R. Murray Schafer Pt. 2: Critiques & Contradictions

October 29, 2021 | 00:46:11

How to think about the contradictory figure of R. Murray Schafer? A renegade scholar who used sound technology to create an entirely new field of study, even as he devalued the very tools of its trade. A gifted composer who claimed a sincere appreciation for indigenous cultures, yet one who, perhaps, could only love them on his own terms, only as they fit into his sweeping vision for Canadian music. An erudite reader with a deep knowledge of world cultures, who nevertheless dismissed Canada’s most multicultural areas as less than truly Canadian. And a man, who despite a bomb-throwing persona on the page, is described by those who knew him as a kind and generous person.

Today we speak to Jonathan Sterne, Mitchell Akiyama, and Hildegard Westerkamp to learn the critiques and contradictions of Schafer. Perhaps the greatest testament to his lasting legacy is the fact that we aren’t done arguing with him.

Works discussed in this episode: 

Jonathan Sterne’s first book, The Audible Pastincludes critiques of Schafer’s work, especially his concept of schizophonia. His chapter “Soundscape, Landscape, Escape” (PDF, in the edited volume Soundscapes of the Urban Past) traces the intellectual and audiophile histories of Schafer’s term soundscape.  

Listen, a short film on Schafer directed by David New, includes Shafer’s claim that recorded sounds are not “real sound.”

Hildegard Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Sound Walk presents a subtler way of thinking about “schizophonic” sounds. Her chapter “The Disruptive Nature of Listening: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow” (in the edited volume Sound Media Ecology) reexamines the World Soundscape Project through the political lenses of the 1970s and today.   

An episode of the CBC radio program “Soundscapes of Canada” is available at the Canadian Music Centre’s music library. 

Rafael de Oliveira, Patrícia Lima, and Alexsander Duarte‘s interview with Schafer in Corfu, Greece is available on YouTube.  

Mitchell Akiyama’s critique of the World Soundscape Project appears in “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition” (on the sound studies blog Sounding Out) and in his chapter “Nothing Connects Us but Imagined Sound” (in the edited volume Sound, Music, Ecology). 

The program notes (PDF) to Schafer’s North/White contain his dismissal of urban Canadians (page 43).

Dylan Robinson’s book Hungry Listening opens with Schafer’s insulting words about “Eskimo music” and contains a critique of the way Schafer appropriates indigenous music to create his “Canadian” music.  

The Vancouver Chamber Choir shares this performance of Schafer’s “Miniwanka” complete with a side scrolling presentation of the graphic score. 

Today’s music was by R. Murray Schafer, Vireo, and Blue the Fifth.



Robotic Voice: Last time on Phantom Power.

Mack Hagood: A lot of us in the sound community are still processing the news that our Murray Schafer passed away.

Ellen Waterman: I would characterize him as a romantic modern

Hildegard Westerkamp: He couldn’t cope with the system or the system couldn’t cope with him.

Waterman: In fact, he got kicked out of music school.

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

Waterman: He created this kind of mystical cosmos in his works that just kind of borrows from everything.

Westerkamp: And he never stopped. He was relentless.

Waterman: 1965, he starts developing all this stuff on sound and noise, out of which comes The World Soundscape Project and acoustic ecology, eventually.

Eric Leonardson: He wasn’t the first to use the term soundscape, but he certainly was the one who unpacked what it could mean.

[Crow Squawking]

We’re faced with like what kind of soundscape do we want to have, and I think that there was exactly what Schafer would challenge us with.

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


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

We ended our last episode with those words from R. Murray Schafer, the avant garde composer and founder of acoustic ecology and soundscape studies. He passed away in August.

In part one of this two-part series on Schafer, we spoke to Ellen Waterman, Hildegard Westerkamp and Eric Leonardson about Schafer’s many contributions.

If you haven’t heard that show yet, I strongly recommend you go back and listen to that episode first.

Link in the show notes.

