studied by scientists (in 1974, the Allende Meteorite landed there, causing a flurry of research activity by NASA), by Native shamans (the country has numerous ritual and healing sites) but never by contemporary urban-based artists.

We camped in the Zone, in an Apache ruin, and did art events, performance, photography, recording, sound-making, story-telling, sculpture, poetry. Zone of Silence Story is an account of some of these adventures. It's made from environmental sounds, poems, stories, music, conversation, plant sounds, rock noise and cricketsong.

Notes to the Acoustic Installation

One of the most striking experiences in very quiet environments is the emergence of the desire to make sounds, language and music. It is striking because the constant bombardment of sound we experience in cities all too often puts us out of touch with this desire.

Zone of Silence Storyis an attempt to recapture some of this primary feeling. It begins with a variety of ambiencesÑnighttime with crickets, setting up camp; quiet day ambience, etc.-and as the piece progresses, it involves the listener more and more in the activity of sound and word making.

1) The first sound on the tape comes from clapping and foot stomping inside the remains of a desert water reservoir. Two parallel walls stand about a metre and a half apart and three to four metres high. The change in sound colour which one hears results from making sound in different parts of this space. The clarity of the soundÑone can hear the subtle changes in harmonics-is possible because of the total silence that surrounded the reservoir. It is an unusual sound, intended as a fanfare to introduce the piece.

2) Cricket's Nightvoice and Arrival Campsite Ambience.It's dusk. A group of us has just arrived, joining the others who have already been camped at the site for a week. We have to hurry to unpack and pitch our tents before dark. The sound elements are: musicians with drums and a horn and voices ushering us into camp; crickets; voices in three languages (Spanish, French, English); children's voices.

3) Rockstories.The desert was strewn with the most amazing rocks. Everyone had their own little rock collection. One day Norbert decided to play a game with Sonja, 7, and Ayesha, 9. They put their rock collection of the day between them on the ground and each of them had to take a turn picking out a rock, looking at it, and then telling a story about it. This section records some of these stories, the talk around them, and poems that Norbert wrote afterwards about the event. Some of the percussive sounds are the rocks, which have a high degree of metal in them, clinking together. Other rock sounds come from holding a handful of small meteorites (that fall like a kind of hail in the Zone) and rubbing them against each other.

4) Sonic Meditations and Star Language.Everyone is lying, star-shaped, heads together at the centre of camp, looking at the stars and doing sound/voice explorations. The event lasted several hours. This short section is an excerpt of the longer recording and concentrates on the word "silence" spoken in three languages. Norbert later composed a poem series, "Star Language," which brings together the sound of the crickets with the image of stars. He speaks it here, as the cricket sound begins to modulate in pitch as a result of tape speed changes. By chance one night a single cricket "sang" directly into Hildi's microphone. Because it was such a close up recording, it lent itself particularly well to this kind of "treatment" (ie. speed manipulation) in the studio. Slowed down to half and quarter speed, this tiny sound begins to disclose its inner complexity and structure.

5) The Truth is Acoustic.In the absence of found sound in the environment (it was almost totally silent) Hildi went out and made sounds. Since the plants, especially the cacti, were all thick and suggested interior spaces, she began to pluck on their spines, rub and caress their surfaces, pound on them with an improvised drumstick. She recorded the resulting sounds very close up, and later worked with these in the studio. After watching her and hearing the recordings, Norbert composed a series of poems.

Norbert says about his poems: "In making the poems for this installation, I was guided by my continuing desire to make language that is of a place and speaks as part of a larger (re)enactment of that place. Hence the music and photos."

"The 'poems' that emerge should thus be heard as points of human disclosure or orientation in a narrative that is longer and vaster than the human voice. The words become waysigns, nodes of thought or points of new departure in a journey which is often performed in silence-or rather, within the sounds of the actual landscape."

Imagine the world
trying to get inside this plant.
Knocking on it
as one would on a sealed chamber.

The spines snarl angrily
like dogs chained to a doorpost.

The meat resists
the hand or the knife,
and when you finally enter
you're already lost in infinity.

In tasture or text,
I mean texture or taste,
in pulchre-

it speaks
back at you hollowly
as if it were its own sound.

Already a magical potion:
maguey, ocotillo, cardenche,
mezcal, sotol-
the infinite ear.


This Installation was originally produced for a group exhibition of the Zone of Silence Project in the Museum of Quebec, Quebec City, in December 1985.

Rock photos and plant close-ups by Hildegard Westerkamp.
Rock arrangements by Jeanne MacDonaldÐPourier.
Other photos by Norbert Ruebsaat.
Cactus Dance by Sonja Ruebsaat.
Video and film documentation by Carlos Majul and Benjamin Medel.
"Mohovamec: Meeting Place" by Richard Martel.
"Chichimeca Resurrection" by Domingo Cisneros.
"Universal Symbols" by Lise Labrie.
"Birdsnest Place" by Sonja and Norbert Ruebsaat.
Zone of Silence Acoustic Installation by Hildegard Westerkamp;
with poems and reading by Norbert Ruebsaat, additional story and voice material by Ayesha Cisneros and Sonja Ruebsaat, musical excerpts from Cantata Chichimeca, Dawn Concert by U. Calitka, Sonic Meditations by Project participants.

Reading includes: Art Camp, The Fox, Rock Stories, Birdsnest Place, Star Language, The Truth is Acoustic, The Plants, The Infinite Ear, Walking Around.
Thanks to Domingo Cisneros and Wanda Campbell for organizing the Zone of Silence Project and for acting as its over-all leaders.
Thanks also to all Project participants for their voices, activities, sound-making contributions.

Ayesha Cisneros, 9, and Sonja Ruebsaat, 7, participated actively in the making of Zone of Silence Story, and the piece is dedicated to them.