Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stereotyping Composers

The Globe and Mail, Canada's 'national' newspaper, meaning it comes from Toronto, just did a piece on the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer on the occasion of a concert celebrating his 80th birthday. Now I don't have anything against R. Murray, but I can't say I've ever found anything he has done to be very interesting either. Here is a sample of his music, an excerpt from Ra, a part of his large series of music theatre pieces called Patria:

That is the second clip that comes up in YouTube, searching for R. Murray Schafer: total views 1273. He has written a fair-sized piece for guitar called Le Cri de Merlin:

Total views of that clip: 2889. I mention this because on YouTube even a clip of someone's daughter's piano recital can get that many views. This one has 1795 views, for example:

So, plainly R. Murray Schafer is not much beloved of the masses. So who does like his music? Well, the Globe and Mail obviously, the voice of educated people from Toronto. And the Canada Council, who have been awarding him grants for decades.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think there is much wrong with Schafer's music. I just find it rather dull. And all the phoney baloney mysticism tends to leave me cold as well. R. Murray Schafer is remarkably a lot like Karlheinz Stockhausen with the naughty, annoying bits taken out. Sort of a genteel Torontonian's take on the avant-garde.

But I wasn't going to say anything critical about R. Murray Schafer, my intention was to complain about the dreariness of the Globe and Mail article. Oh well, two snarks for the price of one! You see, the problem with the article is that, in polite Canadian fashion, it just regurgitates the standard company line on Schafer. For example:
Mainly through his work in sonic ecology, convincing the world to understand its everyday acoustic environments with a more open ear and mind, Schafer is one of the few Canadians of the past half-century to have truly changed the musical environment and traditions of the world we live in: He is a musician who has influenced the very way in which sound is perceived.
Is there anyone out there who would agree with that? Anyone? Yes, I have heard that Schafer does stuff with soundscapes, but I'm a Canadian professional musician, so that's not too surprising. And I'm sure that Schafer did hope to change the way sound is perceived in the world. But it just didn't happen, did it? My readers come from thirty or forty different countries and are quite interested in music. Anyone perceiving sound differently because of R. Murray? No? I didn't think so. In fact, this paragraph is pretty much just a re-worded press release. Yes, he did invent the term soundscape which led to the discipline of acoustic ecology.

What I miss in the article is the kind of detail that would reveal some of the individual character of Schafer's music. But that is a forlorn hope with the mass media these days. All that the people who read the Globe and Mail really need is to know that Schafer is what one expects a Canadian composer to be. The article ends with more mind-numbing puffery:
It may, at certain times over the years, have been easy to put down Schafer – his outsize ideas, his imagination, and the almost arrogant conviction with which he has pursued his artistic vision. “We were laughed at when we started,” he remembers. But, approaching 80, Schafer remains one of the few Canadians to have spread his imaginative view of the world beyond the borders of his own country. Open and alive to the traditions of other cultures, but supremely rooted in the spiritual space of his own land, he is someone who has allowed whatever Canada means to be heard throughout the world.
That last sentence is surely eligible for some kind of prize?


Craig said...

"whatever Canada means" What?! The Globe & Mail doesn't know either?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig, for sharing my enjoyment of this piece of Canadian writing! But let's not sell them short. Other parts of that sentence are equally amusing.

"Open and alive to the traditions of other cultures" --if this isn't a phrase staggering under its own stereotypicalness, I don't know what is.

"supremely rooted in the spiritual space of his own land" --not just rooted, but "supremely" rooted and not just in the land, but the space of the land and not just the space of the land, but the "spiritual" space of the land. Oh, and not just the land, but "his own" land. I guess the editors don't feel that syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce AND cherries are too much to pile on top of a phrase.

But you are right Craig, it is that last bit that takes the cake: "someone who has allowed whatever Canada means". If we might translate, R. Murray Schafer has passively permitted something, what we know not, but some knowledge of the nature of Canada to pass beyond our borders. And for this we honour him today!

I think that this sentence should be taught in journalism schools! It is a kind of paragon.

Craig said...

You are right: it's a piece that ought to be embarrass the author (and the editor). A cream puff piece.

It occurs to me that if they want clarification about what Canada means, they should ask their counterparts at the CBC -- isn't it part of their mandate to tell us?

What's really funny is that all of this is being written about R. Murray Schafer. I could sort of, maybe, see it being written about Leonard Cohen or ... well, I can't think of anyone else. But how many Canadians have ever heard of Schafer?

Bryan Townsend said...

R. Murray Schafer is the Official Canadian Composer, anointed as such by the PTB (powers that be): the CBC, Canada Council and the Globe and Mail. Leonard Cohen doesn't need any of that... I think the analogue to Schafer in literature is Robertson Davies. Don't you think there is the same sort of pompous smugness about them both? Though of course Davies was much more popular.

RG said...

I begin to understand why you are hiding out south of two borders. The "Comments" area under this article in the G&M counts "5" items today. One of these "5", however, has received a score of minus-2 and is deleted:"This comment has violated our Terms and Conditions, and has been removed." Another, with a score of minus-4 waits the knife.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, the Globe and Mail does not tolerate much divergence from The Narrative. I find the one with the big negative score to be more convincing than the other ones, don't you?