Today, we’re going to discuss criticisms of Schafer and think about what role his ideas might play in the future study of sound. And what better place to start than with Schafer’s own words in his landmark book, The Soundscape.

When I first read it as a graduate student, I was thrilled to find such a book about the sonic environment, but I was also a little thrown by some of its very unscholarly claims.

Universal deafness? According to whom? There’s no citation.

This raw, polemical tone and loose talk both attracted and repelled me and apparently, I wasn’t the only one.


Johnathan Sterne: I certainly appreciated the like polymathic dimensions of it and it’s, I mean, I think that this is actually true of a lot of composers who are intellectuals.

There’s just a sort of willful anti-disciplinarity in the intellectual dimensions that really, I think is fertile and like, should be encouraged and other people, but there’s also like a kind of amateurism, which on one hand we should encourage and on the other means, sometimes they say pretty outrageous things.

Mack: Jonathan Sterne is professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology at McGill University’s Department of Art History and Communications Studies.

He’s a prominent voice in the field of sound studies, which, for the uninitiated, may sound like soundscape studies or acoustic ecology, but it has a different focus.

I mean, it’s hard to generalize about these things, but if acoustic ecologists are more focused on documenting the soundscape and preserving and perfecting it and experimenting with it to make really cool art.

The sound studies folks are the ones asking, “Wait a minute, what is this alleged soundscape thing we speak of here?”

“What is its intellectual and technological history?” and “Who benefits and who loses from thinking about sound in this way?”

Sterne: I mean, I profoundly disagreed with the social theory behind it. There was a Jeremiah dimension to it. We used to live in this like pastoral, holistic community, that’s faded away and now we live in this fallen urban situation.

Quiet is better than loudness. Which I firmly rejected then and still intellectually reject.

Mack: One of Jonathan Sterne’s biggest objections to the soundscape book is the way that Schafer theorizes audio media, especially in his key concept, “schizophonia.”

Schizophonia is the word that Schafer uses for sounds that have been split from their sources as in radio, MP3, TV, or any kind of sound recording.

[Transitional Music]

Deep, Distorted Voice: Schizophonia


Mack: I think of it as the term that Schafer invents to get us goldfish to notice the bowl of water we’re swimming in.

We’re so immersed in mediated sounds that most of us never stopped to think about it.

[Transitional Music]

Now we could have an ontological argument about whether sound is ever really attached to a source to begin with. But beyond that, there’s also a heavy value judgment built into this term.

Listen to how Schafer describes recorded sound in this clip from the short film entitled, Listen.

[Snippet from Listen]


Recording of Schafer: A real sound, of course, is absolutely unique.

It has an excitement about it and probably an authenticity of fidelity that will never be achieved by recordings. 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.

[Transitional Music]

Mack: For Schafer, recorded sound is not real sound. The sonic waters we swim in are befouled with synthetic pollution and it’s damaging us, leading to universal deafness.

[Transitional Music Becomes Chaotic]

Sterne: I thought he had this bizarre relationship to sound technology where on one hand it was this thing that ruined your relationship to sound right, the schizophrenia concept, which I don’t think I had the words in the 90s to call it ableist but it is.

It’s based on a non-schizophrenic understanding of schizophrenia and it’s also very much based on sort of stereotypes about mental illness and the denigration of mental illness as a metaphor for the falleness of sound recording.


Mack: Hildegard Westerkamp was in the room when terms like schizophonia were being coined. She acknowledges the validity of critiques like Sterne’s, but she also says that people today have lost sight of the irreverent, anti-corporate spirit in which these terms were used.

Westerkamp: You know, they didn’t know how much fun we had when these words were coined in our meetings while he was writing the book.

It was, a lot of it was playful and very intelligent and very inclusive of a larger meaning and trying to find words for sonic situations that there were no words for before.

And that’s why it’s significant, we now do have a word and yes, it’s controversial, I can see why people would be upset about it.

It also, in some cases reflects on that, you know, schizophrenia, putting down schizophrenia. 

