R. Murray Schafer (1933–2021)

R. Murray Schafer (1933–2021)

Schafer on his 80th birthday
Photo: Valerie Elliott

The quest narrative provides a useful framework for considering the life and career of R. Murray Schafer, who died on 14 August 2021 at the age of 88, following a years-long decline brought about by Alzheimer’s disease. Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949, p. 23) summarizes a typical quest story: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Any quest narrative worth relating is beset with obstacles for the hero to overcome; in Schafer’s case, he was dealt a serious one early on. At the age of eight he developed glaucoma in his right eye, and the eye had to be removed. Schafer begins his autobiography (My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, 2012) with the loss of his eye, the defining event of his childhood, and he describes the pain and suffering that resulted. Known from then on as the boy with one eye, he was the target of mean comments and bullying from uncouth classmates.

One-eyed characters do not get good press in mythical accounts—think of Polyphemus, the man-eating giant; Balor, the mythical Irish king who could kill enemies by merely glancing at them; or HAL, the sinister computer with one camera eye in 2001: A Space Odyssey. More pertinent to Schafer’s story, though, is Wotan the Wanderer from Wagner’s Ring cycle, who sacrificed an eye to drink from the well of knowledge. Schafer has often been compared to Wagner, and Schafer’s Patria cycle of music theatre works can be thought of as the Canadian Ring cycle, so the comparison with Wotan is apt. But unlike Wotan, who exerted great power as the king of the gods, Schafer after losing his eye found himself in a vulnerable position. Shy by nature, he was forced by his school bullying experiences to turn even more inward; his greatest solace during his adolescent years was found in the solitary exercise of the visual arts. His sketches and cartoons showed great promise, and eventually he decided that a life as an artist might be his calling.

In the second chapter of his autobiography, titled “Artist or Musician?”, Schafer relates that he took a portfolio of his youthful drawings to an audition for the Ontario College of Art; when the interviewer noticed Schafer’s glass eye, however, he said “With sight in one eye only I wouldn’t recommend a career in art.” It was then that the object of Schafer’s quest turned decisively from the visual arts to music. His training in the visual arts has certainly left its mark on his work as a composer, however. His manuscript musical scores are themselves works of art, and indeed have been displayed in art galleries.

Schafer’s first sustained exposure to music was as a choir boy at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill, an Anglican church in a well-to-do Toronto neighbourhood. The eight years that he spent in the choir, supplemented by piano and music theory lessons, provided him with an excellent basic grounding in music, and a keen ear for choral sounds—including the British sacred choral music tradition. He included a set of three hymns as part of a larger choral work titled The Fall into Light (2002–03). The first of those three hymns is an evocation, later in life, of those early choral experiences at Grace Church on-the-Hill.

After graduating from high school and the church choir, Schafer enrolled in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. He studied piano with Alberto Guerrero, who was also Glenn Gould’s teacher, and composition with John Weinzweig, a key figure in the introduction of post-war avant-garde styles of musical composition to Canada. Another mentor during his two years at the University of Toronto was Marshall McLuhan, whose classes he audited in the company of a friend. From McLuhan, whose reputation at the time was mainly local rather than global, Schafer learned about James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and heard incipient versions of McLuhan’s ideas about communications theory and pop culture.

Music education in Canada in the early 1950s, especially in the field of composition to which Schafer was gravitating, was underdeveloped in comparison to Europe and the United States, and so students with serious aspirations in music often travelled abroad to complete their studies. In Schafer’s case, the decision was forced upon him when he was expelled from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music for insubordination. He later honed the story of his expulsion into an amusing narrative that reached its ultimate form during a convocation address that he gave when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto in 2006.

