A long night’s journey into day

John Pearce May 16 1983

A long night’s journey into day

John Pearce May 16 1983

A long night’s journey into day


John Pearce

The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto is an improbable setting for an 11-hour dusk-to-dawn ritual based on ancient Egyptian texts. Still, Ra, the latest and most outlandish creation of composer R. Murray Schafer, opened there last Saturday and continues this week amid a flurry of divided critical opinion. Thirty-three intensely committed singers, dancers and actors are backed up by a battery of Egyptologists, a “smell consultant” for the scents of the gods, and 100 formidable masks. Six instrumentalists play traditional Egyptian music, under the direction of George Sawa. At the same time, the haunting musical set pieces by Schafer—the highlights of which are available on a new recording from Centrediscs—explore infinite sonorities of voice and percussion. And the night is redolent with hypnotic chanting which mingles ecstasy with lament.

For two years Cornus Music Theatre and Schafer have labored over the “mystery drama,” which runs until May 14 in Toronto and may be repeated in Holland and Egypt. The $250,000 production re-creates the death of the sun god, Ra, his epic battles in the Underworld and his victorious rebirth at dawn. Ra’s ambitions are lofty in the extreme. Schafer removes art from the concert hall or theatre, returning it to

its religious, political, social and festive associations. It also claims to be a new form of theatre, drawing on all the arts and engaging all the senses. And it attempts to be a “collective ceremony” between the audience and the performers, a symbolic journey in which philosophical concepts of death and rebirth are made personal and immediate.

The audience is restricted to 75 people a night. Each patron becomes a participant in the ritual and takes one of the 75 names of Ra as a seal of divine protection against the terrors of the night. Practical considerations also limit the numbers, because the audience must be guided around 29 acting areas, first around the science centre’s grounds and then down through its darkened multitiered chambers and echoing stairwells. The experience is a mixture of Halloween, mass hypnosis, first communion, group therapy, a ride on the Ghost Train at the fun fair and a series of rites sometimes reminiscent of the Masons and sometimes of the Moonies. The whole night swings between solemnity and absurdity.

Cynics have ample fodder to criticize in Ra’s aspirations to grand spectacle. For one thing, there is an unlikely vision of 75 solid citizens blindfolded and with hands linked, wearing kaftans and burnouses as they tread across strange surfaces and through jarring sensations. At the end of that ritual they per-

form a war dance against the serpent monster, Apophis, in the cold midnight air. At other times they are packed tightly in fetal positions or taught magic breathing exercises while Schafer hovers in the background like a latter-day Prospero. As well, the modern setting of Ra creates moments of comic incongruity. As the King’s funeral procession, guarded by an RCMP horseman, winds its way through the grounds, there is a clatter of nearby CP Rail cars. During the indoor scenes the audience’s concentration on ancient Egypt is broken by an encounter with Canada’s first space satellite, the appearance of the god Thoth at the top of an escalator, and neon exit signs that counterpoint the flickering torchlight in the Netherworld.

Surprisingly, a spirit of belief and collaboration and a reverent, prayerful atmosphere take over members of the audience. Willingly they hum three sacred tones as a talisman against ghouls and ghosts. Waiting in line causes boredom, but some of the tableaux have undeniable power. One of the strongest, called The Opening of the Eyes and the Mouth, is a mortuary scene centring on the King, played by Theodore Gentry. His wonderful countertenor steals the show even from such superb voices as those of Katherine Terrell (Isis) and Eleanor James (Hasroet). Other highlights include Harrowing of Hell, in

which Ra drives his sun boat resplendently through a mass of writhing, tortured figures; the strumming of the oud, a mandolin-like instrument, as the audience lies in darkness; a somnabulistic circle of loving, formed in the waters of the Netherworld and leading to a moving initiation. The excellent doglike acting of Jan Filips as the jackal god, Anubis, adds to the effect. Maureen Forrester’s aria has less impact because it comes at 4 a.m., after the audience has taken a one-hour break for sleep. And a midnight feast of stuffed vine leaves and yogurt salad, while splendidly sumptuous, interrupts the intensity of the rite.

That intensity is a challenge for anyone not interested in pharaonic Egypt.

The various chants, passwords and exercises are a further problem because they are often more like party games than holy invocations, making the event resemble a romp. As for Schafer’s loftier claims, he certainly heightens the senses, but too often in a rather inept 1960s “touchyfeelie” way. And the rebirth is more metabolic than metaphysical: the climbing of hundreds of stairs is at least good exercise for every member of the audience.

