INTRODUCTION TO R. MURRAY SCHAFER BY DAVID HOWES
There is something stirring in the air here in Montreal this Fall. That something is the senses - all five of them!
In the exhibition set to open here next week, curated by Mirko Zardini and his team, there will be something for each of your senses. Sense of the City will give you the city not just as an object of vision or light, but as an object of hearing, of smell, of touch, and of taste.
Mirko’s exhibition is literally sensational, with the result that the city will lose its status as object and start to register in your sensorium as the dynamic, multisensory, organic whole that it is.
This exhibition heralds the beginning of a revolution in the fields of architecture and urban studies - a revolution of the senses. That revolution contains the promise of radically restructuring the conventional ways in which we perceive and think about the design of urban space.
I feel deeply honoured to be a participant in this revolution. My role was to put together this lecture series where we shall attempt to do indirectly, in words, what Mirko does directly by means of objects and sensorial displays.
Our task, in other words, is to verbalize an architecture of and for the senses. Let me caution you at once that much of the content of this series will be deeply and explicitly sensuous. Viewer discretion is not, however, advised. You should allow yourself to be awakened from the sleep of the senses in conventional architectural and urban planning discourse. You should let your senses run free!
We are deeply fortunate to have as the first speaker in this series R. Murray Schafer. Murray is the Composer in Residence here at Concordia this Fall, where he is conducting what is best described as a MASTER CLASS IN THE SENSES. The course will lead to a performance in early December at an as yet undisclosed location of a work to be called THE THEATER OF THE SENSES. The work will be co-designed by Murray and the 75 fortunate students from Music, Theatre, Contemporary Dance and Cinema enrolled in his course.
I dropped in on Murray at his office on the Loyola campus earlier this week to talk about his aims for the course. I was intrigued to learn that he is schooling his students in various techniques for recovering and living their senses to the full, such as going on barefoot walks around campus, or setting aside 24 hours in which you try not to speak to anybody so as to heighten your sense experience of the world around you. He also has his students making smellodies, that is arranging odours the same way you might arrange notes in music.
Murray has been developing these techniques for many years, beginning with children’s books, like Rhinoceros in the Classroom, and A Sound Education: 100 Exercises in Listening and Sound-Making, which is directed at slightly older youths.
You could say that Murray conceives of the classroom as a sensory gymnasium, where you exercise each of your senses instead of passively absorbing the 'three Rs': reading writing and arithmetic.
I have been doing ethnographic research on the senses across cultures for some 20 years. I thought I knew something about technique, but I came away from our conversation bristling with new ideas, having just had my senses “cleaned”, in one of Murray’s catchphrases.
Murray is the author of many such catchphrases or soundbites, which open up worlds of possibilities. Others include “acoustic ecology,” “soundmark” and “schizophonia,” some of which we shall be hearing about presently.
Composer, dramatist, music educator, music journalist, pioneer in the field of soundscape studies, Murray has also made significant contributions to the humanities as a musicologist/literary scholar, creative writer, and visual artist. (Many of his musical scores include illustrations and/or graphic notations, and have been exhibited from time to time in galleries)
His work consistently crosses disciplines, inspiring those of us who work within specific disciplines (anthropology, history) to aspire to new heights. It also crosses genres (recital, opera, theatre), and thus may be considered a form of gesamtkunstwerk, but on a scale which even the great Richard Wagner never imagined. Consider 'The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix' (the eighth work in the Patria Cycle), which takes place out of doors, around and on the surface of a wilderness lake. For Murray, the whole of nature is a stage, and the sounds of nature play no less a role than the instruments or voices of the human performers. His genre-crossing work has accordingly attracted many prizes, such as the first Glenn Gould Award in 1987, the first Louis Appelbaum Composers award in 1999, and there is no end to his commissions.
In addition to crossing disciplinary borders, Murray’s work crosses sensory borders, as in Ko Wo Kiku, “Listen to the Incense.” This work was commissioned by the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra. It incorporates elements of the Japanese incense ceremony in its first movement, as jars of lit incense are passed around from performer to performer.
You might think it takes a musician to think of “listening” to incense, but in fact if you delve deeply into Buddhism, as Murray has, you will find that hearing with the nose can put you on the path to Enlightenment.
Murray’s best known academic work is The Tuning of the World, first published in 1977, and translated into many languages. He is also a contributor to The Auditory Culture Reader, published by Berg of Oxford in 2003, the first book in the Sensory Formations series.
Enough said. Let us now turn this auditorium into an acoustic gymnasium. Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini, members of the CCA and of the public, I present you R Murray Schafer (click here for the lecture).