Music

Aural borealis

A Canadian composer heeds the call of the wild

JOHN BEMROSE September 10 2001
Music

Aural borealis

A Canadian composer heeds the call of the wild

JOHN BEMROSE September 10 2001

Aural borealis

Music

A Canadian composer heeds the call of the wild

JOHN BEMROSE

For R. Murray Schafer, this must be hell. Outside the window: a desolate view of a Toronto mall. Inside the coffee shop where he sits with legs flung over the arm of an overstuffed chair: no-name music pulsing from ceiling speakers. No wonder Canadas most renowned composer seems a bit dyspeptic. After all, he virtually invented the study of sonic pollution—“sound sewage,” in his memorable phrase. And he’s a dedicated hater of urban sprawl. “Look at this place,” he says, gesturing to the bleak vista of stores and parked cars. “Everything you see is made by human beings. Well, such a world engenders a very stunted attitude to life, and anyone who holds it holds it to the detriment of humanity. I think it’s absolutely essential for people to get outside of cities and discover a world that isn’t manmade.”

Schafer’s work is infused with that belief. For several decades, he’s been moving people into the wilds to listen to his music. His latest project is The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, the eighth instalment in his Patria cycle, which, over the past two decades, has been produced in exotic locations around the country as well as in Holland and Belgium. The musical drama (Sept. 13 to 16) will be staged on and around a lake near the composers rural home near Peterborough, Ont. Like all the Patria shows, it spins a mythic tale, in this case about the loss and rediscovery of a magical bird of peace. Set in ancient China, the production will feature a young women’s choir, metre-high puppets, t’ai chi performers, traditional Chinese instruments and an army of soloists and swimmers—some 65 performers in all.

In other words, Palace is a typically vast Schaferian project, challenging for a person of any age, daunting for a man of 68. But Schafer seems trim and fit. His one good eye sparkles as he warms to his ideas. The other eye, which is glass, stares ofif on a more melancholy tack of its own. His voice is sonorous and slightly nasal, with a hint of weary drollery oddly reminiscent of the older Pierre Trudeau. As the interview progresses, he begins to laugh a good deal, exuding the relaxed confidence of someone with so many accomplishments behind him he has little left to prove. There’s the small mountain of instrumental and vocal works, the international reputation, the articles and books he’s written on subjects as diverse as “acoustic ecology” (his term for his groundbreaking studies of our sonic environments) and modernist poet Ezra Pound.

What’s fascinating about Schafer is the way he’s tried to fuse his various passions into a single vision. Over the years, he’s come increasingly to stress the natural world as the common ground to which all human activity must pay heed. And he’s found ingenious ways to illustrate that belief. For the three 1985 Banff stagings of The Princess of the Stars (the prologue to the Patria cycle), his audiences—more than 5,000 people all told—had to rouse themselves in the dark and walk to a remote lake. They were rewarded with a view of the sun coming up to the strains of Schafer’s music and the carolling of birds. “Sunrise,” the composer says emphatically, “is the most neglected masterpiece of this or any other century.”

For The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, Schafer will tuck his choir away in the woods, so that it seems as if the woods themselves are singing. Ifs a typical strategy from the composer, who hopes his environmental music (as opposed to the scores he intends to be played indoors) will help rekindle his audience’s sense of wonder before nature. “Modern artists no longer understand how to inhabit the out-of-doors to work with that space,” he contends. “It isn’t simply a matter of putting on a conventional piece outside. You have to attend to what’s already there.” One of his own favourite memories of music and landscape coming perfectly together involved a piece he wrote several years ago for solo voice. Recalls Schafer: “The refrain of the song runs, ‘I come to you, I sing to you, I am one with you.’ Well, when we performed that in the mountains, the echo came back, and you lost track of who was doing the singing. Was it the singer or the mountains or both?”

Raymond Murray Schafer was born in Sarnia, Ont., and raised in Toronto. He spent much of his early adulthood studying on his own in Europe, where he immersed himself in literature, philosophy and languages (he was especially interested in medieval German). For a decade after 1965, he taught in the experimental Communications Centre at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, where he pioneered new ways of teaching music to children. He also initiated his studies of the human soundscape (a term he coined), summarizing his discoveries in his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World.

Since 1987, Schafer has lived on a farm near the village of Indian River. The composer tends a large garden, a passion reflected in The Spirit Garden, another Patria instalment that concludes in Winnipeg this fall. The first part, mounted in May, involved an act of ritual planting by the audience; on Nov. 2, spectators get to eat the crops. “I think I live by my philosophy, more or less,” Schafer says. “I don’t like to have a lot of technology around me.” In fact, he doesn’t own a computer or televi-

sion (though he does use a phone and a radio). Twice divorced, he lives with his companion, Canadian mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, or at least he does when she’s in the country. James has made a career in Europe, though she recently returned to appear in Palace.

Schafer’s latest project features t’ai chi performers, a choir and puppets

Like the other Patria instalments, Palace reflects Schafer’s deep interest in Jungian psychology. The show, with its symbolic male and female figures searching for each other, draws on Jung’s concept of individuation—the mysterious process by which a mature personality develops. Discerning listeners may also catch strains of Schafer’s political leanings. “I’m an anarchist in the original sense of the anarchist philosophers like Godwin and Kropotkin,” he says. “I think that the best way for the world to function is to stimulate very small enterprises, and to prevent large concentrations of power.”

That belief leads Schafer to inveigh against a lot of things, from our vast, polluting electric power systems to the cultural dominance of our largest cities. “The cities suck all the talent out of the hinterlands. They produce commercial culture, and they broadcast this junk back to the hinterlands, where people are supposed to feel grateful for it.” His voice rising, the composer continues: “If we want to revitalize the hinterlands, then people there should be making little operas or whatever, so there’s something to do there, for heaven’s sake, rather than watching movies every night and getting fatter.”

Schafer muses that if he was 30 and starting over again, he would try to create a cycle of musical rituals attuned to specific places and times, such as the sunrise ceremony in Princess of the Stars. “Rituals draw us up out of ourselves, they bring us together in the experience of something larger,” he insists. Schafer says it’s too late for him to write such a cycle. But given the man’s sense of urgency about the state of the world, no one should bet against his trying. Cj]