R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021) Pt.1

September 28, 2021 | 00:34:23

R. Murray Schafer recently passed away on August 14th 2021. If you’re someone who works with sound or enjoys sound art or experimental music–or you’ve just thrown around the word “soundscape”–you’ve probably engaged with his intellectual legacy. Schafer was one of Canada’s most influential avant-garde composers. He was also the creator of acoustic ecology, the founder of the World Soundscape Project, and the author of the classic book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. He brought a musician’s ear to the field of ecology and he brought an ecological perspective to music. And he bequeathed us a generative vocabulary for talking about and thinking about sound.

This is the first of a two-part series on R. Murray Schafer. Next month, we speak with two of Schafer’s critics–Mitchell Akiyama and Jonathan Sterne. But today, we speak with three of Schafer’s associates to understand the person, his creative works, and his lasting impact on the study of sound:

Creative works heard on today’s show:

Special thanks to Elisabeth Hodges for translation assistance, Alex Blue V for our outtro music, and Craig Eley for his dramatic turn as R. Murray Schafer.

Today’s show was produced and edited by Mack Hagood with additional editing by Ravi Krishnaswami.



Ethereal Voice: This…is…Phantom Power.

[Crow Squawking]

R. Murray Schafer: A soundscape is any collection of sounds almost like a painting is a collection of visual attractions.  

I think when you listen carefully to the soundscape, it becomes quite miraculous when you listen carefully and marvel.

[Crow Squawking]

But what you’re hearing now is not real sound.

My voice isn’t coming from me. It’s coming from sounds that were made a long time ago. And what happens if my voice stops?

What do you hear then?

[Camera Reel Rolling]

[Miniwanka by R. Murray Schafer Plays]


Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, a monthly exploration of sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood.

It’s been a few weeks now, but I think a lot of us in the sound community are still processing the news that R. Murray Schafer passed away on August 14th, 2021, after a decade long struggle with dementia.

If you don’t know that name, but you’re someone who works with sound or enjoys sound art or experimental music, or you’ve just thrown around the word “soundscape,” you’ve probably engaged with the intellectual legacy of R. Murray Schafer.

Schafer was Canada’s most influential avant garde composer. He was someone who deeply interested in the notion of a distinctly Canadian art music and theatrical performance art.

But as a thinker writer and project manager, he had a truly global impact.

 He was the founding father, I don’t know a better way to put it, of acoustic ecology, the founder of the World Soundscape Project, and the author of the classic book, Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and The Tuning of The World.

Musicologist Will Robin penned The New York Times obituary for Shafer and the headline called Shafer, “A Composer Who Heard Nature’s Music.”

He brought a musician’s ear to the field of ecology and he brought an ecological perspective to music and he bequeathed us a generative vocabulary for talking about and thinking about sound.

And yet we are living in a time when futures price for founding fathers, particularly straight white, cisgender ones, is in free fall and often for good reason.

In Schafer’s case, he wasn’t simply a crunchy granola composer who put trombonists in canoes. He was a provocateur, who sometimes punched down and he was a nationalist whose vision of Canada did not take indigeneity or multiculturalism seriously enough.

He has been criticized as a magpie whose compositions and librettos appropriated the world’s cultures.

And he had a strange relationship to radio and recording technologies, disparaging them while also relying upon them to do his work of acoustic ecology.

In other words, he was a complex man of his time.

However, his influence did not remain in the past, it’s still with us today, so like I said, I’m still processing.

[Miniwanka by R. Murray Schafer Plays]

So, to help me and all of us process the legacy of R. Murray Schafer, we present a two-part series.  

Next month, we’ll hear from Schafer’s critics, nut first I wanted to understand the man and his contributions to music and sound.

I spoke with three guests, ethnomusicologist and flutist, Ellen Waterman. Sound artist and President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, Eric Leonardson Elenson. And soundscape composer and acoustic ecologist, Hildegard Westerkamp.

[Miniwanka by R. Murray Schafer Plays]


So, I wanted to speak with someone who knew Shafer as a composer of compelling works, like the Coral Piece we’ve been listening to, Snow Forms performed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir, and I was lucky to speak with Ellen Waterman.

Ellen Waterman: I was working at the Royal Conservatory Music at the age of 21 in Toronto as an assistant concert manager and a cattle call came across my desk for something called Patria 3: The Greatest Show.