The thing that Schafer tends to serve people critiques on the platter is that he makes [the] kind of smart one liners.

Sterne: At the same time, of course, The World Soundscape Project had this very animated and active use of sound recording as a modality of scholarship and documentation, that really wasn’t being done anywhere else.

[Transitional Music]

Mack: As Jonathan points out, there’s a real irony to Schafer’s denigration of sound recording technology, and that his World Soundscape Project made such expert use of it as a scholarly tool.

Using field recording as a way of documenting and analyzing the acoustic environment.

But it gets even weirder because for all of Schafer’s distaste for urban and recorded sounds, Jonathan Sterne identifies urban scholarship and audio file culture as two important influences on Schafer’s concept of “the soundscape.”

Sterne: I think there’s a lot of good in terms of asking questions and also like there’s some value in going back to Schafer’s sources.

So, Schafer’s soundscape concept at least comes in part from Michael Southworth’s “cityscape.”


Mack: Okay, so here, Jonathan is talking about Southworth’s 1969 essay, The Sonic Environment of Cities, in which he uses the word “soundscape” to further develop the work of his MIT advisor, Kevin Lynch.

Lynch coined the term “cityscape,” to help urban planners think about the city in a more holistic manner. Southworth was trying to add a sonic and ephemeral component to this analysis.

Schafer had already been using the term “soundscape” to talk about music in a spacial way, but Sterne says Southworth’s essay influenced Schafer’s environmental expansion of the concept.

Sterne: But Southworth had a much more sense of like cities and urban life has vibrant things and so it’s possible to say like, “Let’s bring that back in to the way we think about it.”

But the other big influence on Schafer, I think has to be like 50s and 60s Hi-Fi culture.

[Hi-Fi Recording]

Male Voice: Greetings to all record enthusiasts.

While you are playing this test recording, please seat yourself in a position between the two large speakers at the same distance from each.

[Orchestral Music]

Sterne: Because the language he’s using is the language they were using in Hi-Fi magazines and in advertising for home, what we would now call like, home audio.

So, soundscape was the thing you got between your two stereo speakers when you’re listening to the symphony in your living room with your pipe.

Obviously, this is like a very male fantasy.

Male Voice: In order to test the symmetry and correct positioning of your apparatus, will you now please adjust the treble and bass controls for both channels until the tone quality from both channels is found to be identical, as well as satisfactory.

Sterne: But it is this idea that you’ve got the best seat in the house and that a sonic world is made available to you through this technological system, and they used the word “soundscape.”

Muffled Male Voice: Come in.

Welcome, I am E.G. Marshall. Welcome to the world of terrifying imagination.

Sterne: The other people that use the word “soundscape,” were radio theater producers to describe the sort of the fictional auditory world.

I mean, you could say it’s sort of the sonic version of mise-en-scéne or set design in theater or film.

So, it’s the sonic world in which the action is happening.

Muffled Male Voice: Now look, Clint, or whatever your name is. I don’t like you and I don’t like your insinuations.  

Now, if you don’t get out of my office and leave these premises immediately, I’ll have you put out.

Sterne: And all of those concepts would have been very available and very present to Schafer, and a lot of like composers and music school people were into Hi-Fi culture and like had their nice stereos.

And so, he would have absolutely been exposed to that.


Mack: In fact, Schafer uses the term “Hi-Fi” repeatedly in his book, appropriating it from audio file culture and applying it to the lived soundscape.

 As Schaefer writes:

“A Hi-Fi environment is one in which sounds may be heard clearly without crowding or masking.”

[Farm Noises]

Schafer contrasts this with a lo-fi environment, in which sounds crowd and/or mask one another.

[Carnival Noises]

Mack: In Schafer’s view, one of the main contributors to the lo-fi environment we typically inhabit is the hyper abundance of schizohonic sound and music reproduced through amplification technologies.

So, there’s a strange circularity here where an audio files aesthetic mode of listening is used to critique the technologies from which that mode of listening is derived.

