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R. Murray Schafer: Biography

R. Murray Schafer
1933 -
Region: Ontario

R. Murray Schafer

R. Murray Schafer has achieved an international reputation as a composer, an educator, environmentalist, scholar and visual artist. Born in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1933, he was raised in Toronto.

Schafer entered the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto in 1952 to study with John Weinzweig. His casual contact with Marshall McLuhan on campus in that period could arguably be singled out as the most lasting influence on his development.
He went to Vienna in 1956. After two years he went to England, studying informally with composer Peter Racine Fricker. While in Britain Schafer supported himself by writing (resulting in a book, British Composers in Interview) and by the preparation of a performing edition of Ezra Pound's opera Le Testament (1920-1) broadcast by the BBC in 1961.

Returning to Canada in 1961, he directed the Ten Centuries concerts, and began teaching, first (1963-65) as artist-in-residence at Memorial University, and then (1965-75) at Simon Fraser University. At SFU, with grants from UNESCO and the Donner Canadian Foundation, he set up the World Soundscape Project for the study of the relationships between people and their acoustic environment. Schafer moved in 1975 to a farm near Maynooth, Ontario, but has remained affiliated with the project. He purchased a farmhouse near Peterborough in 1987.

Schafer's early Concerto for Harpsichord and Eight Wind Instruments, and the Sonatina for Flute and Harpsichord (or Piano) reveal debts to Weinzweig, the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and 'Les Six'. The Minnelieder, with its Mahlerian atmosphere, was in Schafer's opinion his first important achievement.

In the early 1960s Schafer drew on serialism, also drawing on the language, literature, and philosophy of ancient cultures, leading to an exploration of the mythology and symbolism of modern life. That resulted in a succession of studies on the urban themes of alienation and psychoneurosis.

Protest and Incarceration, Canzoni for Prisoners , the stage work Loving, and the work for mezzo-soprano Requiems for the Party Girl (Fromm Foundation Prize winner, 1968) all reflect a social consciousness which motivates his activities.

Schafer's involvement in music education led to his booklets, The Composer in the Classroom, Ear Cleaning, The New Soundscape, When Words Sing, and Rhinoceros in the Classroom. These illustrate his experiences with students and are among the first introductions to John Cage's concepts of creative hearing and sensory awareness into the Canadian classroom. Schafer's works for youth orchestra and choir, Statement in Blue, Threnody, and Epitaph for Moonlight introduce young musicians to unusual sounds while involving them in the creative process.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Schafer revealed a widening stylistic and linguistic boundary along with a tendency towards mysticism. The sources are of a rich and unorthodox diversity, many revealing Schafer's interest in eastern thought. We find poems by Rumi in Divan i Shams i Tabriz , part 1 of Lustro and the product of a 1969 Canada Council-sponsored visit to Persia and Turkey. There are fragments of a Bruckner symphony in Music for the Morning of the World (part 2 of Lustro). Schafer quoted a verse of Rabindranath Tagore in Beyond the Great Gate of Light (part 3 of Lustro). He combined sounds of the sea and the poetry of Hesiod, Homer, Melville, and Pound in Okeanos, and used a Buddhist text for From the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Complete performances of Lustro were given in 1973, by the CBC, and again in 1975 as a special event of the General Assembly of the International Music Council (held that year in Canada) that preceded World Music Week.

As the 'father of acoustic ecology' Schafer has been concerned about the damaging effects of noise on people, especially dwellers of the 'sonic sewers' of the city. His booklets The Book of Noise and The Voices of Tyranny are pleas for anti-noise legislation and urban soundscape improvements through reduction of potentially destructive sounds. Of the various publications Schafer released after his work with the World Soundscape Project, the most important is The Tuning of the World (1977) where he summarizes his soundscape research, philosophies, and theories. The concept, central to Schafer's thinking, has influenced his composing. The background rhythmic structure for String Quartet No. 2 ('Waves') is based on the intervals at which ocean waves crest; the graphic notation of No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes was influenced by charts made of Vancouver traffic noise.

Schafer's search for a 'hi-fidelity' soundscape led to his move to an Ontario farmhouse, which then inspired a series of 'natural-environment' works. The first was Music for Wilderness Lake, for twelve trombones. The premiere in 1979 by the Ontario trombone choir Sonaré was recorded by the CBC near Schafer's home and was filmed by Rhombus Media. His soundscape interest is also reflected in the works employing spatial distribution of the performers, the most ambitious being Apocalypsis, which calls for 500 performers.