Schafer spent a year as a sailor on an oil tanker to raise money, and then left for Europe in 1956 to continue his quest for musical understanding and enlightenment. His goal was to spend time in Vienna, the centre of the classical music universe. Armed with a letter of introduction from Greta Kraus, a Viennese musician with whom he had studied in Toronto, the young musician arrived in this musical Mecca in April 1956, not long after the occupying Allied troops had departed. His goal was to study the music of Schoenberg and his school; under the influence of Weinzweig, Schafer had come to believe that Canadian music should follow a growing international trend that held the music of Schoenberg and his pupil Webern to be the one true path forward. To his keen disappointment, he quickly realized that this avant-garde idiom was no more popular in Vienna than it had been in Toronto. The ruling spirit in Vienna was not Schoenberg but rather Mozart, for 1956 was the bicentennial of that composer’s birth. Mozart is a composer with whom Schafer has little affinity, and the Mozart celebrations rather soured his time in Vienna. Mozart’s music was everywhere in Vienna that year, as though he were not just another composer, but rather the earthly incarnation of the spirit of music itself. The point was not lost on Schafer; he later commented satirically and with more than a trace of bitterness, “If God had intended Canada to have music, Mozart would have been born in Regina.”

Frustrated in his attempts to acquire suitable composition lessons in Vienna, Schafer stopped composing music for nearly two years. Instead, he studied the German language intensively, including medieval German. This interest resulted in his first major composition, Minnelieder, a set of 13 songs to epigrammatic medieval German love poems. The work has been performed often both in its original version, for mezzo-soprano and wind quintet, and a later arrangement for voice and orchestra; numerous recordings have been made of it as well.

Schafer’s interest in German was in part a discovery of his own roots. His ancestry is German on his father’s side, as one might guess from his surname, which is the German word for ‘shepherd’. Notwithstanding a serious interest in Mittelhochdeutsch, his main preoccupation, both then and subsequently, was with the music and literature of the German Romantic era. He published a fine book on the writings of the German writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Schafer also set to music texts by several German Romantic era writers, and was strongly influenced by the mainstream of German Romantic music, from Beethoven to Wagner to Richard Strauss. The British sacred choral tradition provided a jumping off point in his quest for a distinctively Canadian music, but it was the music of German Romanticism that would prove to be an ever-present guide on his journey.

Realizing that Vienna provided more frustration than inspiration in his quest, Schafer packed his bags and roamed widely across Europe. He supported himself by writing music journalism and taking on odd jobs; for a while he even taught English at the Berlitz school in Trieste—the same job once held by James Joyce. His travels took him not just to the major centres of Western culture—Paris, London, Athens, and so forth—but also to isolated communities behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. He visited Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. He attended the meeting of the International Folk Music Council in Bucharest, visited with Zoltán Kodály in Budapest, and was a guest of the Bulgarian Composers’ Union in Sofia. Schafer seems to have sensed that if Canada could not live up to the noble art music traditions that Vienna and Mozart represented, perhaps the officially sanctioned ideology of folk-music-inspired composition that he found in Communist Eastern Europe would provide the way forward to a distinctively Canadian musical idiom. He made many recordings of folk music on his travels and thought deeply about the relationship between folk and art music traditions.

But even before attempting to incorporate folk music idioms into his own compositions, Schafer came to the realization that for the purposes of creating a distinctive Canadian musical idiom, this movement was a dead end. Canadian composers of the generation before Schafer, such as Ernest MacMillan and Leo Smith, had made some attempts to fashion a national repertoire based on folk music arrangements in the 1920s and 1930s. But nothing like the renewal of the art music repertoire that came about after the folk music research of Kodály and Bartók in Eastern Europe ever happened in Canada. Instead of a hearty meal, Canadian composers made only a few appetizing hors d’oeuvres out of the folk music of Canada. In an article that he wrote in 1961 titled “The limits of nationalism in Canadian music,” Schafer dismissed the folk music phase of musical nationalism in Canada as follows:

Some people still think the reason Canada has no national school of music which would distinguish us in the world’s ears is because no Canadian composer has been bright enough to utilize Canada’s folk music properly. They might as well give up the idea at once. Canada may not have produced her Beethoven yet, but she will certainly never produce her Smetana. [Schafer, On Canadian Music, p. 9]

He outlined three cogent reasons why folk music could not serve as a basis for a distinctively Canadian music:

