SOCAN member and legendary concert music composer R. Murray Schafer – also a writer, and “acoustic ecologist” – passed away at the age of 88, on Aug. 14, 2021, following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“R. Murray Schafer was one of Canada’s most highly esteemed composers, and deservedly so,”
said SOCAN CEO Jennifer Brown. “He was among the first classical composers to incorporate the sounds of nature into performances of his music, bringing the concept of ‘soundscapes’ to life. In doing so, he developed a uniquely Canadian kind of concert music that owes so much to the beloved natural wilderness of our country.”
In 1978, Schafer was awarded the inaugural Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, for his String Quartet No. 2 (Waves). In 1987, he won the inaugural Glenn Gould Prize, and jury member Yehudi Menuhin praised his “strong, benevolent, and highly original imagination and intellect.” A recording of his first five string quartets won the JUNO Award in 1991 for Best Classical Album, Solo or Chamber Ensemble. The same year, Schafer won the JUNO for Best Classical Composition, for his String Quartet No. 5 (Rosalind). Again in 1991, he earned the SOCAN Jan V. Matejcek New Classical Music Award. Schafer was awarded the Canada Council’s Walter Carsen Prize in 2005; received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2009; and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2013.
Schafer composed a great deal, in all genres: symphonic, chamber, opera, choral, and oratorio. His works were often performed outdoors, in order to integrate natural sounds into the music. For example, Music for Wilderness Lake was written for 12 trombonists spaced around a body of water. For another example, the opera The Princess of the Stars was intended to be performed by musicians gathered on the edge of a lake one hour before dawn, with awakening birds, and sunrise, contributing to both the sound and the drama, and some characters entering via canoe. (A 1985 production of the opera at Banff National Park attracted an audience of 5,000.)
Schafer was also concerned about the damaging effects of noise on people, particularly those living in cities. In 1969, he founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, “to find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony.” He presented his theories and research in his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World.
Schafer began his studies at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music, but dropped out after three years to study music less formally, in Vienna and England. He returned to Canada in 1961, and directed the first Ten Centuries Concerts in Toronto before starting a 12-year period of teaching: first, as an Artist-in-Residence at Memorial University (1963-65) and then at Simon Fraser University (1965-75). He then retired from teaching and began devoting himself solely to writing and composing.
It was after this retirement that Schafer wrote one of his most ambitious compositions, Apocalypsis, an orchestral, choral, and theatrical piece based on the biblical Book of Revelation, requiring at least 500 performers. Because of its size and complexity, it has only been performed twice: first, in 1980, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of London, Ontario; and then, in 2015, at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. More than 1,000 artists participated in the latter, and it was live-streamed by CBC, and later released by Analekta Records.
SOCAN extends its deepest condolences to Schafer’s wife, family, friends, colleagues, and listeners.