So, I tottled off with my flute to a little carriage house in Forest Hill in Toronto that happened to belong to the great poet, Bp Nichol, and I went into a tiny little room with about four people there, Schafer and a director, Tom Sokolowski and some other folks.

I put the Berio Sequenza on an upright piano, because that was the only place to put any music, turned my back to them and auditioned playing the Berio Sequenza and Murray, puffing on a pipe this whole time in this small room, said:

“Great. If you can find a violinist and a violist who work for free for three weeks this summer with you, you’re in.”

And I just thought, “Oh, this is the best thing ever.”

I remember punching the air as I left that house and I easily found some colleagues and we participated in The Greatest Show.

[Snippet from Patria 3: The Greatest Show]

Waterman: The Greatest Show is in the form of a carnival. So, it’s an environmental music theater work, but it takes place in a park at night in a town with a hundred or so acts happening simultaneously.


Mack: So, in 1988, 21-year old, Ellen Waterman, first got to know Shafer, not only as a composer, but also as the impresario of this huge immersive carnival piece, The Greatest Show.

Shafer originally wanted to call it “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  He was sent a cease and desist letter from the Ringling Bros., Barman & Bailey Circus, but the title gives you a sense of the scope of his ambitions.

There’s a video excerpt online (link in the show notes) and it’s an overwhelming spectacle of carnival acts, musicians, and performers of all stripes.

[Snippet from Patria 3: The Greatest Show]

Like many of the people I spoke with for today’s show, Ellen Waterman’s life trajectory was impacted by her encounter with R. Murray Schafer. She performed in a number of his works, he wrote some solo flute pieces for her, and she even ended up doing a PhD dissertation on Schafer.

Today, Ellen is Helmut Kallman Chair for Music in Canada, at Carleton University. As an improviser, she has performed with the likes of Pauline Oliveros, Viv Corringham, and George Lewis to name a few.

I asked Ellen how she would describe Schafer as a composer.


Waterman: I would characterize him as a romantic modern, if that’s a thing. So, he had romanticized notions of the relationship between indigenous peoples and the land, along with his romanticized notions of all kinds of other cultures.

His interest in Jungian psychology, his interest in medieval times, you know, he created this kind of mystical cosmos in his works that just kind of borrows from everything.

He really had his finger in a lot of different eras and languages and spent a bunch of time in Vienna, kind of living in a garret and taking in concerts, these kinds of things.

So, living out sometimes, I think, a very romantic ideal of the wandering artist, and yet at the same time, having very modernist sensibilities in terms of his sense of authorship and the purpose of art. The art of truth, that kind of thing.

Mack: For what it’s worth, the Canadian encyclopedia concurs with Dr. Waterman’s assessment. It states:

“The diversity of Shafer’s output belies generalizations of style. However, much of his work could be described as a synthesis of 20th century avant garde techniques with the spirit of 19th century romanticism. The highly original result has secured him a special status among Canadian musicians of his generation.”

It’s this mix of romanticism and modernist rebellion that characterizes both Schafer’s musical and theoretical output. Another mentee of Schafer’s, Hildegard Westerkamp, traces this mix back to his childhood.


Westerkamp: I just know that he had a pretty difficult childhood in terms of being bullied and his, you know, born with a one eye not working and he got a glass eye very early on when he was still in elementary school.

He wanted to be an artist, a painter, and he was discouraged from that because of that. There were elements of, you know, him never being able to cope in school and becoming a rebel.

He couldn’t cope with the system or the system couldn’t cope with him, and so no wonder he became outspoken.

[Transitional Tones]

Mack: So, Shafer’s youth in the 1940s was not idyllic.

Bullied and discouraged from his dream of becoming an artist, he managed only a junior year matriculation from high school, which left him ineligible for university.

He was able to enter an artist diploma program at the University of Toronto’s Music Faculty in the early 1950s, but ever the rebel, he was more into reading literature and philosophy than practicing music.

Will Robin writes that he angered one choir director by perusing art books during rehearsal.

Ellen Waterman.

Waterman: In fact, he got kicked out of music school after his second year at U of T and he went to Europe and did a kind of self-study of a bunch of different things, found himself in London and wrote a book called, British Composers in Interview. It’s his first book.

And another book on E.T.A. Hoffman and music, and also met Ezra Pound and got permission to work with the BBC to produce Ezra Pound’s opera.  

[Snippet from La Testament de Villon]

Mack: Hildegard Westerkamp.


Westerkamp: I mean, he was just at a creative person on absolutely every level. Right.

