Artist Profile: R. Murray Schafer

One night this past summer, my family and I were driving home from the beach when a segment came on the radio that literally changed the way I saw- or in this case, heard the world. The programme was on R. Murray Schafer. In the simplest of terms, some would describe him as a musician.  Schafer is from Canada and received formal training from the Royal Schools of Music (London), the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the University of Toronto.[1] He created many musical theories and concepts including that of soundscape and schizophonia. He has produced extensive written works and composed operas, spoken work, mixed aural media, choral and orchestral arrangements and produced theatrical works. I feel as though these generic labels for the way we experience music are unfit to classify his medium. After learning about Schafer, I would classify him as an artist; a facilitator; an acoustic ecologist. And his genre? Sublimely experiential.

Perhaps I should explain.

R. Murray Schafer specializes in acoustic ecology (also sometimes referred to as ecoacoustics or soundscape)[2]. His philosophies were instrumental in the emergence and founding of this scientific, artistic, and social field in the 1960s. In an effort to explain acoustic ecology in the most precise way, here is how the Acoustic Ecology Institute “defines” it:

“Prominent themes in acoustic ecology today are:

  • The effect of soundscapes on humans, in cities, nature, and buildings, including urban planning and architectural design that takes sound into account.
  • Ways to become more aware of the sounds we are making, so we can make these choices more consciously.
  • Reflection on the soundscapes we encounter day to day.
  • The effects of human sounds on wildlife.
  • The “right to quiet,” which comes into play in wild lands recreation debates about motorized use, as well as in urban settings.
  • The idea of acoustic windows or acoustic niches, employed by various species in a given habitat to avoid masking each other’s vocalizations.”[3]

The legitimization of sound study is a relatively new concept.  Before this notion, people did not think to investigate sound beyond face value. In fact, people often associate sound as background noise- something to be blocked out, ignored, or a nuisance. The appointment of sound as a “thing” opens our minds to exploring the world in new ways. Sound studies investigate where sounds happen and how they interact with their physical, visual, and aural environments and their various meanings based on context.

Part of Schafer’s work has promoted the preservation of sounds and he has discussed the importance of creating sound archives. The archives would catalogue everything from church bells in a rural town in Germany from its earliest recording decades ago to a subway pulling into Penn Station today. Think of the most distinctive sounds in your environment here and now. The Clinton fire horn, the clink of forks on commons bowls, the Glen House door opening and closing, and the chapel bell are a few that come to mind for me. How do sounds in combination regenerate the experience of a place? This is what a soundscape is; a collection of sounds from a certain place and time. A soundscape is akin to a landscape painting of a certain place and time. They are not simply sounds but representations of people, memories, moments in time, places, and the objects that produce those noises. Acoustic ecology points out that sound exists much in the way that objects can be black boxes or unfolded.

Schafer’s ideological perspective of sound is the foundation upon which he constructs his art.  The orchestral and vocal arrangements are all unique in terms of what instruments are meant to be used, what setting the piece is intended to be performed in, what time of day, accompanied by what kind of celebration etc. His scores have traditional music notes but are often arranged in a formation that is in itself evocative of some sort of feeling. They are often accompanied by expressive drawings that attempt to direct his performers to arrive at such an abstract product. The scores might also include notation like this example from RA, “ a sundown to sunrise outdoor musical and theatrical ritual performance.” [4]

“At approximately 2:40 a.m., the Initiates are left alone, in darkness, for nearly an hour, to rest, perhaps to meditate. At the end of this period, called Suspension, the Initiates are gently roused and served small cups of tea. At the same time (around 3:30 a.m.), the voice of Amente-Nufe (‘Beautiful West’) is heard, accompanied by the tolling of 75 varied gongs and bells (corresponding to the 75 magic names of Ra).[5]

 Many of these manuscripts appeared by themselves in a solo visual arts show entitled, Sounds Unseen.

The performances themselves represent a refined mastery of acoustic ecology.  The ways in which the musical mood of the piece will be interpreted is dependent upon the space it interacts with, the other “performers” (like wind, water, birds), the lighting, the emotional state of the audience and so on. The music transgresses the stark isolationism of  traditional performance structures: Music. Performer. Audience. Schafer explains, “I think we should try to break down the impasses between various groups,” and not only in the sense of artistic media, as he hopes it will harmonize the experiences of the “young and old, amateur and professional.” [6]

Schafer’s work in the academic field of acoustic ecology awakens us to a new way of experiencing sound, but more impressively, it exceeds simple theoretical musings. The music is created with the intent of realizing the fullest potential of this new dimension. Vibrations of sound are invited to converse with the features of its surroundings, animals are welcome choir members, and “soundwalks” may be used as a means to frame the entire experience. These performances are also about relating to other guests present. It is an irreplaceable shared human experience involving all of one’s senses.

What I take away from Schafer’s work is that, not only does it “express the inexpressible” but the end at which it arrives is inexpressible in itself.