Sterne: And so, his concept of soundscape brings some of the values of that Hi-Fi culture and the idea that there’s a listener in this imaginary position outside of the soundscape that can apprehend it.

The idea of a “social totality,” which is this sort of cityscape thing, right?

And then this “sound collage” thing.

And I think that all collides in the soundscape book and in his work in that period, and even in The World Soundscape Projects, like Preservationist Impulse, it’s those three things brought together, right?

And then people like Hildegard Westerkamp take it further by turning it in on itself and commenting on the process as it’s happening and works like Kits Beach Soundwalk.


[Snippet from Kits Beach Soundwalk]

Westerkamp: It’s a calm morning. I am on Kits Beach in Vancouver. It’s slightly overcast and very mild for January.

It’s absolutely wind still.

The ocean is flat, just a bit rippled in places. Ducks are quietly floating on the water.

Mack: Produced in 1989, Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Soundwalk is a sophisticated and evocative meditation on the relationship between city noise, recording technology, and the sonic imagination.

Thinking reflexively about field recording, she examines audio production as an interface between the environmental soundscape and the soundscape of recording.

[Snippet from Kits Beach Soundwalk]

Westerkamp: Luckily, we have band-pass filters and equalizers. We can just go into the studio and get rid of the city.

Pretend it’s not there.

Pretend we are somewhere far away.

These are the tiny. The intimate voices of nature, of bodies, of dreams, of the imagination.

Mack: Unlike her mentor, Schafer, Westerkamp conceives of these so-called “schizophonic sounds,” as authentic allies in a very personal navigation of the sonic environment.

These sounds populate and catalyze her dreams and they help her achieve a playful and thus less harmful relationship to the monster of city noise.

[Snippet from Kits Beach Soundwalk]

Westerkamp: As soon as I make space to hear sounds like this, or to dream them, then I feel the strength to face the city again, or even to be playful with it.

Play with a monster, then I can face the monster.

[Snippet from Kits Beach Soundwalk]

Mack: Now it’s important, not to caricature Murray Schafer or portray his conception of mediated sound as overly simplistic.

In fact, Hildegard tells me that she learned about Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concréte, and his notion of the sound object from Murray Schafer himself.

In this CBC radio clip, we can hear Schafer introducing one of Barry Truax’s early soundscape compositions and elaborating on the artistic possibilities of recorded sound objects.


R Murray Schafer: I use the term composed soundscape for what Barry has done is to take some natural environmental sounds, record them, and then subject them to several kinds of transformation, which often rendered them unidentifiable.

When you strip away the association of a sound, you strip away the symbolism that accrues to any sound in a person’s mind, and you’re just dealing with abstract sound objects.

Then you allow the fantasy to create new associations, and I suppose in a sense, this is what you’re aiming for in the program.

Barry Truax: That’s right, and I hope that listeners are be able to indulge in that kind of fantasizing.

Murray Schafer: Well, let’s find out.


Mack: But unfortunately, as Westerkamp explains, Schafer ultimately couldn’t see the value in the innovative soundscape compositions that she and her colleague, Barry Truax, and others were creating.

Westerkamp: Murray was very critical of soundscape composition.

His feeling was that what we needed to do, we needed to continue the research of The World Soundscape Project, the research of the Vancouver soundscape.

Mack: Schafer was asked for his thoughts on soundscape composition outside of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecologies Conference in Corfu, Greece, back in 2011.

The tape is a little noisy, but his disapproval comes through loud and clear.


[Recording of R. Murray Schafer]

Male Voice: My third question is about what do you think about today’s approaches to soundscape composition and its [inaudible].

Murray Schafer: Well, I’m a critic of that.

Male Voice: Yeah?

Murray Schafer: Yeah, because I don’t think that, you know, musical composition is identical with soundscape research.

I think that there is a relationship, as I said before, you know, we wanted music should be beautiful, um, and it should be attractive and original, and the soundscape should be beautiful and should be attractive and it should be original too.

