A “Rare” Tasting Menu by R Murray Shafer

“Dawn itself is the most neglected masterpiece of the modern world.” – R Murray Shafer

For those who don’t already know him, R Murray Shafer is the legendary superstar of the Canadian Musical avant garde – a great thinker, teacher, composer and all round renaissance man.

Having been a fan for over 30 years but with little local exposure, it was great to see his Harbingers of Spring: a rare soundwalk presented last week in Waterloo Region. I’ve had the great fortune to have experienced many of his masterworks, especially those from his ambitious, 12 part Patria series, including The Princess of the Stars, Ra and The Enchanted Forest. Each concert is a one of a kind, tour de force combining music, theatre, philosophy many times based on classic mythologies and almost always set in the natural environment.

The soundwalk event was really a set of mini-concerts stitched together during a 3 hour walk through the breathtaking, almost 1000 acre rare property at the confluence of the Speed and the Grand Rivers in Cambridge. First and foremost, a brilliant thought leader and writer, Shafer opened with some great concepts:

  • Sounds and music, never originated in the sterile, acoustically engineered, concert hall. Their natural habitat is outdoors.
  • Most early cultures could hear both nearby sounds, such as birds or the trees, but also far off sounds, (maybe even 20-30 km) by “putting their ear to the ground”.
  • Being acutely atuned to ambient sounds wasn’t just an aesthetic sense, it was also essential to  survival.
  • It is possible to hear even the sound of “trees growing in the woods”. This isn’t just the lovely sound of wind in leaves, but also the sound of sap rushing through the trees. Each species of tree has its own distinctive sound (music?) both in growing and in the way it interacts with the wind.
  • Sadly, our modern, urban population has lost its ability to hear more than the most immediate sounds – the white noise of traffic, car horns and the ubiquitous music such as in Starbucks drown out any ability to hear anything further afield. Along with this, perhaps we have lost our ability to “hear” the very ecosystem we inhabit.

Finally, Shafer concludes with his vision that re-connecting people with their audible environment might well be essential to the very survival of our environmentally challenged planet.

Including premieres and works inspired by Shafer’s engaging, nay idiosyncratic, style, some of the pieces included:

  • Radio Rare Woods (world premier) by Ellen and Michael Waterman, including first a live performance of the Nocturne for Solo Flute from Shafer’s Wolf Music, composed in 1996, followed by echoes played over several dozen radio receivers strategically arrayed thoughout the wood walk. Certainly, a juxtaposition of the urban and natural environments.
  • From the Bow a poem by Rae Crossman, set to clarinet music written by Murray Shafer.
  • Excerpts from The Enchanted Forest and Aubade for Solo Voice by Murray Shafer is a wonderful example of the music coming to life in the setting of a forest. The music elicits a live response from birds and other wildlife in a way that is more alive than anything seen in any concert hall. It was truly awe inspiring.
  • Transportation Transoformation in Shades of Rust (world premier) by Annette Urbschat and Todd Harrop presented an improvisation using a quintessential 20th century intruder, in the shape of a wrecked car, which acts both as set and source of musical instruments.
  • The Acoustic Locator (world premier) by Nina Leo was a large ear horn that could swivel through an entire 360 degree rotation enabling each audience member to connect with the audible landscape in a very intimate way indeed.

Open Ears Soundwalk - R Murray Shafer at RareIn closing, kudos to the organizers for their sense of promoting the power of partnership in the arts. Just like in for profit businesses, this kind of pairing can build a powerful gestalt where the sum is greater thant the parts.

The Soundwalk was presented as part of the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, which is an electic mix spanning avant garde to classical and electroacoustics to sound installations. The festival is a “spin-out” of the KW Symphony Orchestra under Artistic Director Peter Hatch and produced jointly with NUMUS. What was exciting was that this event was produced with a charitable natural reserve decicated to research. Like R Murray Shafer, the event was a fusion of togetherness of the arts and environment in Waterloo Region. This is exactly the kind of “big tent” strength through partnership envisaged by the September 2008 Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region: Task Force on Creative Enterprise.