One of my favourite books of the seventies was The Tuning of the World of 1977 (re-published as The Soundscape in 1994). In this rewarding groundbreaker, the Canadian composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer explores soundscape as a comprehensive phenomenon we experience, for whatever good or ill effects upon our psyches, within our natural and urban environments. Not many weeks after reading The Tuning of the World, I ran into Schafer leading a group along water’s edge behind our Stratford Shakespearean Festival Theatre, since, although he is a man who brings music into the world, he also listens to the world and helps others to hear the world’s sounds.
My Life in Widening Circles, on the Canadian Music Centre label, is a collection of three instrumental chamber compositions and two song cycles, all by Schafer, the latter including nine songs set to the writings of Brecht, with two adaptations by the composer of traditional pieces, and six song settings of works by Rilke. Throughout, this is exciting, challenging, refreshingly assertive and engaging music created by an acutely imaginative mind, one that appreciates the evocative power of tonal and rhythmic variety and is master of both atmosphere and narrative energy.
One noteworthy aspect of Schafer’s writing here is his ability to abruptly change solo instruments or groupings in realizing narrative progression. Thus his sequential development is unpredictable while always driven ahead by what seems a frenzied urgency, as if, in spirit at least, he is deeply feels a Schubertian torment from which he cannot escape. Another mastery in Schafer’s method is how he maintains simultaneous lines that are psychological, narrative, and metaphysical in effect. He pushes the right buttons and thus his works are each expressed and received as a complex wholeness of being. He doesn’t merely engage the listener; he embeds the listener in demanding existential conditions.
To begin, the Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello is constantly gripping and richly satisfying in exploring the tonal resources of the three instruments. Schafer’s economy of instrumental means achieves -though the committed, precise and incisive playing of the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble- a maximum effect at every turn. This 2006 composition remains inherently urgent, at times with unrelenting propulsion through shifting moods, and the result is haunting and unsettling. In these shifts from intensity to lyricism and back, one feels hurled into one’s existence in a Heideggerian sense.
The two other instrumental works, Wild Bird of 1997 and Duo for Violin and Piano of 2008, feature similar characteristics, for one the constantly present or impending undercurrents that either support or seem to threaten the dominant linear phrases. Schafer, through this invigorating group of musicians, negotiates involving shifts from combinations and solos to new instrumental configurations that make their statement and simply end or continue to imply other dynamic extensions. Thus, one is never let free into passivity, one hangs on every new entrance, one is repeatedly surprised at every brief passage that the composer presents within this demanding continuum.
Wild Bird, for violin and piano (originally harp) was dedicated to violinist and former concertmaster of the TSO Jacques Israelievitch, at the time a man of bright orange hair -and weren’t we all taken aback by this new shift in coloration? Whatever the degree of the composer’s intent to create a musical world suggestive of multiple avian personalities, and given the title, one easily imagines some vigorously expressive birds increasing in intensity of cooing and fluttering and agitation. Or one hears these suggestive passages receding into bird-like delicacy through the lightness of bowing and ethereal slurs on the violin and with the piano in single note progressions. Indeed, in each of the three instrumental works on this CD, Schafer is admirably smart and flexible at maintaining inner tension between instrumental voices through a variety of musical devices. As a result, we are always involved and off guard for what comes next.
In the Duo for Violin and Piano, the 2011 Juno winner for the “Classical Composition of the Year” with, according to the composer some quotes in the second movement from Brahms 4th Symphony, we have an opening of gradually accumulative effect with the conversational interplay of the piano’s chordal rumblings and the violin’s desperate searchings through the octaves. Schafer’s bowings can quickly shift from the long and lyrical to the curt and seemingly troubled, and in such case one feels placed in a drama whose import relies on psychological shadings implied by the players. The call and response last movement, in which piano and violin each take over the momentum of the other, progresses in a demonic surge to its conclusion.
Widely valued as a new music specialist -one who has indeed commissioned new works by Harry Freedman, Juhan Puhm, Clark Ross, Scott Godin, Tawnie Olson, and, on this CD, R. Murray Schafer- Canadian soprano Stacie Dunlop owns a variety of compelling qualities that make her a significant presence in the new music repertoire. Dunlop possesses an instinct for storytelling and for precise creation of both mood and irony. She suggests a variety of concise characterizations in these songs and in each character we discover delightful shifts of mood, even from word to word, even from childlike innocence to barebones dread of being.
Dunlop also displays versatility in shaping words into meaning and a secure ease in her ability to negotiate the composer’s angular leaps. She brings forth a variety of vocal resources to translate the many emotional intensities, suggested by the composer, into distinctly human expression. Dunlop is enjoyably adept at pointed, accusatory, ironic and leering implications; the edges of her tone and inflection suggest mini dramas. As well, a quality of beneficence often imbues her expression with palpable warmth.
In Kinderlieder, we find in The Plum Tree a haunting undercurrent moves to surround a voice that simultaneously conveys existential bruises and deep-rooted heart-fuelled hopefulness. A roller coaster spoken delivery leads in to Die Maske des Bosen which then culminates with a not too polite but quick and subtle growl on “mask of evil demons” -and we are scared. Each word in Hollywood is given proportioned inflection, sometimes ripe with irony, sometimes with painterly savvy that suggests a situation and moves on. In Birds in Winter there’s an inherent sense of one’s being existentially burdened and reluctantly alive, both alternating with clearly expressive life-sustaining hope. Dunlop skillfully mines these dramatic threads presented by the composer. In Wiegenlied, she not only conveys the emotional shadings of each word but, as well, gives body to the narrative history implicit in each same word.
I especially appreciate the softly ringing poignancy in the upper expansiveness of Dunlop’s voice. It’s an open-hearted and succulent voice that can also be unaffectedly intimate, wound-wrapped, and flavoured with close-quarters human sincerity. As such it is dramatically ideal for the one to one tentative relationship of the speaker and his or her God in the six selections from Rilke. The texts of Six Songs include lines like, in II, “I love the dark hours of my being” and Dunlop conveys both the vulnerable fate of one’s existence and at the same time a loving acceptance of it. In III she can be bubble light with just a tad of leering accusation, and deeply touching with much understated longing. In the deliberately measured IV that begins “What will you do God when I die?” and ends “I’m worried” Dunlop shows a contained urgency. In the frantically urgent V, Dunlop walks the border between the personal and the cosmic.
There is much intense beauty in these six songs based on Rilke, in part because of the courage inherent in the poetry, in part because Schafer’s settings are strikingly and brilliantly appropriate, in part because Dunlop is a committed and accomplished singer who intuitively comprehends her vital place as a creative vehicle in expression of human depth. One outstanding feature of this CD is the search for truth one senses in both the compositions and their respective performances; another outstanding feature is the top-notch quality of music-making here. We have much intelligence and passion implicit in these five performances and much occasion for discovery. No doubt, it is the composer’s intention that we listen and are repeatedly challenged and moved by his works. But also, I suspect, it is his intention that we begin to truly hear -within his musical world and everywhere we go.