So, there’s a combination there.

But I mean, composing music always has a certain, well, egocentric sort of drive that, you know, I say that because I am a composer too, but I do keep my compositions separate from the work that I do in the acoustic environment.

And I think that most composers should do that.

[Both Laugh]

Westerkamp: His real rejection of it came out when in, 1996, we did a second project here that was kind of coined as a continuation of The World Soundscape Project.

And we invited four composers to use The World Soundscape Project tape collection to make compositions with. And Schaeffer was furious that that would be called the continuation of the the Vancouver soundscape.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, I thought,

“Yeah, he’s right. We’re not continuing the research at all. We are just giving sound material to composers who are sensitive enough to use them for, to actually make soundscape compositions and not just electro-acoustic compositions using environmental sound as material.”

Right? That’s the big difference, right?

Mack: I’m glad you brought up this sort of difference between Schafer’s approach and yours and Barry Truaxe’s approach to audio media, because you know, he’s famous for coining this pejorative term of “schizophonenia.”

And he doesn’t quite acknowledge how much his own mode of listening to the environment actually owes its existence to audio recording, you know, like, and that debt is even reflected in the terminology of Hi-Fi and lo-fi, which of course comes from audio file equipment.

Westerkamp: Of course, no, I mean, I used to say that to him too.

I say, “Look, you know, you got the funding for the studio. We have the recordings.”

And he’d just chuckled. 

He knew, but, I mean I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I’m sensing that what he felt was happening was the traditions of electro-acoustic music were now being transferred to environmental sounds, so that environmental sounds became material.

But they, their meanings, it was stripped of their meanings and the context of it.

And I must agree.

I mean, there’s many people who call something a soundscape composition just because it’s using environmental sound, but it’s not actually creating a relationship to the soundscape.

Robotic Voice: We’ll be back in a moment with more Phantom Power.


[Calm Music]

Mack: Hey there, it’s Mack, walking across the beautiful campus of Miami University, where I work as a professor.

I know that right now, my voice is reaching more people than one of my scholarly articles ever will. But it’s also true that my output of scholarly articles has definitely taken a hit due to the time it takes for me to produce these episodes for you.

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[Calm Music Fades]


[Harbor Horn Blows]

Mitchell Akiyama: I’ve been writing a lot and thinking a lot about this piece that they did in 1974 called Soundscapes of Canada.

[Snippet from Soundscapes of Canada]

So, it was broadcast on the CBC, on this program called Ideas, which is like really the premier sort of public intellectual forum in Canada.

On Ideas, you get maybe one episode, maybe two, maybe three on any given topic. They gave World soundscape Project 10 episodes.

Mack: Mitchell Akiyama is assistant professor of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto’s Daniel’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.

In addition to being an artist and a composer, he’s also a sound studies scholar. Akiyama’s his critique of Schafer and The World Soundscape Project focuses primarily on the racial and colonial dimensions of their work.

Akiyama: So, the frame of the whole show was that the members of The World Soundscape Project took a field trip from one end of the country to the other.

Male Voice: Material for this series was recorded last year on a cross country field trip by members of The World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University.

Akiyama: And recorded everything in between.

And you know, of course that they didn’t, but it’s set up in your mind as being this sort of, maybe not exhaustive, but like, a survey of the entire country.

And it was happening right at the moment when immigration from non-European countries started to outstrip immigration from European countries. So, like right at the moment when they’re making this program, the ethnic makeup of the country was completely changing.

And so, what you get in this, it’s really mainly two episodes of this series, one was called Soundmarks and that was in there, you know, in there thinking like soundmarks are these sonic analogs to landmarks. So, a sound that kind of anchors people in a sense of place.


Male Voice: Still other sounds, such as soundmarks, have even greater powers for they can evoke moods and cast spells on the listener.

Such sounds are not easily forgotten and hearing them again after an absence can evoke a whole wave of memories about a particular place and time.

In short, what the soundmark possesses is symbolism.