The first emigrants to Canada were Philistines; they were men of energy and vision, but culturally bankrupt. The vast majority came not to propagate European culture but to escape from it, and this hostility to the fine arts left us suspicious of the value of whatever culture we do possess and reluctant to do much about making it more distinctively our own. [Secondly], progressive urbanization has rendered large portions of the population less conscious of folk art of all kinds; such material is much less meaningful for Canadian audiences than is the case in Eastern Europe. Why employ Canadian folk music if it signifies nothing to Canadian audiences? And finally, owing to our common background, the vast majority of Canadian folk music has its origins on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and—at least in the English-speaking part of the country—is practically indistinguishable from that of the United States.

In the midst of his folk music explorations and ruminations, Schafer realized that he still needed a mentor to guide him in the intricacies of contemporary composition. After his travels through Eastern Europe, he settled in London for two years and got down to the serious business of perfecting his craft as a composer. Reflecting on this experience later, he stated “Vienna was a washout and in Paris one heard only French music. But in London at the time all kinds of music were available as they were in no other European capital.” (Adams, R. Murray Schafer, p. 23) Schafer’s teacher during those years was Peter Racine Fricker, whose thorough but informal approach to teaching composition suited Schafer well—many of their lessons took place in a London pub. Fricker fell broadly within the post-Schoenberg camp of contemporary music; he taught Schafer a new appreciation for form and a mastery of the principles of organizing large stretches of abstract, non-texted music into convincing, logically unfolding structures. The major piece that Schafer wrote under Fricker’s guidance was a cantata titled Brébeuf, completed in 1961—the year of his article on the limits of nationalism in Canadian music, and also the year that he returned to Canada for good after his five-year-long European sojourn.

Brébeuf is a major step forward for Schafer, both in the ambition and scope of the work and in his quest for a Canadian music. Schafer compiled the English-language text himself, drawing upon the Jesuit Relations and other primary sources. The work relates the story of the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf and his encounters with the Huron/Wendat people in the period from 1625 until his death in 1649; this narrative is interspersed with a series of hallucinatory outbursts about the saint’s premonitions of his martyrdom, along with commentary by others about it. The twenty-minute-long work is scored for solo baritone and orchestra; the style recalls Berg’s Wozzeck or Schoenberg’s Erwartung. There is nothing particularly Canadian about the musical idiom, which as suggested is in the post-tonal idiom of the Second Viennese School.  But the decision to set the work in Canada and deal with one of the most important missionaries active there in the seventeenth century demonstrates that even as Schafer was concluding his European sojourn, his thoughts were turning decisively to Canada and Canadian themes.

One of Schafer’s first aims upon returning to Canada was to revolutionize the country’s music education system. Drastic measures were needed to turn those “culturally bankrupt Philistines” who were “suspicious of the value of culture” into a nation of music lovers who might one day be prepared to offer moral support to the idea of a distinctively Canadian music. He went back to first principles. Music lessons in Canada, he observed, often meant “little more than memorizing Monkeys in the Tree for some year-end social function.” (Adams, p. 22) His position was that the fundamental goal of music education should be to produce good listeners rather than expert performers. Working for short but intensive periods with students in Toronto area classrooms, he evolved a novel and revolutionary system of music education that replaced performance with composition and rote learning with creative experimentation in sound. He issued a series of pamphlets that were later republished as a manifesto titled Creative Music Education (1976). “What we need,” he wrote “is a notational system, the rudiments of which can be taught in 15 minutes, so that the class can immediately embark on the making of live music.” Drawing upon his strengths in the visual arts, he evolved a graphic notation system, or rather many different graphic notation systems, a unique one for each work that he wrote for young performers, all of them simple to understand and interpret. Several works for youth orchestra and/or choir resulted, among which are some of his most popular and often-performed compositions.

