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Natural Selections

Composer R. Murray Schafer enchants the forest


BY Kelly McCarthy-Maine
Photography by Erin Seaman

Late on a summer’s eve, Earth Mother floats on a candlelit lake, birds and animals talk, and the forest buzzes with fairies. As the sun sets, a majestic white stag meets its death and an evil wizard, bent on razing the forest for timber profits, threatens to destroy the delicate cycle of natural life as an old crone, a shape-shifter, and a handful of magic crystals save a wolf from a deadly plot.

Last year, the woods truly came alive before the audience of a wonderfully imaginative site-specific musical theatre production by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, appropriately titled Enchanted Forest. This year, in the same Haliburton, Ontario, forest, Schafer will be recreating Tang Dynasty China, using four-foot-high puppets, in The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix. Both shows are part of Schafer’s prolific Patria Cycle (10 parts in all, plus a prologue and epilogue). Written over the course of almost 40 years, Patria is a series of interwoven myths and tales of ecological sustainability, love and transformation presented as musical dramas. Each part depicts the struggle of two lovers trying to find each other across time and space. They are often staged in unusual ways, most often outdoors, sometimes before dawn, other times at night. It depends on what Schafer thinks would have the best effect.

Schafer’s creativity and acoustic genius have found a home of late in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, Canada’s first certified sustainable forest. The stunning 60,000-acre private reserve contains 300 kilometres of trails that wind around more than 50 lakes and hundreds of wetlands—just the right size for a man with Schafer’s musical and theatrical imagination.

Born in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1933, Raymond Murray Schafer grew up in Toronto, eventually studying at the University of Toronto and the city’s Royal Conservatory of Music. While a professor at Simon Fraser University during the 1960s and 70s, he gathered together a group of students and young composers to form the World Soundscape Project. It began simply as an exercise to study the impact of noise pollution on life in the city, but led to the collective recording The Vancouver Soundscape and, later, a cross-Canada recording, which was featured on CBC Radio’s Ideas. And the project didn’t stop there. Schafer went on to lead a tour across Europe, investigating the “soundscapes” of five different villages in Sweden, Germany, Italy, France and Scotland (the book European Sound Diary describes their adventures in listening).

But it was when Schafer returned home to Canada’s forests and lakes that his work literally went wild. And he hasn’t looked back. “I realized my music was going to change as a result of living in nature,” he remembers. “I started to experiment with music, listening to the birds living across the lake, playing to each other. At various times of day, I began trying to get a dialogue going between the sounds of nature and the sounds that I produced.” Thus, Canada itself, with its physical landscape and wild creatures, plays the role of collaborator in Schafer’s work.

Much of the composer’s work depends on active listening, which entails being attentive to what he calls the “musical perfume” that exists in most sonic environments. “If you can figure out where that is going to happen, and put the audience in the perfect spot, then they will hear something very special,” he says. “Acoustically, it often sounds different than most sounds you will ever hear.”

Asked whether he considers himself an environmentalist and an activist, Schafer answers “yep” to both questions. He believes that creativity is transformative and hopes getting people to hear the environment in new ways will help them forge relationships with nature, from which they may have become disconnected, especially since such relationships are becoming more and more precious. With increasing numbers of Canadians residing in cities, Schafer says he worries about the effect that noise pollution is having on our lives, “The rising level of sound, the hum of traffic in cities blunts our experience as human beings.”

But his work, like the birds calling across the lake, is all about give and take.

“Nature participates. Nature influences the performance. Nature is the star. It is like participating with the cosmos,” he says. “It is something I recovered. It is something we used to all know.”

At the end of Enchanted Forest, the cycle of life begins anew. A white stag is re-born under the moon and Earth Mother reminds us that nature appears on her own terms—in much the same way that Schafer stages his performances—on his own terms.

R. Murray Schafer’s Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix runs August 31 to September 3 and September 6 to 9, 2006, in the Haliburton Forest and Nature Reserve, in Haliburton, Ontario.
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