Initiates to the Ra ritual have to consider not only their stamina but also the $150 price tag, though 125 of a possible 10-day audience of 750 were lucky winners of a $2-aticket lottery that Schafer introduced to combat charges of elitism. Some participants may find the whole exercise pointless; a few will feel it was worth $150.

A work like Ra is a predictable venture for the 49-year-old Sarnia, Ont.born Schafer. Philosopher, gadfly, graphic artist, writer on both romanticism and Ezra Pound, winner of France’s prestigious Prix Honneger, he is now an artistically fashionable heretic. Although he is deceptively softspoken, Schafer can be highly demanding of musicians and actors. And as a utopian in revolt against urban technology and what he calls “the totalitarian thrust of pop culture,” he has lost none of his acerbity.

Dismissed from the University of Toronto’s faculty of music in 1955 for insubordination, Schafer wandered through Europe until 1961. When he returned he cofounded the inventive Ten Centuries Concerts series in Toronto, and he was artist in residence for two years at Memorial University in St.

John’s. Then he settled from 1965 to 1975 in an interdisciplinary environment at Simon Fraser University in New Westminster, B.C. There he developed his preoccupation with sound and his provocative theories on music education (for which he is best known outside Canada). During that period he also became prominent as a composer.

Schafer first gained a wide audience in 1966 with Loving, an improvisatorial “audiovisual poem” for CBC TV, the meaning of which simply baffled many viewers. Since then, his impassioned political pronouncements, such as Can-

zoni for Prisoners (1961) and Threnody (1967), have given way to a concern with extreme mental states and with mystical subjects. Many of his librettos use recondite languages and mythology— Sanskrit, Hindu, Tibetan, Persian and now Egyptian. In Oriental philosophies he clearly sees a salve for the ills of the West.

While Schafer’s music can appear avant-garde, he is essentially a tonal, accessible composer. His textures are spare but luminous, and he favors a rapt, incantatory use of the voice and innovative combinations of instruments. To Schafer the symphony orchestra is obsolete and, in Canada, he says, “a colonial institution.” The best of his music is trancelike; the worst is pretty but tedious.

Some people feel that Schafer’s penchant for theatre is adversely affecting his music. Few experts question the reach of his imagination. But his critics say that the works do not always justify his sweeping claims and the considerable grants from government arts councils and private foundations. Said Toronto composer David Keane: “Murray

has a genius for making things sound spectacular and for attracting funding. But recently 90 per cent of the music has been anticlimactic, given the buildup—rather facile, trite, a prop serving the theatrical purpose. There are finite resources for new music, and it is hard to get attention for it. Given that Murray, through hard work and imagination, has more than his fair share, it would be nice if the music were more wonderful, more substantial.”

Schafer’s musical theories are certainly substantial. His most celebrated concept, persuasively set out in his 1977 book The Tuning of the World, is the “world soundscape,” the total aural environment. The subtle sound palette of nature and the human voice, says Schafer, has been replaced by a manmade “sound sewer.” The composer himself has retreated from that glut of noise. Since 1975 he has lived in deliberate isolation with his second wife, Jean, near Bancroft, Ont. Sometimes he emerges to superintend premieres such as his 1977 work Apocalypsis, a stupendous visionary undertaking presented in London, Ont. Schafer’s enz vironmental concerns have I led to experiments in re* mote natural amphiz theatres; in 1979 he blended z 12 trombones with the sounds of dusk and dawn over a lake.

Schafer wants to mix his works— those that can easily be repeated to audiences in the conventional way and onetime performances, such as his music pageant The Princess of the Stars. He claims to find the “repeatability” of music and theatre suspect, citing the fine workmanship of Roman coins that were actually minted in Rome, rather than in the provinces. “Further away, the workmanship got worse,” he says.

From a foreign perspective, it must seem extraordinary that Canada, which has failed to produce a single worldclass conductor, should have produced two such profound and “aberrant” musical thinkers as Schafer and Glenn Gould. Some of Schafer’s music is superb and will last. But possibly his exciting ideas are his most important and prophetic contribution. Ra itself will probably be remembered as an architect’s grand folly. But its halfcrazed and half-rewarding ambitions make Schafer’s twisted dream about perfection far more intriguing than most modern-day music theatre experiments.