Akiyama: So, they went up across the country recording soundmarks.

But these soundmarks are almost without exception, like church bells, trains, sounds of sort of colonial industry, colonial infrastructure. 

So, if you’re thinking like, “Well, a sound is something that grounds you and makes you feel attached to land, to environment, to community.”

Well, what kind of community are you meant to feel grounded in?

In this case, like, clearly, it’s a settler community.

Murray Schafer: This horn is voiced warning to countless sailors in the Harbor area since 1912.

It’s almost as old as the city itself and many Vancouverites have a special place in their hearts for the old horn, for it blows through the winter gloom, faithfully, giving a kind of acoustic perspective to the grave, visually shrunk and world of the Vancouver winter.

Its voice heard from afar is that of a steadfast trend.

[Harbor Horn Blows in the Distance]

Akiyama: And then there’s this other episode called, I think it’s called Directions and it’s brilliant, it’s really cool.

And what they did was as they were driving across the country, they would pull up and ask people for directions.

Murray Schafer: When Bruce Davis and Peter Huse traveled across Canada last year in search of interesting sounds, they frequently had to ask directions to get to the places where the sounds were to be found. Each time they asked directions, they recorded the replies.

Tonight’s program consists of the answers they received, and it was composed by Peter Huse.

Akiyama: So, what you get is these changing accents across the country and in the intro, Schafer says something like,

Murray Schafer: “And they’re marvelous accent. I wonder if you’ll discover your own among them.”

Akiyama: But, so that’s the thing is like when you listen back.


I think there may be a two minutes tops of people who aren’t Anglophones or Francophones.

And so again, like you’re a white dude in your car in Regina, Saskatchewan, listening to the CBC to ideas and you hear Schafer saying, “Maybe we’ll hear your accent amongst these Canadian accents,” and you do, and that reinforces your sense of, “Yeah, that’s me. That’s my country.”

But then you’re a Jamaican Canadian in Kensington Market in Toronto listening to that and Schafer says, “Maybe you’ll hear your accent in there,” and of course you don’t.

[Snipper from Miniwanka]

So, I really don’t think that it was deliberately exclusionary in any way, but I guess I was just thinking about that program in that moment as being this sort of, kind of like, an inflection point in Canada’s idea of nationhood, where you have very white waspy, European group of people who are the ones whose voices are on the media, who control representation, and effectively who are the ones who get to decide what the country is and what it should be.

But also, there’s a sense of it advancing this idea of what the country was. So, there’s a nostalgia for all these disappearing soundmarks, all these, those wistful, winsome train sounds and, you know, we’re losing all that in favor of different kinds of industry and mechanization and stuff and isn’t it a shame that we’re losing these sounds that anchor us in our kind of colonial past, which is kind of weird and problematic.

Mack: It almost feels like there’s just such an incomplete understanding of this really useful terminology that he himself developed of like what a soundscape is or what soundmarks are from today’s view and I’m sure from the view of non-white, non-European people.

Even at the time, these glaring omissions from what is included in those categories.

Akiyama: Yeah, totally, and that’s one of the things that is so compelling about Schafer, I guess.

 He just was able to say, “Okay, well, we live in a visually biased society. I’m just going to find all of these nodes of visual bias and substitute in a sonic analog for that and see what happens.”

Which is really, really interesting and so I think you’re right, like there are all these omissions, but it’s because like we had these placeholders for where the omissions are that allow us to do the work of rectifying or addressing those omissions.

So, because he has an idea of soundmarks, but because they only gave us your sort of settler colonial soundmarks, we’re able to go back and ask, “Well, what are non-settler, colonial soundmarks and have those been damaged or silenced or moved onto reservations or just removed.”

And so, like there are omissions, but then there’s also stuff that’s just kind of nasty. Like really, really bad

Mack: Here, Mitch Akiyama is referring to writings of Schafer’s, like his program notes for his piece, North/White.

In these program notes, Schafer describes what he calls the “rape of the Canadian north.”