While Schafer's focus in the 1970s was his soundscape work, in the 1980s it was Patria, a 12-part cycle of musical/theatrical works begun in 1966. Schafer's dramatic works employ music and theatre in a manner which he calls the 'theatre of confluence' (a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk reflecting his urge to explore the relationships between the arts). Schafer has used ritual as a way of revitalizing contemporary theatre, several works transforming the theatre audience into participants. Patria 6: RA is a dusk-to-dawn ritual enacting the descent to the underworld and resurrection of the Egyptian sun god. For its Ontario Science Centre premiere in Toronto, the audience was led through 29 different performance sites during the 11-hour ritual. A number of Schafer's concert works exhibit theatrical aspects as well: Ko wo kiku ('Listen to the Incense'), a commission from the Kyoto SO, incorporates the Japanese incense ceremony in its first movement, as jars of incense are passed around from performer to performer. In Search of Zoroaster for ritaliustic 150-voice chorus harks back to an ancient Persian religion.
Schafer's rural environment allowed him to work with communities in Maynooth and Peterborough, remarkable models for how artists could integrate into the societies of which they find themselves members. Schafer founded the Maynooth Community Choir, with whom he wrote and produced the music theatre piece Jonah. He chose his rural home near the Peterborough area to work on artistic projects with this community. The productions of Patria 3: The Greatest Show in Peterborough in 1987 and 1988 included the participation of local amateurs. During Schafer's years as the artistic director of the Peterborough Festival of the Arts, he helped steer a small, local undertaking with traditional programming towards an ambitious, diversified arts festival garnering both strong regional support and national recognition.
Schafer encourages artists to draw on the riches of their local surroundings and culture. The beauty of Canada's wilderness is the setting of the Patria prologue The Princess of the Stars, which will be performed in August 2007 at the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve in central Ontario. Other outdoor works include The Enchanted Forest and The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix performed at the Haliburton Forest in 2005 and 2006.

Besides his works as a composer, dramatist, music educator, music journalist, and in the new field of soundscape studies, Schafer has made significant contributions to the humanities as musicologist/literary scholar, creative writer, and visual artist. His E. T. A. Hoffmann and Music is the first book-length study on the subject and his Ezra Pound and Music is a major achievement of musical and literary scholarship. Schafer is actually best known for his writings on music education and the soundscape. In addition to prose works he has also written a number of creative literary pieces which include the novellas Dicamus et Labyrinthos and Ariadne, both of which exhibit the composer's calligraphy and art. Schafer's visual art can also be seen in many scores which include illustrations and/or graphic notation. Some of these were exhibited in art galleries.

Schafer continues to receive commissions for instrumental compositions. In particular, his love for the solo female voice has inspired numerous important works. Specifically for his partner Eleanor James’ rich mezzo-soprano voice, he has written demanding chamber music (Tanzlied – voice and harp, Tantrika ¬ voice and 2 percussion) and works for voice and orchestra – Letters from Mignon and Thunder/Perfect Mind (a CBC 2004 commission for Ms. James). These works as well as the orchestrated version of the Minnelieder were newly released in May 2007 by ATMA Classique to critical acclaim. Letters from Mignon will be featured on the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Schafer at 75 opening concert on March 26, 2008. Ms. James has also appeared in leading roles in most of the Patria theatre works, including creating the role of Shen Nu in the world premiere of The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix.

In the 1980s he wrote concertos for flute, harp, and guitar, three string quartets, and various chamber and orchestral works. His diversity belies generalizations of style; his work could be described as a synthesis of 20th-century avant-garde techniques with the 19th-century romantic spirit. He received the Canadian Music Council's first Composer of the Year award in 1977 and the first Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music in 1977. In 1980 he was awarded the Prix International Arthur-Honegger; in 1985 he received the Banff CA National Award in the Arts, and in 1987 he became the first recipient of the $50,000 triennial Glenn Gould Award. Schafer holds honourary doctorates from universities in Canada, France and Argentina. Yehudi Menuhin praised 'His strong, benevolent, and highly original imagination and intellect, a dynamic power whose manifold personal expressions and aspirations are in total accord with the urgent needs and dreams of humanity today.'

© Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
Source: Biographic text on R.M. Schafer reproduced with the permission of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, from National Library of Canada's website.
Revised by John S. Gray of the Canadian Music Centre, 2005
Revised by Arcana Productions, 2007

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