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R Murray Schafer's
'My Life on Earth and Elsewhere',
read by A P VIRAG


It is a sad fact that in Canada far too few of its people know the name R Murray Schafer and far more know hockey players and certain pop singers better left unmentioned.

In this autobiography Schafer recollects his life, his work, his personal responses to literature, people and nature -- the last most especially in its sounding form, for Schafer is above all a composer. And sadly, he recalls the people who either stood in his way, maltreated him or behaved in unprofessional fashion. Depending on your character (optimist or pessimist), you will read this as a pean to creativity or a litany of uncalled-for struggles.

Both views are correct: one way, and the other. Schafer wrote a novel entitled Wolftracks, which can be read either from the first right hand page to the end or from the last left hand page to the front. The tale is an 'ouroboros' and circles forever. But both 'sides' are present.

The negative experiences might give a certain dramatic fervour (how could they have done that?), but it is probably better to focus upon the good. Further, when it is a matter of Schafer's creativity, there is so much to be amazed at.

'My Life on Earth and Elsewhere' - R Murray Schafer. © 2012 The Porcupine's Quill

Surprisingly, Schafer retains the usual pattern of autobiographies: from beginning until now. Born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1933, but raised in Toronto, Schafer writes of the terrible pain of losing an eye as a child at the hands of a (malicious) doctor, of the misunderstanding of teachers in school, of his debacles with professors at university and then his life as a deck hand on a Great Lakes ship. Of what he experienced he is always attentive and responsive:

Another memorable experience occurred one night on Lake Huron. I had by this time graduated to the position of watchman, and part of my duty was to spell off the wheelsman from time to time. It was always an indescribable thrill to take the wheel of this gigantic machine coasting over the waves under the moon and stars at night. In those days, the navigator plotted the course of the ship by listening to radio signals from transmitters at different points around the lake. Each signal had its own pitch and pulse: long-short-long ... short-short-short-long ... etc. On this night, as we were coming down Lake Huron, something went wrong with our receiver. The only signal we could bring in was that of a distant radio station playing Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. I will never forget that night: the foaming waves tossed over the fo'c's'le in the moonlight, blending with Sibelius ... No one spoke. We just listened to the symphony and the waves for a good half hour until the navigation signals returned. It was a good thing they did since we were nearing the shallow waters of the St Clair River where a lot of shipwrecks had occurred over the years. The position of these wrecks appeared on our maps and we had to keep clear of them, for some of the carcasses lay just a few metres below the surface of the water.

Schafer's spare and precise language simply presents the beauty while revealing his insights and he often makes no comment. Conclusions are left for the reader.

This simplicity of expression is interesting, because this simplicity is different from some of Schafer's compositions, which are often (though not always) gigantic and complex. For example, the vast series of theatrical events (opera is too small a term to use to describe these compositions) collectively entitled Patria, are works of amazing scope. On the other hand, there are brief pieces (such as the short book The Sixteen Scribes). But, these simply reveal the variety of Schafer's creative technique. And so, we can then seek for these simple works too -- and discover them. For example, his smaller choral pieces are perfect gems.

Europe called and he spent much time wandering through it on both sides of the Wall -- this in itself a remarkable achievement for the time (late 1950s and early 1960s). Schafer travelled through Soviet bloc Eastern Europe with courage, aplomb and the capacity to find himself in amazing situations. His time in communist Romania is worthy of a film (and not just a B-grade film as he says) ... Atom Egoyan (an A-grade film maker), are you listening?

He studied composition with Peter Racine Fricker and had a knack for meeting important people and then turning the meetings to good account. For instance, his meeting a group of British composers produced a superb book entitled British Composers in Interview (1963). Later when in Italy he met Ezra Pound, carried the manuscripts of the Cantos back to London and a certain Tom, and then produced Pound's musical drama (opera) Testament of Francois Villon (in 1962 for the BBC). Not content with that achievement, Schafer also published a thorough study entitled Ezra Pound and Music. But Schafer was rarely (if ever) overawed by those he met and often has pithy comments to make upon the meetings:

The other celebrity I brought to Simon Fraser University in the early days was Buckminster Fuller, who was probably at the peak of his fame at that time, having just designed the famous geodesic dome at Expo 67 in Montreal. 'Bucky', as he was called, gave a three-hour lecture with his eyes closed to an entranced audience, but when he was finished speaking he left the stage without giving the audience any opportunity for questions. He displayed a similar hauteur the next day while I was interviewing him for the CBC, stopping in mid-sentence when I had to change the reel on my portable tape recorder and continuing only when the tape was running again. Without an audience or a microphone he had nothing to say.

It is important to recall that Schafer also lived in Vienna and imbibed German culture (both medieval and modern) to great creative result.

The return to Canada found him going from one end of the nation to the other: Newfoundland at Memorial University, to British Columbia at Simon Fraser University and then back to Ontario.

While in British Columbia, he established the field of soundscape research on firm scientific and philosophic grounds. Today it is hard to imagine, but there was a deep-set intellectual bias towards the visual as the only legitimate source, or pathway, of knowledge. The idea that we might listen to the world and learn something was as suspect as the legal term 'hearsay' implies (this comment is inspired by Schafer or recalled without source from his work). We can thank Schafer for much of the work to change this.

It might be asked why Schafer stayed in Canada, as one could note the incredible difficulties he has had with Canadian cultural institutions. Why did he stay? Certainly he is very well known in Japan, the Spanish speaking world and even elsewhere (from the title of the autobiography).

