Prologue on “A conversation with R. Murray Schafer”

Carlos Alberto Augusto

Weʼve all heard the sound of the wind. Better yet, we all recognize the audible effects of the air currents streaming through objects, bevels, edges. We have all heard this and we all recognize these “wind orchestras”. For most of us the consciousness of these sounds disapears in the very wind from which they originate.

La Monte Young, the American composer, claims to have heard the sound of the wind inside the log cabin where he was born: long sounds with a more or less steady frequency. R. Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer, poet and music educator tells us that he used to listen to the wind and graphically record its sound. La Monte Young picked up from his early experiences of listening to the wind (later enhanced with the sounds of the transformers of the power distribution stations) inspiration for his pieces with sine waves — long pieces, lasting hours or even days, which inspired the minimalist movement in music. Schafer acknowledged that, after notating his wind sounds, he would ask himself: could his sheet of paper become a “score”? Would the “music” that thus resulted have any value? Or “would it be so different from western music, as we know it, that it would simply leave us bored?”

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae once said: “And it is equal to the small in number; but with reference to itself each thing is both small and great... And since the portions of the great and the small are equal in number, thus also all things would be in everything”. In the wind certainly so. Wind can be everything. We only have to listen to it. The problem that Schafer poses is indeed quite simple. It is the question of our attitude in the face of the world around us.

Today we all get carried on with the study of complexity, information multiplexing, or chaos, all legitimate fields of knowledge (contemporary acousticians and musicians owe a lot to these studies), all capable of revealing important aspects of the surrounding reality. As a response to our clear lack of tools to deal with the complexity of the problems that we ourselves raised, we invented new technologies to come to our rescue. Some people even advocate ways to empower our natural capacities, i.e. nano- machines, a pair of simple molecules inside our body that can enhance our capacity to process information, placing us on a par with the powers of a supercomputers. Think more, think faster, process more information. Itʼs only human... Our species is unique in its capacity to change the surrounding environment. Other species can do it as well, but only humans seem capable of transforming it so deeply and — what is more — changing it to the point of becoming its victims. While we prepare to swallow nano-machines with the morning cereal, surrounded by LCD, CRT and wireless networks, we fence ourselves off from our world, a sort of self-exile. We became pray to our own processes. We see (distance ourselves) to believe, but we have stopped listening (coming closer) to understand. Science owes a lot to sound but we seem to have forgotten it. This is perhaps the essence of Schaferʼs message.

Schafer deals with these problems in his book “The Tuning of the World”, in “The Thinking Ear” and other writings that are mandatory reading if you want to understand his thought better. But the essence of this thought is present in an eloquently concise form in this small book “A conversation with R. Murray Schafer” written by Victor Flusser —which “Coimbra, Capital Nacional da Cultura, 2003”, decided to published as part of its “Coimbra Vibra!” project.

We invited R. Murray Schafer —Schafer who introduced new principles in the pedagogy of music that are nowadays common practice throughout the world; the creator of the concept of the soundscape which led us to consider our acoustic environment as a great, collective musical score; the composer that sets off with a group of musicians and volunteers every year to the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, a remote area in Ontario, in order to recreate his cycle Patria, a self funded and voluntarily perpetuated production, designed and performed in a collective ritual that lasts eight days — we asked Schafer to be the artistic director of “Coimbra Vibra!”, this unique project, the highlight of the Music Program of Coimbra Capital Nacional da Cultura, 2003. This project is our strategic excuse to ask everyone, citizens, artists, town representatives, teachers and students: what kind of Coimbra do you want? Are you willing to listen in order to understand or do you want to go on seeing to simply believe?

In spite of the seriousness and gravity of the problems that Schaferʼs thought equates, his tone is that of a great humanism and a profound optimism. Although, for many, the future is tinted with dark colors, surrounded by black fumes and stuck in frightening dungeons, to Schafer the future resembles his kind smile, the same smile that embraced this conversation, as noted by the author of this interview, Victor Flusser, who assisted Schafer at an early stage of this project.

Coimbra will thus vibrate with R. Murray Schafer. With joy.

return to Writings