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Artist Q&A: R. Murray Schafer

Soundstreams: Most of the works you've composed for Soundstreams have been for multiple choirs (Death of Shalana, The Soul of God, and The Fall Into Light), how are your choices as a composer affected by the number of singers?

R. Murray Schafer: We are very lucky to have an opportunity through Soundstreams to present works for multiple choirs. We owe this opportunity largely to Lawrence Cherney who manages to assemble some of the best choirs in Canada and abroad. It does also present the proposal that choirs are as significant as orchestras. For a long time audiences considered orchestras supreme – perhaps because they presented a lot of shiny instruments. But to answer your question: knowing that I will be working with multiple choirs gives me a chance to experiment with sound and with the positioning of voices in space. Multiple choirs can afford the audience a genuine immersion experience in a grand soundscape.

SS: How do you begin a new work?

RMS: I fiddle a lot before I begin a new work. I need time to think it through. I usually fumble through the first draft, and then put it away for a month or two before I go back at it for a serious attack.

SS: How do you know when the work is finished?

RMS: By this time, I usually have a clear outline of the work in my mind. The shape becomes clear long before the details. The detailing is like laying the bricks and mortar. I know a work is finished when the shape I have envisioned sounds forth in my mind and to my complete satisfaction. Anything further would detract from the shape.

SS: As a composer you hear the work as you write it, what is it like when you hear a new piece performed for the first time?

RMS: You ask about listening to the new work for the first time. But I have already heard it in my mind so it's not such a surprise. However, it is a great joy to hear my aural vision embodied. It may be more of a surprise for the performers if they haven't done their homework. That said, sometimes hearing the work for the first time makes me want to revise it or improve it – not always possible or desirable.

SS: Do you think that choral singing speaks to the listener in a deeper (more emotional/spiritual) way than instrumental music?

RMS: I think that depends on whether the listener is moved more strongly by the singer's voice or the instrumentalist's. There is nothing quite so attractive as the human voice when it affects you. But when you put the voice in a choir, the individual sound is lost. What takes its place is a collection of voices, all bending and blending in the same way – a beautiful effect, difficult to match by any instruments.

SS: In your career, you've seen major changes in the way Canadian music is supported at home and around the world. What do you think the future of Canadian music is?

RMS: It was during the 19th century that the Europeans came to Canada. They brought their instruments and they brought their music. Right from the beginning orchestral music shone over choral music which was mostly performed by amateurs. Finally, however, choral music began to be developed throughout Canada. Soundstreams has had a great deal to do with the recovery of choral and vocal music. Some very beautiful creations have been presented by Soundstreams and, no doubt, Lawrence Cherney has some others in his plans. As to the future of Canadian music, I believe it will continue to struggle for survival if our national broadcaster, the CBC, does not support and develop it. New music needs more than one performance to be appreciated.

LIGHTNING ROUND
Favourite City: Vienna
Worst Airport: Toronto
Guilty Pleasure Song: My own music
Best Concert Hall: Koerner Hall
Favourite Restaurant: Chez Mignon

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