And he never stopped.

He was just, he was relentless.

[Transitional Chimes]

Mack: Shafer does cut a romantic figure in this narrative. He sounds like someone out of a Jack Kerouac novel. Rebelling against the conservatory, working as a deck hand on an oil tanker, sailing to Europe and wandering the continent, writing books, meeting Ezra Pound, following only his muse without regard for the system.

And then there’s the knowledge that somehow all of this is going to work out for him.

He’s going to go back to Canada in the 1960s, and despite having no degree, he’ll get hired as a professor, and he’ll be amazing at it! One of the most important Canadian educators of his time. 

It is romantic.

It’s easy to feel like, “Man, if you just had grit and talent back then, there was so much space to roam.” You could be the kind of hero that Shafer liked to portray in his work.

But of course, in reality, it really depended on who YOU were. All that space to roam in North America was colonized space. Space taken away from indigenous people, and if you were a white man, there was all that room to be a rebel and yet still get work in radio with the BBC and get a professorship, in large part because women and people of color were generally kept out of those spaces.

And I don’t mean to raise these issues in order to denigrate Schafer or his genius, but we need to keep these factors in mind because they shaped the space in which his genius unfolded, and these factors helped shape his own spatial conception of the soundscape.

Which brings us to Shafer’s return to Canada in the mid 1960s.

Ellen Waterman says it’s at this moment that he starts building the projects that we know him best for. He develops three distinct, but interrelated types of project.

The first involves education and the notion of a Canadian music.


Waterman: He really starts working out his music education experiments in the context of a program run by the Canadian music center called the John Adaskin Program, where they invited Canadian composers to go into schools and work with kids and really in a nationalist project, try to think, “Well, what would a Canadian music repertoire be?” so that the ideas that these Canadian kids would grow up knowing Canadian artists. Right?

So, he grew up in a time in Canada, where Canada was frantically trying to figure out its national identity and feeling always like the smaller cousin of the big monolith to the south or in Shafer’s view, the kind of colony of Britain.

And his strong view is that Canadian music needed to break free from what he saw as its position as a colonial entity.

All this reads very differently in contemporary Canadian culture where colonization means white Canadian settlers, you know, colonizing indigenous people. So, like, you really have to be careful about what era you’re talking about.

Mack: The second project is the one we sound nerds know Schafer best for.

Waterman: 1965, he starts working at Simon Fraser University and in their brand-new communications department, brand new university and starts developing all this stuff on sound and noise.

Out of which comes The World Soundscape Project and acoustic ecology eventually. And it’s at the same time that he writes his first multimedia experimental music opera, kind of composition called Loving.

[Snippet from Loving]

Mack: All three of Shafer’s projects were, at heart, sonic spatial projects. The first asked, “What kinds of music can characterize and unite the social space of a nation?”

The second asked, “What kinds of sounds characterize a physical space and what do those sounds tell us about our relation to environment?”

And the third explored how to create a multisensory musical art that would bring the social and the spatial into sublime contact with one another, often beyond the walls of the auditorium.

[Snippet from Loving]

The libretto for Loving resonates with Shafer’s acoustic inquisitiveness.


When I plunge my ear in the upright mirror, I hear your voice.


When I touch the air, I hear your voice.


In the darkness of this dark room, I hear your voice and I listen and sometimes don’t understand.

 [Snippet from Loving]

Let’s take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll examine the contributions of acoustic ecology.


[Transitional Music]

Amy Skjerseth: Hello, Phantom Power listeners, this is Amy Skjerseth, one of the podcast’s core producers.

We always appreciate when listeners share our show on Facebook and Twitter. So, I wanted to give a special shout out to Andrew and Dan, who got in touch with us about our Yoko Ono episode after years removed from making music together in high school marching band.

So, if you like the show helped us grow it by tweeting us and reviewing us.

After all social media can be serendipitous. You never know what memories sounds can trigger.

[Transitional Music Fades]


[Chimes Ring]

Mack: In the early 1970s, Hildegard Westerkamp was a recent emigre from Germany, studying music at the University of British Columbia.

She enjoyed attending a series of noon hour concerts and lectures at UBC, but she had no inkling that one of those lectures would completely change her life.

The lecture was by a composer she had never heard of from Simon Fraser University, but he wasn’t just talking about music.

Westerkamp: And that lecture was, for its time, remarkable. It was a little bit, you know, in the spirit of the 70s and 60s or in the spirit of John Cage, it was unusual.

