Remembering R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021)

September 6, 2021 / ISCM
R. Murray Schafer (photo by André Leduc)
R. Murray Schafer (photo by André Leduc)

[Ed. Note: Canadian composer, acoustic ecologist, and ISCM Honorary Member R. Murray Schafer passed away on August 14, 2021. In honor of his memory we are posted some reflections on him from three Canadian composer colleagues which have been mostly adapted from comments that were read during the 2017 ISCM General Assembly in Vancouver during which he was elected to honorary membership. – FJO]

Jennifer Butler

I have known and worked with Murray Schafer since the year 2000, when I began participating annually in his wilderness theatre project, And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, commonly known as the Wolf Project. My experiences during this project, and also listening to and performing Schafer’s music, reading his books, and using his teaching techniques have profoundly impacted my work as a musician.

When John Cage was asked to name a great music teacher, he answered, “Murray Schafer of Canada.”

Early in his career, Schafer taught briefly at Memorial University in Newfoundland, in Atlantic Canada, and then spent ten years teaching and researching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Although Schafer did not return to holding a permanent university teaching position, he remained extremely active as a teacher – regularly working with young children in elementary schools all the way up to advanced students studying music at university.

Schafer’s involvement in music education led to his books: The Composer in the Classroom, Ear Cleaning, The New Soundscape, When Words Sing, and Rhinoceros in the Classroom. These books have been enormously influential on music education in Canada, and have had wide international influence as well. On one can find his books on education translated into many languages including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, and German.

Schafer has written many works for children, youth, and amateurs including Statement in Blue, Threnody, and Epitaph for Moonlight. These pieces have become standard repertoire for choirs and orchestras around the world. If you search on YouTube, you will find there over fifty different recordings of Schafer’s Epitaph for Moonlight, a graphically scored piece for youth choir. These recordings come from all over the world, including Russia, Scandinavia, Asia, North America and the UK.

Murray Schafer is a highly celebrated composer in Canada. He was the first recipient for three of Canada’s most esteemed awards for composers: the CMC’s Composer of the Year, the Jules Leger Prize, for new Canadian Chamber Music, and the Glenn Gould Award, given for “lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts”.

Schafer has over 125 compositions in the digital library of the CMC, and his music can be heard on approximately seventy different albums recorded around the world. He is also an accomplished visual artist, as you can see from his detailed graphic scores. His work has been presented in several art galleries.

Gayle Young

It was through an LP produced in the 1970s that I first knew of Murray Schafer. The LP, produced by the World Soundscape Project, based here in Vancouver, included a recording of a pond as frogs responded to a passing vehicle. Since then I’ve listened to many of his compositions. Together they demonstrate a remarkable range of skill and imagination.

Schafer was a prolific composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist. His 1977 book The Tuning of the World, outlining his soundscape research, philosophies, and theories, has been translated into many languages. He wrote many books on music education, describing projects – writing what amount to performance pieces – designed to engage young listeners. To distribute his books and scores he created his own publishing company, Arcana Editions, a mail-order operation based in his basement. Another distribution method involved community participation. One of his books, a novel, was to be left anonymously by friends in second-hand bookstores, where it would become a mysterious discovery. He composed many pieces for performance in concert settings, and gave many lectures and keynote addresses. He achieved international recognition very early, and was subsequently widely recognized through prizes and awards.

Schafer is often described as the father of acoustic ecology, an interdisciplinary area of study that links science, the arts, and social issues. The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology was formed in 1993 at a conference in Banff marking the twentieth anniversary of the World Soundscape Project. It now has many national affiliate organizations all over the world. July 18th, Schafer’s birthday, is World Listening Day, with events taking place annually in many countries. One of the key exercises led by Murray is the Sound Walk, where pairs of listeners take turns leading one another through a soundscape – because one of the participants is blindfolded. Parallel to the term landscape, the soundscape is a way to foreground sound – to experience sound without the distraction of visual cues. Many listeners report hearing details of sound that had escaped notice while their eyes were open.

Rodney Sharman

R. Murray Schafer brought awareness to noise pollution in the 1960s before noise pollution legislation became common. He invented the term “soundscape”, investigating its meaning in The New Soundscape (1968). Pauline Oliveros later described soundscape as “all of the waveforms faithfully transmitted to out audio cortex by the ear and its mechanisms”.

And then there is the music: a celebrated series of string quartets, orchestra pieces, electroacoustic work, theatrical works from pocket-sized to spectacles of enormous magnitude and duration, site-specific work that celebrates the Canadian wilderness, marvelous works for children, youth, and amateurs that are standard repertoire for choirs around the world. (A quick YouTube search revealed more than 50 recordings of Schafer’s Epitaph for Moonlight for youth choir, from Russia, Baltic countries, Scandinavia, Asia, North America and the UK.)

I first realized the breadth of Schafer’s importance when I was a student in Germany in the early 1980s and later as a resident of the Netherlands. I regularly heard composers make reference to his writings, the usefulness of his ideas and exercises in classroom teaching, particularly to younger people. His writings have been translated into several languages.

I worked with Murray most closely in the late 1980s when I programmed an evening of his work at the Music Gallery with such good performers that he went on to engage them in his “Greatest Show” in rural Ontario. He was always grateful for the connections, especially to soprano Cathy Lewis. I last saw him at the 2011 World Harp Congress in Vancouver. Beautiful summer weather, Murray looking splendid in a crisp white shirt and olive-green vest having the time of his life in photo ops with dozens of harpists. 




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