Begin with the Song of Listening

 An Introduction to R. Murray Schafer

Dawn. We take the path to the edge of the lake. No one speaks. We begin with the song of listening. Footfalls and morning birdsong. Only a hint of wind in the leaves, slight lapping on the shore. We gather beneath a cluster of pine overlooking the water. Someone coughs. Two crows start a conversation. Fly off. We wait. 

As delicate as mist, notes from a clarinet rise and float in the air. Ripple of attention in our bodies. In the distance an oboe begins to deepen the enchantment. Straggling lines of geese clamour overhead. Now a trumpet enters and affirms the rising sun.

Across the bay, two canoes edge out from behind a point. First the curved bows appear, then the startling emergence of winged figures rising out of the canoes. The costumed dancers, standing in the canoes, astonish us with the sweeping movements of their twelve-foot wings. The music summons them to us. They move across the water, resplendent in the strengthening sun. The lake is alive with their mythic presence — the Dawn Birds have arrived!

 Soon the Princess of the Stars is evoked by the incantation of the music. She, too, appears on the lake in a canoe and sings her otherworldly aria over the water. We sense the thread of a narrative: distraught love, compassion and redemption. Amidst an aura of mystery, we are attuned to the revelatory unveiling of dawn. This is why we have come. A pilgrimage, of sorts. To listen, to marvel, and to be changed.

The 2014 Sound in the Land festival/conference included a dawn concert, at nearby Columbia Lake, inspired by R. Murray Schafer’s natural-environment music, including excerpts from his Princess of the Stars hierophany, or sacred drama.

 A Canadian, Schafer is a highly honoured composer, educator, author, visual artist and environmentalist. As a pioneer of acoustic ecology, he popularized the term “soundscape” and examined our acoustic environment in natural, rural and urban settings in his seminal book The Tuning of the World. Devising exercises to sensitize our hearing, he has also advocated for the creation of desirable soundscapes in which to live.

 It was his own lifestyle change, moving to live in the country, which created a shift in the context of his musical creativity, taking music out of the concert hall and into the wild places where it was born. Music made along forest paths, in rocky gorges, across lakes, under the stars. Schafer has reaffirmed the ancient relationship between music making and nature to recover a sense of the sacred. In so doing he connects performers and audience with the natural environment as a way to affect deep attitudinal change and foster a sense of reverence. To elicit exaltation!

 Senses alive. Wonder alive. He invites us to rediscover the miraculous through the transformative power of art. He invites us to listen.

Over the past twenty years, in canoes and along forest trails, Rae Crossman has lived the roles of several mythological characters in Schafer’s natural-environment works.

Rae Crossman
Published in Sound in the Land — Music and the Environment, The Conrad Grebel Review, Volume 33, Number 2

Dawn Birds: photos copyright Alan V. Morgan

Lakeside after the Dawn Concert:  Nadia Mazzarolo, R. Murray Schafer, Eleanor James, Rae Crossman