The Stratford Summer Music Festival threw Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer one hell of an 80th birthday party at the festival city's famous Church Restaurant. Surrounded by 90-odd friends and colleagues, the July 18 celebration took the form of a powerful two-hour concert of Schafer's music, an intense, superbly performed tribute to undoubtedly Canada's most original composing mind.
And as I listened with awe to Schafer's music, my thoughts strayed to two other great Canadian artists, almost contemporaneous with Schafer – Glenn Gould and Alice Munro. First to their surface similarities: All three were born in the early 30s (Munro, 1931; Gould 1932; Schafer 1933). All three are natives of Southern Ontario, Munro and Schafer both born in Southwestern Ontario.
But most significantly, all three take on the whole world with their art – they are powerful, original universalists. Munro, with language, seeks the universal in the particular, in the scraping away to truth of the geological debris concealed in the tiniest details of ordinary life. Schafer, the musician, moves in the opposite direction, engaging the cosmos and a universal mythology of human history and human nature through the sounding vibrations of his imaginative creations. Gould, primarily an interpreter, seemed to stay within the boundaries of the received art of his time, but actually exploded those boundaries with a deeply creative mind and sensibility. What was going on in our quiet little country in those dark Depression years that caused such artistic intensity? Something important, one is tempted to say.
For Murray Schafer, his deep engagement with mythology, ritual and the inclusiveness of a natural world in which mankind finds a rightful home was demonstrated by the several excerpts from his Patria cycle performed at the tribute (Mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, Schafer's partner and a long-time collaborator in the Patria cycle, told us in her beautiful introductions to the cycle that she always felt herself a better person after performing these works). The Patria cycle is a series of a dozen or so music-dramas presented in the world – in forests, mine shafts, some through the night, some over a week. But even though we were hearing them inside, it did not take very much imagination to enter into the ritualistic, theatrical, timeless musical essence of the material.
Partly this was because the music was so brilliantly performed, with great skill and care, by some long associates of Murray's, and some more recent. Judy Loman, Canada's gift to the harp, recreated the complex interplay between percussion and harp that she first performed for the premiere of Patria V. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo, accompanied by percussionist Daniel Morphy, was mesmerizing and utterly captivating in the Amente Nufa from Patria 6 – Ra. And soprano Brooke Dufton – or at least her head, sticking out of a Samuel Beckett-style box (there's actually a fair bit of Beckett in many of Schafer's theatrical inventions) was fantastic as the skittering, spluttering, maniacal "party girl" of Patria 3. It didn't hurt that the world's most fascinating accordionist, Joe Macerollo, was aiding and abetting her performance – he who performed the part with the original soprano, Mary Morrison. And before the Patria excerpts, the young members of the Annex String Quartet beautifully rendered Schafer's Quartet No. 5, reminding us that Schafer's expansive mystical Romanticism has its basis in a very fine and well-developed lyrical sense.
Mary Morrison was one of several colleagues of Schafer's who spoke during the event, including a very moved, and moving David Jaeger, former CBC radio producer, and critic emeritus William Littler, charming and to the point as ever. I'm quoting him incorrectly, a sin for which he will not forgive me, but at the end of Littler's remarks, he said that Murray Schafer always forced us to think and feel and place ourselves outside of our comfort zones, of our accepted ideas of music and life. He was and is exactly right. There is a single-mindedness about Murray Schafer that comes with all true creators, an insistence on a vision that knows no compromise. Thanks to John Miller and Neil Crory of Stratford Summer Music, for a couple of hours we were confronted with that vision full on.