R. Murray Schafer

In 1983 I was lucky enough to be given tickets to a performance of RA by R. Murray Schafer. It was an all night affair that took place at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto from sundown to sunrise the following day – an unbelievably ambitious project that was mounted for a mere 8 days. Arriving at dusk to see the Sun King Ra ride off into the sunset in a chariot, the audience was taken into the underworld, then led through the concrete corridors of the Science Centre where we were inducted into Egyptian mysteries, given a whispered name, blindfolded, garbed and thrown into hellfire. Having survived these initiations, we were feasted in the company of belly dancers and allowed to lie down on mats in the depths of the night. I am quite certain it was Maureen Forrester‘s crystalline voice that woke us from our rest. Finally, exhausted, we emerged reborn like the Sun King himself into the dawn. To this day I remember it as being a profound experience.

It baffles me that Schafer remains relatively unknown in the Canadian music pantheon. Recipient of numerous awards including the first Glenn Gould Prize in 1987, Schafer received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2009.  And it so happens this national treasure lives right on our Peterborough doorstep.

Poster from Sounds Unseen, an exhibition of musical manuscripts and sound sculpture by R. Murray Schafer

Poster from Sounds Unseen, an exhibition of musical manuscripts and sound sculpture by R. Murray Schafer
Collection Library and Archives Canada

Not content to merely write complex music, Schafer is compelled to create whole landscapes of unique experiential theatre with a substantial cast of artists, actors and musicians. His work embraces the mysticism of ancient Egypt, Greece, Persia, Crete, First Nations and China – or a carnival, as in The Greatest Show, which was performed in Peterborough in 1988 featuring director Thom Sokoloski (The Encampment) along with many local performers such as Robert Winslow, Washboard Hank and Jim Gleason. His musical scores stand alone as works of art and illustrate Schafer’s fascination with cross-over disciplines. He has been a music theorist (coining concepts such as soundscape, schizophonia and acoustic ecology) and educator at Simon Fraser University. In addition to his vast catalogue of musical works for orchestra, choir, chamber and voice,  he has also written well over thirty books expounding on his own body of work and music education, such as The Thinking Ear: On Music Education (1986), The Tuning of the World (1977) and Music In The Cold, a book of poetry published by Coach House Press in 1977. His latest is the autobiographical My Life on Earth and Elsewhere (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012) .

The Enchanted Forest, part of Schafer’s 12 part opus called Patria, was mounted at 4th Line Theatre in 1994 and restaged in 2005 at the 80,000 acre Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve. Here the towering trees of a night forest became the set. Scenes took place in a lake, in the branches of a tree and along the path as we were led through the forest which was gradually enveloped in darkness. A tree stump came to life, venetian blinds became the wings of a great bird, live music came out of nowhere in the dark wood.

R. Murray Schafer turns 80 next summer and continues to push the boundaries of music and theatre. This summer, Asterion, a new experiential work in the form of a labyrinth will be presented as part of the Patria cycle. Designed to be experienced by a single participant at a time, it is “part museum, part fairground, part gallery and part concert. It is part fun house and part game, part quest and part contemplation.

The logistics of staging productions like these are nearly impossible without Schafer’s vision and determination as well as a host of artists and hardy volunteers. The performances are difficult to document and even their flaws become part of the experience. If you have the opportunity to see Asterion this year, run don’t walk – it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Patria website »

Listen, a film by David New, NFB, 2009 »

R. Murray Schafer: Out of the wild, into the concert hall, Robert Harris, Globe & Mail, October, 2012 »

Film clips taken from the Rhombus Media film Carnival of Shadows, directed by Barbara Willis Sweete, which was shot on location both during and after the run of The Greatest Show, Peterborough, Ontario. August 25 to September 3, 1988 (from the Public Energy vault) »

Indian River’s R. Murray Schafer named companion to the Order of Canada in 2014 »

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