Canadian composer, performer and writer sylvi macCormac has worked in many diverse styles, from community arts and folk music to her current work in electroacoustic composition at Simon Fraser University, where she is studying for a Master of Arts degree with Barry Truax. Recently she presented a lecture entitled "Field of Sound: is Stochastic a Dirty word?" to the Acoustic Engineers Society.

Miriam Rainsford is a London-based electroacoustic composer, singer and regular contributor to Mstation.

Together they enjoy a cup of tea across the waves of the Atlantic and the Internet, discussing sylvi's work in electroacoustic music, and exchanging thoughts, ideas and soundscapes.

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What decided you to make the move from folk music to soundscape composition and composing with sound? was it a natural transition, and do you find there are any links or common trains of thought between the two?

As well as being a songwriter, mask maker and musician/performer, my trade was as a picture framer. With the onset of Multiple Sclerosis, and possible loss of physical abilities, i decided to continue university to become an educator with a focus on music and literature. By chance i discovered the world of Electroacoustics and Soundscape Composition. if Folk music was my first love, EA and Soundscape Composition became my second love. i have been especially influenced by the compositional and communicational guidance of composer Barry Truax (granular and fm synthesis) and the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, begun by R. Murray Schafer (composer and inventor of the word Soundscape). Glenn Gould's "Solitude Trilogy" and Hildegard Westerkamp's work also continue to inspire and inform me. Reading about Penny Seeger's work at the BBC, combining voices of people with arthritis and mine workers with folk songs, inspired me to start the WHEELs project working with the voices of people with (dis) abilities. Being immersed in the work of William Butler Yeats has not helped matters for my love of language has only been made more visible and audible. i am blessed and honoured to have found a field where i continue to be welcomed and encouraged to work to the best of my abilities.

In Folk Music there is an element of story telling which reflects upon human experiences and often concerns itself with the well being or conscious growth of individuals and society. With or without words, EA and Soundscape Compositions tell wonderful and meaningful stories, setting abstract and concrte scenes for our imaginations to wander/wonder. i jest with a bit of truth when i say that Soundscape Composition is the Folk Music of Electroacoustics. In some circles Folk is a four letter or dirty word, as Stochastic was to the Serialists, and there is an EA tradition of abstraction without reference to our experiences of the world around us. Soundscape Composers are concerned not only with making beautiful music but also telling stories with the purpose of cultural awareness, or at least sensitivity, regarding the acoustic ecology and balance of our environments.

i must admit, the palette of EA and Soundscape Composition is much richer and seemingly vast in texture / timbre / time and possibilities, than i've known in my work with 'Folk' music. Electroacoustics and Soundscape Composition open infinitely diffuse sonic doors to story spaces. In this sense my second love feels more mature and i am much more fulfilled and content in my compositional work with voices (spoken & sung), instruments (traditional & found) and environmental sounds (cultural & natural). i look forward with anticipation and excitement to many years of creativity and teaching in studios and fields of sound.

"Witness: Round Journey", composed for the Witness project, also features recordings made with Canadian First Nations people, a culture whose history is steeped in a storytelling tradition: do you perhaps feel a kindred spirit with their culture?

The Witness Project is an intercultural dialogue and exchange. Invited to participate in traditional Witness ceremonies during weekends in the Elaho, we are asked to be the eyes and the ears of wilderness and changes taking place. i was honoured to work with members of the Squamish Nation, professional artists, wilderness educators, environmentalists and members of the public to create Witness: Round Journey. The work includes environmental recordings of the Elaho of British Columbia, a pristine wilderness whose integrity is being threatened, and the voices of about 20 individuals whose words run the gamut from scientific to cultural perspectives of how wilderness and loss of wilderness affects us. i hope that i have been able through sound and voices to tell a story of the wild that exists at the moment, and what may be lost if we do not perk up our ears and listen closely to what wilderness and witnesses are hearing and reflecting in the Elaho. If wilderness is the lungs of the planet then its life is necessary to ours. Beyond this fact, wilderness is a space and time which provides sustenance that has no quantifiable measure.

i say that i am Celtic born on Native Land to acknowledge that tho i am Irish-Canadian i recognize the original peoples of this country, the First Nations. Throughout my life i have been influenced by their presence, their story telling and music, as well as the knowledge of their struggles. The history (loss of language and culture) and mythology (ravens & tricksters) of the Irish people have parallels to First Nations people. William Butler Yeats was instrumental in preserving the Irish language and stories, as many people are doing now in terms of First Nations. It would be humanities loss if the wilderness and our cultural stories and wisdom were forever gone.

At Simon Fraser University you are working with leading composers Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp amongst others - is Vancouver a centre for soundscape composition?

Barry Truax is a gentle genius who has encouraged me to realize in sound what i hear in my imagination and has been unwavering in his support at every branch along the way. i met Hildegard when she taught a workshop on the World Soundscape Project and the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology for SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts. Barry introduced the World Soundscape Project and HW's work and in meeting her for the second time i was able to write an essay and create an audio-portrait of the composer called, Voices of a Place: Hildegard Westerkamp Inside the Soundscape . The composition was published with the article, Conversing with Nature: Relections on Hildegard Westerkamp's "Talking Rain" in Musicworks #74 Summer '99. Working with the WSP archives, an interview with HW, an improvisation on the sounds she records and words from her Master's thesis, Listening & Soundmaking, i became quickly immersed in the World Soundscape Project (begun at SFU in the 1970's). The WSP along with Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp continue to inform and inspire us locally and globally about sound, soundscape and soundscape composition.

Being involved with the World Soundscape project - do you see your work as being "sound conservation" or "acoustic ecology"? what is meant by these terms?

After this sudden immersion in the WSP i emerged with great interest. As well as composition studies i began taking courses in Communications with Barry Truax. In my Masters i hope to create 8 channel works (with stereo mixes) for a CD-rom relating to Sound and the World Soundscape Project. My work will include the archives and voices of the founders including Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, R. Murray Schafer and their colleagues.

i think that we are only becoming aware of how sounds affect us, what we are gaining and losing when we affect the soundscape. i love sound and music and i feel extremely stressed when it hurts my ears. i feel nauseous if it is too loud and mechanically repetitive. At the moment i live in a construction zone on the edge of a vast wilderness. Many of the birds have gone and some are trying to find their old nests. i hope they return when it is peaceful again.

Acoustic Ecology implies and encourages balance in the Environment. If we look at sound in the environment as having significance and not as abstract concepts we see / hear what those sounds are truly communicating. Sounds like words are significant / signifiers. We are overcome by much louder ambient sound levels than we have ever known and are forcefully bombarded by unwanted sonic information every day. As a soundscape composer i am interested in things such as resonance and how sounds affect us. For further in depth considerations of soundscape composition and acoustic ecology, i refer you to the writings of R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax ( and to Westerkamp who writes, "The essence of soundscape composition is the artistic, sonic transmission of meanings about place, time, environment and listening perception .... A soundscape composition is always rooted in themes of the sound environment. It is never abstract."

Westerkamp, H. 1999 Soundscape Composition: Linking Inner and Outer Worlds.


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sylvi at home with her cat Soula
Soula in the photograph used on the cover of "Echoes o' Home"