He was not just standing behind a podium speaking, he had three or four music stands on the stage and each of the music stand represented a theme.

There was a theme of Persia, his travels in the middle east. There was a theme of noise. I think there was a stand where he talked about silence and also music.

I don’t actually remember exactly.

But the other thing that was significant that made you listen up was that he had stationed my future colleagues in the audience and they interrupted him.

They asked questions, like,

“What was the first sound you heard today?”

“How many birds have you heard?”

“How many airplanes have you heard?”

And there were maybe like, you know, four or five of those kinds of interruptions.

Of course, they were completely planned and composed, you know, it was a composed lecture, but the way he spoke just made you listen up.

Mack: The speaker of course, was R. Murray Schafer and those future colleagues would soon be her associates at the World Soundscape Project.

Hildegard says the impact of that lecture was immediate.

Westerkamp: I came out of that lecture, literally with my ears popped open and they have never closed again, since then.

It was such a clear experience. I came out of the recital hall, I walked out of the building and I heard the whole world, and it was just this delight that I felt, just noticing everything.

[Haunting Sounds]


Mack: Westerkamp wasn’t the only young talent drawn to Shafer’s flame in the 1970s. With funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation, Shafer assembled a research team of composers and electro-acoustic experimenters who laid the foundation of acoustic ecology.

In 1973, they published a detailed report and recording archive called the Vancouver Soundscape.

Next, two members, Bruce Davis and Peter Hughes, set out on a cross Canada recording tour documented in the 10-hour radio series, Soundscapes of Canada.

In 1974, the group published a special journal issue, that included Hildegard Westerkamp’s tutorial on sound walking, a central technique of engaging with the soundscape.

As Westerkamp put it, “A sound walk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.”

By 1975, Schafer was giving lectures and workshops in Europe and spearheading a study of soundscape in five villages; one Swedish, one German, Italian, French, Scottish.

In 1977, Shafer published his classic, The Tuning of The World, now known as The Soundscape, and the next year researcher, Barry Truax, released a key reference work for acoustic and soundscape terminology.

His handbook for acoustic ecology.

[Snippet from Beneath the Forest Floor]

Meanwhile, Truax and Westerkamp were increasingly interested in doing more with recording technologies than faithfully documenting the soundscape.

Doing what Truax called “soundscape composition,” they began editing and processing environmental sounds in an aesthetic exploration of our relationship to sonic space.

And they would become renowned for pieces like the one we’re listening to now, Westerkamp’s Beneath the Forest Floor from 1992.

[Snippet from Beneath the Forest Floor]

All of these dimensions of the World Soundscape Project, the local sound studies, the terminology, the sound walk, the soundscape recording, and the sounds scape composition, all of them influenced how we study and practice with sound today.

Eric Leonardson is an audio artist, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the president of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.

I asked him to explain Shafer’s impact.


Leonardson: He wasn’t the first to use the term “soundscape,” but he certainly was the one who unpacked what it could mean, and the meaning of that term, I think is really crucial to understand.

We often hear it said that a soundscape are all the sounds that are around us at any time, wherever we are, which is fine, but there was a little bit more that seems to get left out of that kind of definition.

The soundscape is not just all these sounds, but also, it’s your perception of them.

Even a musical construction can be a soundscape, but if you leave out of that part the subjective aspect of your experience in that soundscape, you don’t have a full understanding yet.

So, you are a part of that soundscape as much as the sounds that you consider exterior to yourself.

[Heart Beat and Nature Sounds]

Mack: Eric says that one of the most important contributions of the World Soundscape Project was providing a lingua franca for talking about sound.

Leonardson: So, you had musical terminology, you had engineering terminology, and then you had the field of psychoacoustics.

And so, all these different fields had their own terminology to describe the phenomena and the process and the effects of sound, but these are all for experts and it served to help them communicate in very clear and specific ways.

But for the non-expert, for the uninitiated, there was no way to talk about sound.

And I embraced these terms as I began teaching to find an immediately comprehensible terminology to talk about what we are hearing when we hear sounds and experience sounds, and when we make sounds.

So, the familiar terms are: a keynote


Mack: Keynote, sounds heard by a particular society continuously or frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived.

This is in contrast to a signal, which is a foreground sound or any sound or message which is meant to be listened to, measured, or stored.

[Signal Sounds]

Another key term is

Leonardson: A soundmark

Mack: Like landmarks, soundmarks are sounds of historical and cultural significance that merit protection and preservation.