For Schafer, the north of Canada is the true Canada, a place of purity and austerity.

To draw contrast, he disparages “Urban Canadians.”


Craig Eley as R. Murray Schafer: There are a few true Canadians and they are not to be found in cities.

They do not sweat in disco techs, eat barbecued meatballs, or watch late movies on television.

They do not live in high-rise apartments. Preferring a clean space to the smell of neighbor’s spaghetti.

Akiyama: Escaping to the north is a necessary thing because it’s what gets you away from all of this, like really gross mixing that’s happening in the south, like who wants to smell their neighbor’s spaghetti, and cause like spaghetti is an ethnic food, I guess in 1970 or whatever.

So, like, there’s this really nasty racism in a lot of his work. There are all these value judgments about, they’re there in a lot of the notes to Soundscapes of Canada and to the recording projects they did in Europe.

You know, lines like, “Skip Toronto, who wants to hear a city anyway,” you know? Stuff like that.

Mack: Jonathan Sterne.

Sterne: There is this idealization of like Western civilization, of like Greek models of sociability, and of small community at the expense of like anything massive, cosmopolitan, or polyglot, that I just fundamentally disagreed with.

Westerkamp: I mean, he used to make some outrageous statements and I mean, I don’t know whether you’ve read Hungry Listening, but the first quote in there, when I read that, I just about fainted.


Mack: One of the most talked about books in sound studies and musicology from the past few years, Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening is in part a critique of composers who appropriate indigenous music and deploy it in the service of musical nationalism.

The book opens with a quote from Murray Schafer’s 1961 essay on the limits of nationalism in Canadian music.

Eley as R. Murray Schafer: The Eskimos are such an astonishingly unmusical race that the composer really has to ring his material to make it musically presentable.

There is a marked similarity between an Eskimos singing and Sir Winston Churchill clearing history.

Westerkamp: I can say what I want about he was 28 years old and it was in 1961 and everybody in Canada was not really conscious about first nations and Inuit.

On the other hand, it’s such an outrageous statement that nowadays you can’t ignore it.

Sterne: I mean, sometimes people say, “But everybody, all, you know, all the white people were racist then,” but that’s just not true.

I mean, maybe the anti-racist position was a less well acknowledged or developed position in scholarship, but you could find other scholars who weren’t writing that way.

Westerkamp: And the irony is, in that same book where that quote appears, by the end of it he talks about the problems of colonialism, right?

So, that contradiction between him making these really outrageous statements and then being completely conscious of the indigenous situation in Canada. 

I should say, as a European immigrant, he made me aware in a way of Inuit and indigenous cultures that had opened it up to.

That made it meaningful. That made me want to know more.

There was a listening happening there and you know, in his Patria Cycle, many people of course talk about him appropriating those cultures.

Well, he’s appropriating Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, Chinese mythology, all of that. 

He is, in that large cycle, he is in a mythological world.

Highly educated about all those mythologies and putting them together as a composer in his own storytelling mythology, right?

That’s how I would put it, not to excuse him in terms of how he uses it, one could probably find all sorts of wrongdoings there.

[Snippet from Miniwanka]


Mack: I think some of the complexities and contradictions of Schafer’s relationship to indigenous people and indigenous music are captured in one of his graphic scores, the 1971 piece entitled Miniwanka, or moments of the water.

Schafer’s graphic notation utilizes his skills as a visual artist. He both visually and musically represents mists, waves, waterfalls, and so on. The Vancouver Chamber Choir has posted a side scrolling video that follows the score along with their performance, and it’s beautiful.

Check out the link in the show notes.

The first page of the score features a note in Schafer’s own hand, explaining that the text consists entirely of words for different states of water, as found in 10 different native American languages.

I can, and I do hear this as a beautiful piece of music. But how does it sound from an indigenous perspective?

In a way, Native Americans are made both present and absent at once, as these isolated, decontextualized words are made to stand in for the state of nature.