The most celebrated of these works, and the one which established his international reputation, is Epitaph for Moonlight. The score was published in 1968 by Universal Edition of Vienna, and also appears in his music education pamphlet When Words Sing, which was republished in Creative Music Education. The impending US moon landing inspired Schafer to pen this elegy for moonlight. The piece grew out of an exercise that he gave to a grade seven class in Vancouver to invent their own words for moonlight. The text for the work is derived from the students’ inventive responses. The work is an ear-training exercise, notated graphically in relative rather than absolute pitch. The choir begins on a randomly chosen high note, and subsequent entries are indicated by interval signs. The opening provides a clear example; each section of the four-part choir is subdivided into four sections, with each sub-section entering a semi-tone lower than the previous one, giving a series of 16 descending semi-tone entries.

Even though he had no academic qualifications, in the expanding and innovative educational climate that prevailed in Canada in the 1960s Schafer became a university faculty member. After spending two years as an artist-in-residence at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL he moved to the opposite coast and joined Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC when it opened in 1965. He was recruited to the university’s Centre for the Study of Communications and the Arts, an interdisciplinary unit that was inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan and aimed to break down traditional barriers between the arts and sciences. Schafer’s most lasting contribution to the Centre’s mandate was the World Soundscape Project, which he founded, and in particular his book The Tuning of the World (1977) that arose out of the project. Schafer has been credited with coining the word ‘soundscape’ and with creating the discipline of acoustic ecology, which is the study of all aspects of sound in the human environment. In The Tuning of the World, he describes and analyzes historical and contemporary soundscapes, and provides important guidelines for acoustic design (the ecologically prudent management of sound). The World Soundscape Project produced many other interesting projects, including an LP recording and pamphlet titled The Vancouver Soundscape (later reissued and updated on CD) and Five Village Soundscapes, a study of the sonic environment of five European villages. Schafer’s heightened sensitivity to the particular quality of individual soundscapes increasingly informed his work as a composer, notably in the series of twelve linked music theatre works that he titled Patria.

But it was to be in the intimate genre of the string quartet that the revelation of how to create a distinctively Canadian music first came to Schafer. The breakthrough came when he realized that he could combine his scientific work in acoustic ecology with his creative life as a composer in a fruitful and imaginative way. The first successful work to result from this discovery was his String Quartet No. 2, subtitled “Waves”. Schafer began to write the quartet in 1976, and he has explained how his soundscape research was translated into the music of his string quartet:

In the course of the World Soundscape Project, we recorded and analysed ocean waves on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada. The recurrent pattern of waves is always asymmetrical but we have noted that the duration from crest to crest usually falls between 6 and 11 seconds. Few ocean waves are of longer or shorter duration than this. It is this wave motion that gives the quartet its rhythm and structure. The listener will hear the dynamic undulations of waves in this piece, and as it develops several types of wave motion are combined. I have sought to give the quartet a liquid quality in which everything is constantly dissolving and flowing into everything else. That is to say, the material of the work is not fixed, but is perpetually changing, and even though certain motivic figures are used repeatedly, they undergo continual dynamic, rhythmic and tempo variation.

A time log in the score marks off the duration in units that expand in one second increments from six seconds up to eleven seconds and then decrease back to six seconds again. Schafer’s idiom in “Waves” is related to the style and procedures of minimalism; the musical materials are severely limited, and the work creates its effect largely by the hypnotic repetition of simple melodic patterns that weave in and out of synchronization. The overall impression of the work reflects the simple beauty of ocean waves—ever unchanging but ceaselessly varied. The string quartet was to prove a fruitful medium for Schafer; he left a superb corpus of 13 works in that genre, including a final short movement poignantly titled Alzheimer’s Masterpiece (2015).

