R Murray Schafer and The Theatre of the Senses

David Howes
Director, CONSERT

R. Murray Schafer was Composer in Residence at Concordia University during the Fall term of 2005. This essay reports on some of the teaching techniques he used and the end-of-term production entitled "The Theatre of the Senses" which he facilitated.

During the Fall term of 2005, Murray Schafer led a Master Class in the Senses for 75 students from Concordia University’s departments of Music, Theatre, Film and Dance. Transforming the classroom into a sensory gymnasium, Schafer had his students exercise each of their sensory faculties by, among other things, composing smellodies, apple-tasting, going on barefoot walks around campus, and foregoing speech for a period so as to heighten their receptiveness to the world around them. He also lectured on some of his past works, such as “The Palace of the Cinnabar Prince” (Part 8 of the Patria Cycle), which was set around a wilderness lake, and Ko Wo Kiku, “Listen to the Incense,” which was commissioned by the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra.

The objective of the course was for the students, in groups of 10 or 12, with each group representing a cross-section of the disciplines, to mount a performance entitled “The Theatre of the Senses.” The students were thus called upon to negotiate disciplinary as well as sensory boundaries in conceptualizing the 10 pieces or “rooms” which would make up the show that was to be held at an undisclosed location on December 5th. Due to Schafer’s own Luddite biases and interest in exploring the communicative and emotive potential of the non-audio-visual senses, the students were also banned from using virtually any of the communications technologies that have become such a ubiquitous feature of contemporary performance and installation art. This ban provoked some consternation on account of the students being so accustomed to relying on electronic media to achieve effects.

On the night of December 5th, the audience congregated in the foyer of Concordia University's Hall Building, and we were bussed at 20 minute intervals in groups of 40 to the performance space, blindfolded. This space turned out to be a cool, multipurpose building in the industrial district of Montreal. The Parisian Laundry, as it is known, consists of two wide-open hardwood floors, supported by metal pillars, and a concrete cellar. The space was partitioned into chambers by means of curtains. The prevailing hue was burnt orange, and the lighting was for the most part subdued, bordering on the shadowy.

After converting our blindfolds into face masks, we climbed the metal stairs to the second floor. There we were entreated (wordlessly, by means of gestures) to divest ourselves of our coats, our boots and our stockings by sinuously clad, blackfaced attendants, who then invited us to follow a path of fabrics taped to the floor, applauding our every step. Underneath the fabrics were foam core, hangers, willow branches, plastic bags, bubble wrap, popcorn kernels, occasionally overlaid with onions, mint leaves, raw pasta, evergreen branches, tea, and white bread. Treading the path had the effect of transforming the soles of our feet from lowly means of locomotion into exquisite organs of perception. At the end of the path our feet were lovingly and joyously washed in warm water and dried by another chorus of beaming attendants.

We then crouched down to crawl through an opening in the curtains into the next room, and were summoned to compose ourselves on some straw. There was a grainy, black-and-white projection on one wall, and countless apples (resembling planets) suspended on strings from the ceiling. Two sylvan nymphs crawled over and around us, writhing lithely, and started the apples spinning. At the trill of a flute, four ten-foot tall columns of linen, encasing dancers, lit from within by candles, glided slowly and eerily towards us, chanting, and stopping just short of our prone bodies.

Ushered into the next room, we processed (slowly, wordlessly) around an altar of candles on the floor, past a priest (in lotus position) meditating, and then knelt down in a circle. Behind a backlit screen a tea ceremony was in progress. In time, we were each presented with a bowl of tea, shown how to waft its aroma to our noses with a waive of the hand, bidden to cup our hand to our ear to listen to its essence, and then imbibe it.

In the following chamber, we were greeted by a dancer who bowled and tossed clementines at us, then joined in a chant that seemed to emanate from the very core of our being led by a silver-haired woman dressed in orange who said “Hum with me.” Various facts about the nutritive, curative, and sensory delights of citrus fruits were posted on the walls. We were encouraged to read and contemplate these facts to the accompaniment of a duet of xylophone and guitar. There were also various stalls dedicated to recycling the clementine peels. At one, the peels were fashioned into jewellery. At another, they were ironed flat and exuded a wondrous hot orange scent as we rubbed them on our skin.

We then descended the metal stairs to the ground level, which proved torturous to our naked feet, and came upon another shadow play. This one involved a hooded figure on the other side of a window, behind a thick sheet of milky white plastic, who plastered the sheet with some substance that looked like frost when it dried. A few audience members tried to mirror the movements of the hooded dancer, and touch her hands, but were frustrated due to the opacity of the medium. Then we had the chance to dip our hands in what looked like papier mache paste (but was in fact icing sugar, as I learned from licking my fingers) and engage in digital painting of our own. Another exuberant chorus of attendants applauded us (leading us to wonder who was doing the acting) and then happily washed and towelled dry our hands.