Leonardson: Or acoustic horizon,

Mack: The farthest distance in every direction from which sounds may be heard.

Combined with the experiential learning of the sound walk, this vocabulary has exposed thousands of people to new ways of thinking about sound and space.

[Chimes Playing]

So, acoustic ecology has a strong pedagogical, public facing component, but it also has specialists of its own.

And one of the things I find really interesting about it is that it seeks to repair that old enlightenment schism between the humanities and the sciences.

Leonardson: Acoustic ecology is multidisciplinary. It’s almost bordering on an artistic genre, interested in the social and the aesthetic and the scientific aspects together.

And I think acoustic ecology engages with those three facets of the sound environment.

So maybe acoustic ecology can be an art science or a science art

Mack: So, there’s an empirical piece here where we need to establish what the soundscape is comprised of, or any given sound landscape is comprised of.

And yet there’s also a kind of curatorial piece that we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of soundscape we actually want?” Is that a fair representation of acoustic ecology?

Leonardson: Yeah, I think it is.

It creates some friction because we have another school of thought, if I bring in the approach that Pauline Oliveros brought and when I talked to Pauline about the soundscape and problems.

[We] talked about noise pollution, for example, Pauline was very uncomfortable with this idea of making judgments about what’s good and what’s bad, or that negative judgment, and I respect that too.

It’s a debate, though, because those are human generated sounds and there were human actors, choices made, interests behind making those choices that are being served, and those are ones that Schafer was critiquing in his work. And this is the social aspect of acoustic ecology and soundscape studies.

Mack: And in fact, in the introduction to his book, Soundscape, R. Murray Shafer characterizes the spread of human made noise as a kind of imperialism and it’s interesting to me because I can see that argument and yet I feel in recent years, there’s also been the critique made of Schafer himself that this sort of discerning between good and bad sounds that Pauline Oliveros was uncomfortable with, is in itself a kind of imperialistic view.

So, I wonder what your thoughts are on that?

Leonardson: Yeah, I’ve wondered about that.


Mack: This is the moment in our exploration, where if we’re really going to understand the legacy of R. Murray Schafer, we need to pivot and examine the criticisms of him.

Personally, I’ve experienced Shafer as a bit of a conundrum from the moment I cracked open his book, The Soundscape, and read the first page of the introduction.

He immediately begins with an epic rant against what he calls, “These new sounds.”

Here are a few quotes from the first paragraph.

He warns against,  

Craig Eley: “The dangers of an indiscriminate and imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of man’s life.”

Mack: He writes,

Eley: “It would seem that the world’s soundscape has reached an apex of vulgarity in our time and many experts have predicted a UNIVERSAL DEAFNESS as the ultimate consequence, unless the problem can be brought quickly under control.”

Mack: Wait, what?


[Music from Blue The Fifth]

Next time on Phantom Power, we appraise the ideas of R. Murray Schafer from the standpoint of our own postcolonial, post-“Me too”, eco-disastrous moment.

We’ll hear from two of Schafer’s sharpest critics, Mitchell Akiyama and Jonathan Sterne, and we’ll hear again from Schafer’s associates about current trends that Schafer anticipated, as well as works and ideas that really haven’t aged so well.

And we’ll think about the future of Schaferian ideas when it comes to studying sound and making it.

That’s next month on part two of our two-part series on R. Murray Shafer.

[Music from Blue The Fifth]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power.

Big thanks to Ellen Waterman, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Eric Leonardson, what a pleasure to talk to these folks.

Almost all of the incredible music you heard today was by R. Murray Schafer, including a flute performance by Ellen Waterman. We also heard Beneath the Forest Floor by Hildegard Westerkamp, And we opened the show with a clip from David New’s delightful short film on Shafer and titled, Listen.

You can find links to that music and those people, transcripts and more at phantompod.org.

You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, please use the share button in your podcast app and send it to a friend.

Today’s episode was written, produced and edited by me Mack Hagood with additional editing by Ravi Krishna Swami.

Phantom Power’s production team includes Craig Eley, Ravi Krishna Swami, and Amy Skjerseth.

Additional thanks go to Elizabeth Hodges for her expert translation of the French libretto for Loving and big thanks to Craig Eley for his dramatic turn as R. Murray Schafer.

Oh. And our outro music today is by Blue The Fifth.

See you next time. Bye.

[Music Fades Out]