One of the best-known works of composer R. Murray Schafer is an operatic piece called Ra, an 11-hour-long blend of music and elaborately costumed performances about ancient Egypt. It is that mix of originality and daring that has made Schafer, 54, one of Canada’s most renowned composers. The Sarnia, Ont, native, who has taught music studies in Canada and the United States, is currently working on The Greatest Show on Earth, an experimental opera that is scheduled to preview in Peterborough, Ont., in August. The author of a 1977 book about noise pollution, The Tuning of the World, Schafer is also known for, among other works, his Princess of the Stars, an outdoor musical drama based on native legend. Last May the composer was the first to be awarded the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize—an international award created by the Glenn Gould Memorial Foundation as a tribute to the Canadian musician who died in 1982—which is to be given every three years to an artist who has contributed to music and communication. Schafer spoke with Maclean’s Associate Editor Yvonne Cox last month in Toronto.
Maclean’s: Why are so many people intimidated by serious music?
Schafer: The schools are all geared to the discovery of genius. Every piano teacher is trying to discover the next Glenn Gould, because if they do, they will be able to charge more for their
piano lessons. That is what they are really interested in, rather than giving people a solid education so that they will have fun playing the piano or singing or making music for the rest of their lives.
Maclean’s: What would be the benefits to a society if many more people wanted to make music? Schafer: You would have a larger number of people who wouldn’t see themselves simply as consumers of a musical product. It would be very healthy— amateur music-making rather than audiences trooping down to [Toronto’s] Roy Thomson Hall to hear the pros. People are encouraged to think that they are musical imbeciles, that expensive stars will bring them something they will be happy to pay for. Why should all the music that is performed be by somebody who is probably dead, when anybody can in fact make their own music?
Maclean’s: Do we have a distinctive Canadian music?
Schafer: As long as we keep asking that question in Canada, the implied answer is that there is not. I really think that there is. We are deceiving ourselves because we are still so spellbound by imported foreign culture. A
work like Princess of the Stars, which we did in Banff, Alta., the year before last, attracted 5,500 people. And these people, I assure you, were not coming to hear new music or avant-garde theatre. They understood that this work would be done around the lake at dawn, with people singing across the water. It was something very close to their unarticulated consciousness as Canadians, because they have all gone on canoe trips and listened to the loons crying across the lake in the morning. It is the job of an artist to bring it out—once it is brought out, people respond to it.
Maclean’s: How did you become interested in noise pollution ?
Schafer: I taught the first course in a Canadian university in noise pollution at Simon Fraser University in 1966. I found that some students regarded the subject with cynicism: so the world’s noisy, so what? I wanted to turn an essentially negative subject—noise is bad—into something positive. I think that’s when the word “soundscape” occurred to me as a means of studying the entire acoustic environment, not just the noises. In the past, people did not put up with constant acoustic bombardment. When you are walking down the street, sirens and horns are constantly vying for your attention. And even when you’re sitting at home, the noise of lawn mowers, radios or ringing telephones interrupts you. If we are superficial people, we are so in defence against all the noise.
Maclean’s: How would you describe The Greatest Show on Earth ?
Schafer: It is done in the form of a carnival, outdoors, with booths and carnival people in front of their tents luring people in. You can participate if you want to or you can watch it from the outside. What I wanted to do was to involve an entire community. Most of the performers are local Peterborough people. The idea is to have a nucleus of professionals working alongside a large complement of amateurs and students.
Maclean’s: What prompted you to begin The Greatest Show?
Schafer: It’s a labor of love. These large works are never commissioned. What one tends to get commissioned to write are fairly conventional works. We still don’t have faith in our artists to do big things. Write your 10-minute overture—but don’t have a big thought because we couldn’t handle it. And yet many of us are having big thoughts. Of course, the fact that I never got a commission to write an opera has resulted in the creation of works like The Greatest Show. It is much better, because the pieces are more interesting. Who needs another conventional opera?
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