As one of a handful of living Canadian composers to cause waves on an international level, Raymond Murray Schafer has pushed the boundaries of music, theatre, and performance through his explorations in environment and ritual. Born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1933, he studied music at both the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music before accepting a teaching position at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. Finding himself increasingly disturbed by the city’s cacophonous backdrop of mechanical noise, Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project. During the late sixties and seventies the WSP dedicated itself to studying the ecology of soundscapes and the potential impacts of noise pollution, advocating for noise by-laws and acoustic design in urban planning. In a representative piece of writing from the era Schafer wrote:
A park or a garden is a place where nature is cultivated. It is a humanized treatment of landscape. It may contain human artifacts but they must harmonize with the natural inheritance – otherwise we no longer have a park but a highway or a slum. If synthetic sounds are introduced, if we venture to produce what I would call “the soniferous garden,” care must be taken to ensure that they are sympathetic vibrations of the garden’s original notes. The wind chimes of the Japanese, or the once-popular aeolian or wind harp, are reinforcements of natural sounds in the same way as the trellis reinforces the presence of the rose. (The Music of the Environment, 1973)
As some of the first to produce methodical soundscape recordings and publish treatises on soundscape ecology, including The Tuning of the World (1977) and The Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (1978), the WSP proved influential to environmentalists and artists alike. As a composer, the realization that the totality of environmental influences had such an impact on the perception and reception of sound would ultimately compliment Schafer’s interests in history and myth and his penchant for romance during the production of some of his most spectacular works.
Although Schafer’s musical output is diverse in style and genre, it can be roughly divided into two bodies of work: his concert music and his environmental works. The concert works include a series of eight string quartets (check out the great recording by Quatuor Molinari here), a number of orchestral pieces, a handful of concertos, and some chamber works. Check out this 1987 composition for guitar and tape titled Le Cri de Merlin for an example of Schafer’s instrumental writing. This work showcases Schafer’s expert integration of extended instrumental techniques, his interest in electronics and prerecorded sounds, and his fascination with myth and nature. The title of the work is a play on words, referring to both the Merlin species of falcon and Carl Jung’s analysis of Merlin and Parsifal myths. There is also a powerful allusion to Merlin the wizard’s powers of transformation.
Schafer’s concert works also encompasses his large body of choral writing. Here is a fantastic recording of Snowforms (1986). Schafer composed the piece in his farmhouse in Ontario over the course of several winters, inspired by the snow covered landscape outside. The score for this work makes use of graphic notation and some improvisation on the part of the performers. The text is based on a number of the various Inuit words for snow.
R. Murray Schafer – Snowforms
While the influence of the natural world is evident in all of Schafer’s music, it truly takes centre stage in his environmental works. Compositions like Music for Wilderness Lake (1979) and some of the opera and theatre pieces in his grand cycle Patria transplant the performers and audience directly into the wilderness of North America. Music for Wilderness Lake is scored for twelve trombonists in three groups and an isolated wilderness lake. Schafer places the groups of trombones at separate locations around the shore and conducts from a raft or boat in the centre of the lake using coloured flags and cues. The work comprises the two movements “Dawn” and “Dusk” that are to be performed at those times and requires the performers and audiences to camp at the lake on the preceding night in order to be prepared for the early morning performance. Similarly, The Princess of the Stars (1981), the prologue to his twelve-part opera cycle Patria, plays out at dawn on the surface of a lake. Based on Native American mythology, the piece tells the story of the Princess of the Stars, daughter of the Sun God, who falls to earth and interacts with a cast of characters including Wolf, the Three Horned Enemy, and the Dawn Birds. The instrumentalists are located around the shore and the singers and actors placed in costumed canoes on the surface of the lake. The libretto of the work is written in an imagined language of Schafer’s own design and a medicine man narrator serves as an intermediary between the performers and the audience.
Due to their very nature, recordings of these works are difficult to find. There is a National Film Board of Canada production of Music for Wilderness Lake that is engrossing to watch, ask your local library to find you a copy of the DVD. While there doesn’t seem to be any full video productions of the wilderness operas, there are a number of excerpted recordings and photographs available online and in print. Schafer’s own book Patria provides an incredibly in depth overview of the cycle and his philosophy and is well worth checking out if you can find a copy. Here is a short excerpt of The Princess of the Stars that gives you an idea of how the costumed actors are conveyed in canoes and you’ll also get to hear a bit of Schafer’s original language. Also worth checking out is the following excerpt from Isis & Nephthys, part of Schafer’s sixth opera in the Patria cycle, Ra.
R. Murray Schafer – Isis and Nephthys
The music, productions, and settings of these environmental works are beautiful and stunning, but they hold an even greater ritual significance for Schafer. Pieces like The Princess of the Stars compel an otherwise urbanite audience to undertake a pilgrimage into nature. The exceptional change in niche that the opera dictates compels the audience to pay attention to their surroundings, as does the actual content of the work. The immersion is absolute as the opera begins with the narrator paddling slowly across the lake towards the audience before informing them that they are about to witness the sacred actions of gods and animals and performing an incantation meant to turn them to trees so that they may not interfere in the proceedings. This opening act completes the transformation begun during the voyage to the site and sacralizes the setting whilst solidifying the audience’s identity with the local ecosystem. This ritualistic approach reaches a zenith in And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, Schafer’s epilogue to the cycle and ongoing project. Realized each summer, the epilogue has no audience and calls for sixty-four performers divided into eight clans to hike into the wilderness where they camp for a week. During the week time is split between routine camp work and highly ritualized performances. Schafer provides the performers with music and ritual instructions to be realized during certain activities and at certain times of day. The week culminates in a highly involved ritual that marks the return of the Princess of the Stars to her home and Wolf’s reward in Schafer’s mythos. For an idea of what Schafer is trying to create in these works, one need only look to his own characterization of an idyllic pre-modern time:
Once ‘art’ made divinities out of trees, out of mountains, out of the sun and the sky, out of the sea and the moon and the stars. … Then there was no art. There were miracles. Then there was no music. There was tone magic. Then there were no artists. There were priests and magicians. Then the whole world of nature was a continuous, evolving hierophany. And man was dancing and singing and gawking at the heart of it. (Patria, 2002).