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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

R. Murray Schafer, My Life in Widening Circles

Quite a few years ago when enrolled in an introductory ethnomusicology course it was my good fortune to be assigned R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World, a most interesting book concerned with natural and artificial soundscapes, both local and global, and their symbiotic relationships. It's a book I've continued to reread over the years, very fertile ground for insights and creative catalysts, and a cautionary tale about the effects of our ever-encroaching industrial world on the sonic environment.

Only in the last several decades have I gotten the chance to hear Schafer's music, the latest of which I am currently appreciating, My Life in Widening Circles (Centredisques 17712). It's a series of chamber works ably performed by members of the Land's End Ensemble.

Some of the Canadian composer's works presented here are inspired by natural soundscapes he has experienced in his life, some less so. Five works are represented, two song cycles and three instrumental chamber works.

The song cycles have a dramatic aspect, with a rather wide dynamic range handled powerfully by the vocal soloists--almost too powerfully. Lyrics come out of Bertolt Brecht, traditional sources and Rainer Rilke. The music is bi-tonal at points, and highly crafted.

The instrumental chamber works are perhaps the most successful, with the "Duo for Violin and Piano" standing out as a brilliantly elaborate essay in propulsive brio. The "Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello" is also quite captivating, with moments of starkness and great thematic beauty contrasted with passages expressing a strident aggressiveness.

All the works are of interest. They are just idiosyncratic enough in subtle ways that getting a handle on them takes time. I am not quite there yet. They have a modern-pre-Darmstadtian cast to them in their own way, and they show the sure hand of a highly skilled craftsman. I need a little more time with this music to say more. For now I will note that they document the chamber side of the composer in revealing ways, that the performances are most dramatic and the music worth hearing by all means. Beyond that I will not venture for now.

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