There are very few living Canadian composers whose name would spark even the faintest flicker of recognition among the vast majority of Canadians.
Okay, forget very few. How about none?
But mention composer R. Murray Schafer's name in Brazil, Japan, Germany, Finland, Portugal and about a dozen other countries around the world, and thousands of environmentalists, musicians, and schoolchildren would nod in recognition.
Mainly through his work in sonic ecology, convincing the world to understand its everyday acoustic environments with a more open ear and mind, Schafer is one of the few Canadians of the past half-century to have truly changed the musical environment and traditions of the world we live in: He is a musician who has influenced the very way in which sound is perceived.
This weekend, in honour of Schafer's impending 80th birthday, Toronto's Esprit Orchestra is devoting the first concert of its 30th season to a world premiere of his Wolf Returns, as well as helping launch Schafer's autobiography, My Life on Earth and Elsewhere.
Among other things, the book chronicles Schafer's well-known tendency to be, well, ornery. Ornery when it comes to academic institutions (as a student, he was thrown out of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music); to the CBC (some cancelled broadcasts); and to major symphony orchestras (he turned a contractual requirement by the TSO that a piece of his be "no longer than ten (10) minutes" into its title, and then constructed it so it could go on for a half-hour).
But Murray Schafer in person is exactly the opposite of his reputation – gracious, generous, charming. "We could never get away with that today," he said in an interview this week at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, describing that challenging 1970 symphonic commission. "Take an entire orchestra and pull it to pieces for an hour or two of rehearsal. And then put it back together. They were very courageous."
As was Schafer and the entire generation of Canadian writers, composers and artists who came of age in the supposedly repressive 1950s. "There was everything to do in those days," Schafer recalls, "so we just did it."
Eventually, he would invent the term "soundscape" which vaulted Schafer to prominence in the late 1970s, when his book, The Tuning of the World, became an international sensation, attracting the attention of everyone from budding environmentalists to famed concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin, eventually creating a new intellectual and musical discipline – acoustic ecology: which noted the relationship between people and the sounds of the urban environment, and which led to a movement of architects and urban planners who worked to consciously construct the sound universe in which we live.
But it's a mistake to understand Schafer merely as an environmentalist in composer's clothing. He is a musician first and foremost, albeit one who has broadened the definition of what music is. "When we moved indoors as a civilization," he says, "what was left outdoors became merely noise. We should have realized that the two things – music and 'noise' – interact with one another and influence one another."
Recreating that mutual influence is what Schafer's compositions have increasingly been about. His 10–sequence PatriaCycle, immense musical-theatrical productions held in the Ontario wilderness and lasting upward of 10 hours, have consumed his artistic imagination for almost 40 years. Even as they interweave sources as disparate as the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Persian mystical practices, Schafer's environmental productions call to mind the most ancient Canadian traditions – those that began thousands of years ago among the continent's native inhabitants.
Wolf Returns, which Alex Pauk and his Esprit Orchestra are presenting Sunday night, fits perfectly into the blended artistic tradition that Schafer has honed over the past few decades. While a modern orchestra plays modern music – "somewhat dissonant, very motoristic" as Schafer puts it – a choir of amateurs he has trained near his home near Peterborough, Ont., sing wolf chants that, when performed successfully in the wild, occasion a chorus of returning sound from the animals themselves: the "music" of inside and the "noise" of outside, in perfect harmony. Or, perhaps, the other way around.
It may, at certain times over the years, have been easy to put down Schafer – his outsize ideas, his imagination, and the almost arrogant conviction with which he has pursued his artistic vision. "We were laughed at when we started," he remembers. But, approaching 80, Schafer remains one of the few Canadians to have spread his imaginative view of the world beyond the borders of his own country. Open and alive to the traditions of other cultures, but supremely rooted in the spiritual space of his own land, he is someone who has allowed whatever Canada means to be heard throughout the world.