R Murray Schafer: My Life on Earth and Elsewhere

a handicap, if not too severe, gives one an advantage in life because it forces the handicapped to work harder.

I understand autobiography as a medium associated with fame.  Books about stars sell well, whether they’re readable or not.

RMS's book

The cover of R Murray Schafer’s My Life on Earth & Elsewhere

I feel i need to apologize for such cynical thinking, but those are among my first thoughts coming to My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, the memoir of R Murray Schafer, Canadian composer & artist, a book that deserves to be read by more than the narrow Canadian new music fraternity. This beautiful book is bound in lovely paper, decorated on the cover and inside with copious examples of RMS’s art.  I am reminded of why books matter, the sort of cultural issue that likely wasn’t far from Schafer’s awareness while crafting his memoir.

RMS has had a very interesting & colourful life, one he shares generously throughout.  If one only wanted to get lost in excellent prose & ruminations about the meaning of life, the memoir is rewarding enough.  Autobiography is a kind of portraiture, a glimpse if not an objective view of the person.  I recognize this is naïve and perhaps wishful thinking, but even so I rather like the R Murray Schafer of the memoir.  The person portrayed in the book –real or otherwise—is fascinating: not a wild extrovert, but always keeping his eye on the future, never letting anything get him down, a fellow with a special gift for meeting strangers, particularly women.  I realized somewhere past page 50 that I am loving this book even though I don’t think I’ve seen nearly as much as I expected to see pertaining to music, so far.

But it does come up.

The story of Son of Heldenleben with the Montreal Symphony brings context to a piece I remember from a later performance by Toronto Symphony.  Too bad the piece was presented in the usual pompous seriousness by the TSO when I sensed (but repressed my awareness of) its parodic-deconstructive nature.  RMS tells several colourful tales of the background politics with the MSO.  I must surrender to the impulse to quote RMS. I want to share.

Then one day I got the summons to come to Montreal to meet Maestro Franz Paul Decker, one of those majestic foreigners to whom we have entrusted all our major orchestras.  …Everywhere Decker went he was followed by two stooges who punctuated all his statements with ‘C’est juste’ or ‘c’est ça’.  ‘You know, Mr Schafer, only last veek ve are performing  ze rrrreal Heldenleben! Now zis…foolish joke vill not reflect vell on us, not at all.’   ‘C’est juste.’ etc. ‘First I vould ask you to consider changing ze title.’  ‘No.’  ‘But zis is impossible title!’  ‘Impossible, impossible” echo the two stooges.   

For a time at least, Canadian music was a second class citizen in our country.


R Murray Schafer

A commission from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra followed that from the MSO a year or so later.  The contract read: ‘It is agreed that the work shall have a minimum duration of approximately seven(7) minutes and no longer than ten (10) minutes.’  That is, the work was to be what Canadian composers call a ‘piece de garage’, intended for performance while the patrons were parking their cars. 

The gradual change in the book’s tone parallels RMS’s changing sense of self.  Just as I’d like to think that we’ve shaken off the colonial chains holding us back, the nervous apologies and perpetual measuring against European standards, so too for the composer.  In due course, Schafer tells the story of many of his most celebrated compositions (even as their more detailed discussion is to be found elsewhere), both as logistical challenges and as creative opportunities, without holding back on the ironic wit.

I haven’t finished reading the memoir yet.  But I’m grateful to be under the weather today, cocooned with Schafer and his remarkable book.

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2 Responses to R Murray Schafer: My Life on Earth and Elsewhere

  1. Pingback: CASP at RBA | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Love, Death and the TSO | barczablog

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