The Human Presence in Schafer’s Soundscape-Concertos

“Well, there’s another completely cool thing I knew nothing about.”

This was my feeling after hearing Tyler Kinnear’s paper on R. Murray Schafer’s The Princess of Stars (1981), an opera that is meant to be performed (and has been several times) on a lake. Hearing excerpts from the work, the sound of a human voice blending with the elements, I could understand how the same person who wrote this music also coined the term soundscape. This music exists as an environment, a particular combination of the concert and natural worlds. Take the natural world away and the piece would lose a central aspect of its identity. During the paper and since, I’ve been thinking about the connection between Schafer’s Princess, part of a twelve-work cycle called Patria, and another late twentieth-century extravaganza of avant-garde opulence, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle, which has an opera for each day of the week. I don’t understand the connection at the moment and am resisting the urge to search for it, in part because I think it would require digging into the twelve-part Patria in earnest, and, well. . .so many albums! As a stopgap, though, I determined to seek out all the albums with pieces by R. Murray Schafer (b. 1933) we had in the listening library, to see how they related to the extraordinary noises I heard during Tyler Kinnear’s paper.

The short answer is: There’s no short answer.

The longer answer is:

What a remarkable composer R. Murray Schafer is that he should write something that sounded like that excerpt I heard from The Princess of the Stars and also write the three pieces on the first album I listened to: Flute Concerto (1984), Harp Concerto (1987), and The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller (1991). 51SiugerzVL._SX355_.jpgI should perhaps say that the third of these pieces is, in the words of the composer, a “double rhapsody for violin and orchestra” – that is, not precisely but almost a concerto, even though it came about in a concerto-like way, as a commission from violinist Jacques Israelievitch. As the title suggests, there are two presences in the soundscape of the piece: the earth itself, sounded by the orchestra, and the traveler, sounded by the violinist. The liner notes to the album (credited to the composer and Robin Elliott) say nothing about the origin of the work’s title, as evocative as it is. I thought perhaps Milton, but a hesitant, wincing peek into the rabbit hole of Google search results yielded only obscure references to Zoroastrianism and to the song “Darkly Splendid World” from British band Current 93’s album Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre (1993). Perhaps the origin of the title is very obvious, but somehow I doubt the piece’s connection to either of these eyebrow-raising finds, either as descendant or influence.

The other possibility that occurred to me as inspiration for the title was Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker (1776-8), which in my mind always suggests Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808-10). Arguably the spirit of Schafer’s double rhapsody is poised between these two works. In Friedrich’s painting, the human is anonymous, voiceless, insignificant in the face of the vast and unknowable. In Rousseau, we are invited to “walk along with” the solitary writer, to trace the steps of his thought as he observes the world.Reveries-Rousseau.jpg In Friedrich, we never find the human; in Rousseau, we never escape him. Schafer’s violin is in a sense a Rousseau sort of presence, rhapsodizing, yes, in ways virtuosic and expressive, lyrical, fiery – really, in all those ways that we expect the violin to behave in a twentieth-century concerto. The surprise comes with the orchestra’s part of the double rhapsody, which often seems to operate according to entirely different principles. The darkly splendid earth inhabits this soundscape but is not subservient to the traveler in terms of texture or material. Its climaxes need not involve the violin at all, even as an obbligato element, and they need not respect the sovereignty of the soloist by getting out of the way. This is a darkly splendid earth like Friedrich’s rendering of the sea. According to the notes, the unconventional relationship between soloist and orchestra was even more pronounced in the first draft of the piece. I find myself wondering what the experience of it is like in live performance. Does the violinist seem like the monk before the orchestral sea, staring up into the ether to the backdrop of fathomless churning?Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Der_Mönch_am_Meer_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The other two pieces on the album would seem to have a much less obvious connection to the Schafer of Princess of the Stars. First, they are called concertos, and each has the traditional three movements. The album notes point out that the Flute Concerto from 1984 was only Schafer’s second work to bear that generic title, the first being the Concerto for Harpsichord and Eight Wind Instruments from 1954. So, after a thirty-year gap, Schafer came back to. . . classical form. This is a different sort of soundscape, maybe not something that Schafer would even identify as such: a sort of soundscape of the mind comprised of an inheritance of works. Here the individual concerto stands in relationship to its own ocean of repertory, which inevitably threatens to subsume any individual concerto. Are we hearing an enactment of genre or a single work? What we hear is, of course, the tension between those two options. I’ll mention just one aspect of each concerto that gripped me, that seemed to claim a certain independence.

In the Flute Concerto, this happened in the slow second movement, by far the longest of the three. The album notes point out that the movement “uses microtonal pitch inflections in imitation of [Asian] music.” Nothing more specific than that. But in the cadenza at the very end of the work, the flute (played by Robert Aitken, who commissioned the work) unmistakably evokes the shakuhachi, a sound that the listener has not been prepared for in any specific way but that points to an important source of extended techniques for the contemporary flutist – i.e., world flutes – and to the international and arguably intercultural orientation of avant-garde music in the last quarter of the twentieth century and beyond.

In the Harp Concerto, what gripped me was the identity of the principal motive that runs through the entire work. (Nexus entry.) I think it’s difficult to ignore that the motive powerfully resembles the one that opens the concluding March from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943). Could this possibly be a coincidence? Given the popularity of Hindemith’s work, I don’t see how. That other evocations seem to be scattered through the work – echoes of Bartók, Britten, Beethoven, possibly of Berlioz – suggests that the weight of the concert inheritance was very much on Schafer’s mind when writing the work. It is such an attractive work, but it’s hard to conceive that this is the composer of the opera on the lake. Perhaps Schafer is simply supremely good at wearing different hats. Or perhaps the symphonic repertory itself is functioning as a sort of environment that soloist and ensemble inhabit and traverse. It is their darkly splendid earth. (Nexus exit.) However conceived, the concerto seems to have been a useful form for Schafer to continue to explore the relationship between the individual voice and that voice’s inevitable participation in a larger soundscape. And now Patria’s on my ever larger listening list. . .

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