RAYMOND MURRAY SCHAFER: Born in Sarnia, Ontario, July 18, 1933; now living in Indian River, Ontario.

Over the years, the National Arts Centre Orchestra has performed the music of R. Murray Schafer on more than thirty occasions, beginning in 1973 (only the fourth year of the Orchestra’s existence) when it commissioned East. Since then, it has commissioned four additional works: Cortège (1977), The Garden of the Heart (1981), Gitanjali (1992) and Dream-E-Scape (2009). In July, 2008, the NAC honored the composer with a “Schafer at 75” celebration of his lifetime achievement.

Schafer is one of Canada’s most gifted, most articulate, most provocative, most eclectic and most performed composers. There is no such thing as a “typical” work by Schafer. His compositions often result from special explorations into the worlds of sound, sonics, language, philosophy, psychology, mythology, theater, ritual, or any combination thereof. Even audience participation is not unknown. His compositions can range from a modest four-minute Untitled Composition for Orchestra to an all-night ritual involving the five senses (Ra). Schafer also tends to write for unusual and unorthodox combinations: harp and string quartet (Theseus) or twelve trombones (Music for Wilderness Lake), to cite just two cases. One of the most significant aspects of Schafer’s wide-ranging catalogue is the series of string quartets he has been producing since 1970. As of 2009, he was up to eleven, making him the composer of string quartets in Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Schafer is widely-known, both throughout Canada and abroad, as an environmentalist, educator and writer. He has some twenty literary works to his credit, of which E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music and The Tuning of the World are especially important. As for his musical training, Schafer is largely self-taught, having been dismissed from the University of Toronto in his first year. He acknowledges influence from John Weinzweig and Greta Kraus, and intellectual stimulation from Marshall McLuhan.

East was commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra with the aid of a grant from the Canada Council. Mario Bernardi conducted the first performance on October 4, 1973. The composer has written the following words on the title page of the score:

East is a meditation on a text from the Isha-Upanishad: ‘The self is one. Unmoving it moves faster than the mind. The senses lag, but self runs ahead. Unmoving it outruns pursuit The self is everywhere, without body, without shape, whole, pure, wise, all-knowing, farseeing, self-depending, all-transcending. Unmoving, it moves far away, yet near, within all, outside all.’ The forty-eight words of the text are punctuated by forty-eight gongs, sounding approximately every ten seconds. Each letter of the text is given a pitch value depending on its frequency of occurrence in the text and the note patterns arising from the words form the harmonic and melodic material which the orchestra plays and occasionally sings.”
Robert Markow

© 2010, Robert Markow

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