Phantom Power
Phantom Power
Oct 29, 2021
Ep. 30 | R. Murray Schafer Pt. 2: Critiques & Contradictions
Play • 46 min

How to think about the contradictory figure of R. Murray Schafer? A renegade scholar who used sound technology to create an entirely new field of study, even as he devalued the very tools of its trade. A gifted composer who claimed a sincere appreciation for indigenous cultures, yet one who, perhaps, could only love them on his own terms, only as they fit into his sweeping vision for Canadian music. An erudite reader with a deep knowledge of world cultures, who nevertheless dismissed Canada’s most multicultural areas as less than truly Canadian. And a man, who despite a bomb-throwing persona on the page, is described by those who knew him as a kind and generous person.

Today we speak to Jonathan Sterne, Mitchell Akiyama, and Hildegard Westerkamp to learn the critiques and contradictions of Schafer. Perhaps the greatest testament to his lasting legacy is the fact that we aren’t done arguing with him.

Works discussed in this episode: 

Jonathan Sterne’s first book, The Audible Pastincludes critiques of Schafer’s work, especially his concept of schizophonia. His chapter “Soundscape, Landscape, Escape” (PDF, in the edited volume Soundscapes of the Urban Past) traces the intellectual and audiophile histories of Schafer’s term soundscape.  

Listen, a short film on Schafer directed by David New, includes Shafer’s claim that recorded sounds are not “real sound.”

Hildegard Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Sound Walk presents a subtler way of thinking about “schizophonic” sounds. Her chapter “The Disruptive Nature of Listening: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow” (in the edited volume Sound Media Ecology) reexamines the World Soundscape Project through the political lenses of the 1970s and today.   

An episode of the CBC radio program “Soundscapes of Canada” is available at the Canadian Music Centre’s music library. 

Rafael de Oliveira, Patrícia Lima, and Alexsander Duarte‘s interview with Schafer in Corfu, Greece is available on YouTube.  

Mitchell Akiyama’s critique of the World Soundscape Project appears in “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition” (on the sound studies blog Sounding Out) and in his chapter “Nothing Connects Us but Imagined Sound” (in the edited volume Sound, Music, Ecology). 

The program notes (PDF) to Schafer’s North/White contain his dismissal of urban Canadians (page 43).

Dylan Robinson’s book Hungry Listening opens with Schafer’s insulting words about “Eskimo music” and contains a critique of the way Schafer appropriates indigenous music to create his “Canadian” music.  

The Vancouver Chamber Choir shares this performance of Schafer’s “Miniwanka” complete with a side scrolling presentation of the graphic score. 

Today’s music was by R. Murray Schafer, Vireo, and Blue the Fifth.

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