[Snippet from Miniwanka]

Westerkamp: I don’t know what it feels like to hear some of the work from an indigenous perspective. I mean, Dylan Robinson would be able to speak very intelligently about that and would also have my understanding about that.

And I highly respect the way he teaches us now about what is it like when you listen as an indigenous person to Schafer or to other composers’ music who have been using music from indigenous cultures.

Mack: I should say that I did invite Dylan Robinson to be on this show to talk about Schafer and his legacy, but I didn’t hear back from him.

All of my guests in this two-part series brought up Robinson’s critique in Hungry Listening, and in fact, Ellen Waterman co-wrote the book’s unusual conclusion in which Robinson engages with her and Debra Wong in a discussion of indigeneity, inclusion, and listening.

Waterman is also currently working on a longer term critical book project on Schafer’s legacy that grapples with these issues.

[Transitional Music]


Mack: So, what do we do with the contradictory figure of R. Murray Schafer?

A renegade scholar who used sound technology to create an entirely new field of study, even as he devalued the very tools of its trade. 

A gifted composer who, I believe at least, had a sincere appreciation for indigenous cultures, yet one who perhaps could only love them on his own terms, only as they fit into his own sweeping vision for a Canadian music.

An erudite reader with a deep knowledge of world cultures, who nevertheless dismissed Canada’s most multicultural areas as less than truly Canadian.

And a man who, despite a bomb throwing persona on the page, is described by everyone I’ve interviewed who knew him, as a kind and generous person.

He’s described even that way by his critic, Mitchell Akiyama, who once served as a teaching assistant for none other than R. Murray Schafer.

Akiyama: I’m not surprised that he’s remained so influential because some of those ideas are just so, whether they continue to be useful in the way that he intended them to be, or whether they’re useful in the negative, they’re still useful.

So, I take soundwalks with my classes all the time. 

I read his stuff on pedagogy and I think it’s wonderful. I think he was an amazing teacher and also I find him to be a really good index for thinking about the ways in which politics and exclusion seep into every domain of our lives.

Sterne: I mean, I think that’s one of the misconceptions we have is, you know, when we read critiques of people that there’s, this it’s sort of a, what’s the word I’m looking for, blood sport or a life or death thing.

I have this pretty scorched earth critique of like the soundscape concept and the pastoralism in his work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire it or respect him as an intellectual. 

We just disagree and that’s okay, and that’s actually really important, like in the age of social media and like one line take downs on Twitter and stuff.

I think it’s incumbent on us to really like, you know, still respect the intellectual process and people’s ideas and nurture creativity and others and say being wrong doesn’t make you evil or that your work useless.

And I read people I disagree with all the time. So, yeah, I wouldn’t say, probably compared to other people you’ve interviewed, I wouldn’t say his work was formative for me, but I did draw inspiration from it, and it made me think about a lot of stuff, and it was incredibly useful as a foil.

You might say if Murray Schafer didn’t exist, I would have had to invent him.

Mack: And maybe this is the greatest indicator that R. Murray Schafer will continue to have a lasting impact on the study of sound. The fact that we haven’t stopped arguing with him yet.


[Phantom Power Outro Music]

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

Thank you to Mitchell Akiyama, Jonathan Sterne, and Hildegard Westerkamp.

Today, we heard elements from Listen, a short film by David New, Kits Beach Soundwalk by Hildegard Westerkamp, the CDC radio program, Soundscapes of Canada, a performance of Schafer’s Miniwanka by the Vancouver Chamber Choir, and an interview with R. Murray Schafer by Raphael de Olivera, Patricia Lima, and Alexander Duarte.

You can find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard about and talked about today at phantompod.org You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts.

We’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcast, tell a friend about us, or share a link to us on social media. Or just give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook @phantompod.

Today’s show was written and edited by me, Mack Hagood. We heard music by R. Murray Schafer and Verio, and our outro music is by Blue The Fifth.

Take care and see you next time.

[Outro Music Fades]