Memories of R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021)

Influential composer and artist passes away, age 88. Schafer lived in Peterborough County.

One of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved composers, R. Murray Schafer, passed away on Saturday, August 14th, 2021, at 88 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Schafer was a mentor, a colleague, and a friend to me. I offer my condolences to his wife, singer Eleanor James, and to his family, friends and colleagues. 

Schafer was an extremely prolific composer who worked in many different genres and styles, and he was also an outstanding researcher and educator.

In 1969, he established the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver “to find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony”. In 1977 he wrote The Tuning of the World, which remains a major influence in arts education around the world. As a result of his leadership and vision, he became known as the ‘father of acoustic ecology’, which is the study of our sonic environment and our ongoing relationship to it.

Schafer was born in Sarnia and lived in many places but chose a farm in Bancroft and more recently a farm near Indian River as his home. He loved to live in the country, in part to have a large space to rehearse his outdoor performances, but also for the rich and quiet soundscape.  

I had the opportunity to spend time with Schafer in Indian River in the 1990s, where we would go for walks in the forest and talk about acoustic ecology and how to help the public better appreciate their acoustic environment. He always had a project in mind and boundless energy!

R. Murray Schafer (left) and Claude Schryer (right) in 1985. (Photo courtesy of Claude Schryer)

I also remember spending time in the streets of Peterborough, shopping in the market and chatting with community members. He loved to tell me about the history of Peterborough and to imagine which town sites could become outdoor performance spaces.

Schafer also loved the outdoors and in particular the woodlands of eastern Ontario. I had the privilege of working with him in the 1990s on the Wolf Project, which took us deep into the wilderness in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve for an annual, week-long musical drama involving musicians, actors, dancers, artists and storytellers, as part of his Patria series. I was a member of the loon clan and played clarinet in various ensembles and situations. 

Some people call Schafer a ‘renaissance man’. He certainly was an exceptional artist, educator and a visionary. He not only opened our ears to the world but also expanded our minds about what it means to be here and now, in this place. I am grateful for Murray’s immeasurable contributions to the arts and sciences. 

I invite anyone who has a story to share about a performance of Schafer’s in the Peterborough region to let Peterborough Currents know about it!

Claude Schryer is an Ottawa-based sound artist and  retired public servant who worked for 21 years as a manager and strategic advisor at Canada Council for the Arts. He now produces the conscient podcast and is a co-founder of SCALE, the Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency. 


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