His increasing sensitivity to natural soundscapes led Schafer to quit his position at Simon Fraser University in 1975 and move to a farm in southern Ontario. The final transformative discovery in his quest for a Canadian music came about as the result of an unusual commission he received in 1978, to write a work for 12 trombones. Realizing that the robust sound of a trombone choir was well suited to outdoor performance, he decided to make the Canadian landscape an integral part of his composition, and he titled the resulting piece Music for Wilderness Lake. It is the first of what he referred to as his environmental compositions, in which the Canadian soundscape and landscape are integral to the work concept. In Music for Wilderness Lake, the 12 trombones are dispersed along the shoreline of a small lake and take their cues from colored flags that the conductor displays from a raft or boat in the middle of the lake. The work is in two parts, Dusk—to be performed at sunset, and Dawn—to be played at sunrise the next morning. Although intended for performance in a Canadian wilderness setting, the work is popular with trombonists and has been done in urban locations such as the Amstel River in Amsterdam and Central Park in New York City. On Schafer’s 80th birthday on 18 July 2013, the work was performed on the Avon River in Stratford, Ontario.

Schafer’s quest for a Canadian music achieved its ultimate realization with And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, the epilogue to the Patria cycle. Planning for the Wolf Project, as it is known for short, began in 1983. It is a week-long ritual enacted in August each year in the wilderness by up to 64 people who are simultaneously the creators/performers/audience. Schafer was the guiding spirit of the Wolf Project, but the music, text, and rituals of the work were collectively created over the years by the participants themselves. Several aspects of the Wolf Project set it apart as a unique theatrical work. It is entirely self-funded by the participants; no government assistance or arts council funding was sought, nor were any tickets sold. The only way to experience the Wolf Project was to be invited to become a participant in it. Technology was not permitted in the project; it was never filmed, and cameras were not allowed on site during the week-long retreat. The only concession made to the outside world is that musical excerpts from the work were published and recorded (in the exact wilderness location where the work was mounted each year) and may be performed outside of the context of the work itself. Schafer offers the following description of how the week unfolds:

We’re divided into clans. There are eight adult members in each clan, and we are at four different campsites. The campsites are three or four kilometers from one another—quite a distance in fact. It’s a total wilderness environment, and we created our own campsites, our own trails and everything else. The work lasts for eight days, and it is a ritual throughout the eight days, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t time for recreation. There is, but from the moment you arrive on the first day, you’ve started to participate in this work which is theatre, music, and ritual, and it goes on until the last day, when all the clans, all the people come together, for what we call the Great Wheel Day, which is the final celebration and drama which concludes the work. It’s the same every year, although we add more from time to time, and it gets more refined and more beautiful each year, actually.

The Wolf Project was founded upon the idea that music can create a powerful sense of community. Many of the participants were involved with the work for over 20 years; they took a week out of their lives each August to travel to a remote part of Ontario, where they were cut off from all contact with the outside world, in order to reenact the rituals and perform the music of this epilogue to the massive Patria cycle. Their dedication to Schafer’s ideals indicates that they subscribe to his belief that it is more important to create works of art that are deeply meaningful to a small number of people, rather than score widespread success by catering to popular taste.

Schafer was a many-sided creative artist—author and scholar, composer, educator, visual artist, and environmentalist. It is difficult to summarize a career that was so abundantly fruitful or a musical idiom that has changed so frequently over the years. His lifelong quest has taken him to many corners of the earth, but in the end, he found a Canadian musical idiom not during his sojourn in Europe or through sonic explorations in South America or the Middle East, but rather in the natural surroundings of his modest farm in southern Ontario. Like Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle, he learned the truth from a bird’s song. For Schafer, the truth that the bird sang to him was to pay close attention to the sounds of the Canadian environment. It was a lesson that he took to heart; he was more attuned to the Canadian soundscape than anyone has ever been. In true romantic fashion, he followed his own line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and turned his back on many aspects of modern techno-culture. He never owned a computer, nor did he have an email account; he maintained no website and it was even difficult to reach him by phone. The one sure way to get in touch with him was to visit him on his farm; there he might have invited you to share a meal consisting of food that he had grown himself, and he certainly would have invited you to listen to the eternal symphony of Canada’s abundant, ever changing natural soundscape—the source of his own creativity and of his path to a distinctively Canadian music.

Postscript: if you would like to get to know some of Schafer’s music, I have created a YouTube playlist which you can read about here: http://uoftmusicicm.ca/a-schafer-playlist/

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