A dinner party awaited us in the next room, where we were each presented with a glass of water and straw and then took our seats at a table strewn with dry pasta, plates of carrots, French bread, and microphones. Our hosts invited us to experiment with the acoustics of the spread by blowing bubbles in the water, spilling the pasta onto our plates, and using the cutlery as drumsticks, while passing around the mikes. This dinner party was a feast for the ears.

In the ensuing space we sat on chairs in groups of ten, and were handed slips of paper assigning us some animal identity or other (chicken, pig, goat). The papers instructed us to respond from the perspective of the animal we had drawn to the questions asked of us by a pseudo-psychiatrist with a clipboard. “Do you know where you are?” “Are you worried about your coat and boots?” This set presented us with the opportunity to articulate our experience of the performance thus far, but was complicated by the fact that we had no common language. Wanting to remain “in character,” I did not think it proper to resort to English, and so was confined to uttering “brock!” (in chickenspeak). I was saved from my predicament by a young man who invited me to come, take a deep breath with him, and then ushered me through a curtain into a room that was bathed in the flickering light and soothing scent of aromatic candles arranged in a huge iron chandelier shaped like an arrowhead. On a barren white wall there were cut-out letters in white cardboard spelling “LISTEN.” But listen to what? To our inner selves? To the walls and radiators? To the sounds of other groups making their way through other chambers of the exhibition? Most of us focussed on the latter. The bleeding of sounds emanating from different rooms was curiously decentring. I felt myself going out through my ears in a powerful reversal of the customary way in which we “receive” sense impressions.

Then came the descent into Hades (the cellar), stepping gingerly down the treads of a back stairwell, past clouds of fluff, feathers suspended on strings, and more sinuously swaying sirens in glittery party masks. At the base of the stairs, our masks were converted back into blindfolds and our hands were guided to a rope, which would lead us, stumbling, up on our feet and down on our knees, through a labyrinth of textures including crepe paper, cold steel, rough timber, bubble wrap, and a clothing bag with a living person in it. Profoundly disoriented, I shall always remember the cool touch of the hands which took hold of my wrists and delivered me from this dungeon of sensations.

The furnace room came next, with its exposed beams and pipes, where it was impossible to stand upright. We beat on the pipes and grated our finger nails on other surfaces, all ingeniously amplified, so as to produce an industrial din of hugely discordant proportions. The following room had spotlit jars with labels proclaiming SMELL ME. These alchemical vessels contained blends of aromatic oils as well as bits of dolls and sprigs of herbs. I wished I could know the ingredients of these elixirs so as to experience them again. Three small spotlit picture frames also lined the walls, training one’s gaze on the crumbling concrete. I wanted to reach through them, but suppressed the impulse, using my eyes like fingers instead. Around the corner was a standing set of drums and cymbals and some old manual typewriters where one could join in the jam session or tap out one’s impressions of the exhibition. A plant stood in a corner with a flashlight suspended over it, which one could set in motion to produce fantastic whirling shadows.

Then came the ascent, up more torturous stairs (under which there sat a musician in a bear suit playing a guitar). A door opened releasing us into the winter night. We crossed a courtyard with light snow falling, and then climbed up another flight of stairs to the room where our sensory odyssey had begun two hours earlier. Feeling both dazed and relieved, we retrieved our coats and boots, and then boarded the bus that took us back to the Hall Building.

The Theatre of the Senses provided members of the audience with a chance to step out of our selves (due to the dimness of the lighting and the depersonalizing effect of the masks) and into our senses. Thanks to the ministrations of the actors, and the phenomenal properties of the props and settings, we came to live our senses to the full. Alternately lulled and bombarded by sensations of differing intensities, we came away with the feeling of having had each of our senses cleansed. I was reminded of the ritual among the Kwoma of Papua New Guinea in which the members of one moiety rub the eyeballs of the other moiety so that the latter may “see with sacredness.”

The tingling sensation in the soles of our feet (which lasted for days afterwards) was the most potent reminder of the experience. How revelatory it was to have our soles liberated in this way and become organs of perception in their own right! Equally memorable were all the ways in which we had had our senses crossed, such as feasting with our ears, touching with our eyes, smelling sounds, tasting paint. Our senses were untracked and retracked in all sorts of novel combinations which exposed the limitations of the dominant ways in which “information” is tracked in our audio-visual civilization.

The Theatre of the Senses was in some respects a throwback to a ‘60s “happening,” as some audience members noted, but it was a creative (rather than derivative) anachronism. The anachronicity of my experience of this event put me in mind of Borges' short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. It was just as "astonishing" (Borges' term) for these students to put on such a '60s happening , given the simulacrous, hyperreal times in which we now live as it was for Pierre Menard "to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard."

The Theatre of the Senses could also be linked to the nineteenth century tradition of the “total work of art” or gesamtkunstwerk, which Schafer has done so much to expand by situating his pieces in wilderness settings (so that all of nature becomes a stage). It was a truly collaborative project, in which all the senses, like all the arts, conspired and were transmuted into each other, just as the conventional line separating actors from audience was effaced, liberating us from our respective roles, and permitting us to experience each others' presence in surprising new ways.