Why Canada? Now, Schafer has received scores of commissions (from church choirs to the major symphony orchestras, and many major performers). His works are recorded on CDs, and most of his biggest works have received at least one performance. Even the vast Patria cycle has been mostly performed and one portion is on film (The Greatest Show). His ideas have led to frequent conferences, the first of which was The Tuning of the World in Banff 1993. More have followed. Even his musical scores -- which often contain artwork by Schafer himself, are so visually impressive they have been exhibited in art galleries.

Eventually, dissatisfied with the sonic sewers of urban life and for other personal and creative reasons, Schafer moved to the rural landscape of northern Ontario, first to Monteagle Valley and later Indian River. It was not isolation, but as Marsilio Ficino suggested, it is better for the creative to live in the country (Three Books on Life).

But again, why Canada?

In my estimation, it is that Schafer is deeply committed to the landscape, the soundscape and the experience of the vast frozen wasteland. Perhaps it is the sounds that glue him there, perhaps the rural quality of so much of even the settled land, perhaps the lack of so-called 'history' and therefore the continued presence of aboriginal culture and mythology (a potent influence upon his work), and perhaps it is the endless forests (which have mostly been cut down at least once), which have remarkable and divergent acoustic properties depending on the tree type, which are the glue.

It is fruitful to compare the Patria cycle of theatrical events with Stockhausen's cycle entitled Licht, to see the rural/mythological/natural opposed to the urban/historical/technological. It might (and only just might) be that Patria would not obviously appeal to the densely packed European urban experience, but the race memories of vast and seemingly endless forests and of unsullied nature (which were mined fruitfully only a hundred and fifty years ago by Wagner, and more recently by J R R Tolkien), would be an easy point of connection.

Schafer is the quintessential Canadian. Maybe that's why he wrote Music in the Cold?

Canadians would do well to remember this great creator and warm themselves with his creative fire during the long season of winter. I have often thought that the Russians would understand his music perfectly (such as North/White, which calls for a symphony orchestra to delineate the cold of the landscape and a snowmobile [!] on stage to shatter the lucid quiet).

But, and this is very important, other peoples of warmer climes could still easily grasp Schafer's music (for example, In Search of Zoroaster, his work on his own interpretation of the Zoroastrian ceremonies), the immense composition Lustro, with its first part based on the twelfth century mystic Rumi (entitled by Schafer Divan i Shams i Tabriz) that would instantly appeal to those in Turkey and Iran proud of the broad range of their cultural heritage (Schafer has travelled to both countries), and finally, Ra from the Patria cycle based on detailed studies of Ancient Egyptian cosmological and afterlife lore. Schafer's amazing capacity for the subtlety of sound makes him a perfect fit in Japan.

Those interested in alchemy and Hermeticism as a spiritual subject (after Jung), as a real laboratory study (Robert Allen Bartlett), as a metaphor for art (such as What Painting Is: How to Think About Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy by James Elkins), as an occult socio-cultural process (The People of the Secret by Ernest Scott), as an historic/philosophic investigation (Frances Yates), as a spiritual tradition (Stairway to the Stars by Max Gorman), would all find much of value in the Patria composition The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos.

Indeed, it would be very easy to extend this list for other compositions of Schafer, and to expand the field of inquiry to his literary production. For example, philosophers would benefit by reading Voices of Tyranny: Temples of Silence, while anyone involved in acoustic research must know The Tuning of the World. Equally, that book (and several others) must be known by scientists in the field of auditory psychology and by legislators on noise pollution. Educators in music should have his ear opening books (The Composer in the Classroom, Ear Cleaning: Notes for an Experimental music course, the collection The Thinking Ear etc) on their reading lists. Literary folk, who think that Canadian writing begins and ends with Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Stephen Leacock, or maybe even the nineteenth century Charles Heavysege, would be delighted with Schafer's novels (the above mentioned Wolftracks and the mysterious Dicamus et Labyrinthos, which either deserves to be a movie in The Da Vinci Code mould, or to become -- and please forgive me -- a computer game in the manner of The Riddle of the Sphinx). Even those interested in cosmology and human experience ('as above, so below', the alchemical dictum) would find fruitful data and suggestions in Schafer's compositions and writings. For instance, the Human Givens Institute might consider the issue of sound on what human beings need (speech, music, sound as basic physiological requirements, ie mother's heartbeat at early stages, our own continued breathing sounds at later ones, but above all excess and irritant effects of modern noise and urban environment. It may be that a given for humans is quiet, simple quiet).

So much, for so many!

In a word, Schafer, at root a great Canadian, is also a great citizen of the world -- wherever sound aspires to the condition of music through the active listening of its people. Forget him not!

Copyright © 18 April 2013 A P Virag,
somewhere East of Ostia


It is fruitful to compare Schafer's cold with the cold of Doris Lessing in The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. She, as a long-time resident of England, has experience of a two month winter; Schafer, from an environment with a two month summer. Lessing's cold - even though she was inspired by readings of Antarctic explorers - is assuredly deadly and deep, but not long (as the representative is drawn up into a realm of peace). Schafer's Canadian cold is deadly, deep and in some places, permanent. Space explorers would be advised to ask the Canadian First Nations people how to survive the bottomless cold - not just in practical matters - but in cultural, mythological, and thus psychological, terms.





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