 

 

___________________________

*I could not find access to my favorite piece of Schafer's work, Music for Wilderness Lake, in which 12 trombones encircle a remote lake to play. I think a performance of it was actually videotaped in 1980.

BUT: check this video out that explains a bit more http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bo2zvmKNiA


[1] Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Murray_Schafer

[2] Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Murray_Schafer

[3] http://www.acousticecology.org/edu/eduintros.html

[4] http://continuo.wordpress.com/category/murray-Schafer/

[5] http://continuo.wordpress.com/category/murray-Schafer/

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bo2zvmKNiA

A Window Into Kakadu's Past and Natural Beauty

When I was on a semester abroad in Australia last year, I visited a famous place called Kakadu National Park.  Kakadu National Park is one of the most famous parks in all of Australia and is known for its natural and cultural history.  It is located on the north coast of the continent near Darwin, has an area larger than the country of Belgium, and has majestic landscapes filled with monsoon forest, geological formations, waterfalls, and abundant wildlife.  What makes Kakadu very special is its rich history of Aboriginal culture and all of the well preserved rock art sites in the park.

My favorite rock art site (which may also be the most famous site in the whole park), is called Ubirr.   Ubirr is a large rock plateau that overlooks a breath-taking landscape.  To get to the top of the plateau, you walk through a large crevice that has various rock paintings, of which many are over 40,000 years old.  Many of the paintings are maintained by surviving Aborigines, and represent folk-tales that are deep in the roots of Aboriginal culture.  This picture is of the Namarrgam Sister painting at Ubirr.  Here’s the story behind the painting:

The Namarrgarn (pronounced nar-marr-garn) Sisters are depicted at Ubirr pulling string apart. They live in the stars, from where they can throw down pieces of string, attach them to people's organs, quickly travel down the string, and make people very sick. The story of the Namarrgarn Sisters told at Ubirr goes like this.

The two sisters spent a great deal of time playing and talking together-they were good friends. One day, while they were sitting and chatting by a billabong, one of the sisters decided to go for a walk. When she got to the end of the billabong she jumped into the water and changed into a crocodile. She swam back under the water to where her sister was sitting and leapt out, terrifying her.

Out of sight, she changed back to herself and returned to where her sister sat. She was so amused when her sister told of being frightened by a crocodile that she played the trick over and over again. One day the sister who had been tricked so many times realised the truth and decided to retaliate by playing the same trick on her sister.

Over and over the Namarrgarn Sisters played the trick on each other, until one day they realised that if they changed into crocodiles permanently they could eat anything or anybody they liked. They went to a freshwater spring near the mouth of the East Alligator River. An old man heard of their intention to become crocodiles and chased after them to stop them, but it was too late. The palms that are found around the spring grew from the teeth the sisters pulled from their mouths and planted in the earth.

The Namarrgarn Sisters are represented as crocodiles, evident by the lumps behind their eyes and their cunning ability to detect prey above and below the water. The story of the sisters is told to children to warn them about crocodiles and explain why they are so dangerous. It is part of longer series of stories that take a lifetime to learn. As an individual passes through ceremonial life they are told more and eventually may be given responsibility for the stories, songs and ceremonies. Spiritual life and the Law are inseparable. It is very important that Aboriginal people obey the Law these stories embody and that the stories are not told to the wrong people.

Source: http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu/visitor-activities/rock-art-ubirr.html#gallery

                I believe  art like this can uncover a lot about the natural world for us.  Although this art is simple-looking and has simple stories to go along with it, when you consider all the dimensions that radiate out from the painting, you discover much more than its visual beauty.  For example, the painting was done thousands of years ago, during a time when giant wombats and thylacines (marsupial tigers) roamed Kakadu.  After I viewed the rock paintings and went to the top of the plateau, I pictured what the landscape looked like at the time when the painting was first painted—giant beasts would have roamed the expansive grassland. 

The painting was also a window into another culture of another time, providing a specific lesson to be learned for future generations.  I would at first think of an ancient tribe of humans as being nomadic and uncivilized, but a piece of art like the Namarrgam Sisters allows me to connect with these people that once existed, allowing to realize that they had organized cultural elements like we do today.  The painting allowed me to close my eyes and imagine the tribe that lived around Ubirr, hunting, gathering, laughing, and playing.  These people were (still are) part of the surrounding natural world, and connecting with them through their art allows us to connect with the natural surroundings.

Trees

Two years ago I went to the UK over winter break with my family. While we were in London we decided to stop at the Tate Modern. I am not really one for modern art, mostly because I feel like if I can do it, it isn’t art. It actually frustrates me quite a lot. For example, while there I saw a framed mirror on the wall with the little plaque describing it as “Silver on Glass”. I didn’t get it. I mean, I could walk down the street and buy a mirror and it would have been exactly the same. I’m actually pretty sure that the artist actually did. Anyway, I digress. While I was there I saw one of the coolest sculptures I have seen. It was a block of wood that was probably 1’x1’x15’ that about 3 feet up had been carved along the old growth lines. In this way, the form of the younger tree that was hidden in the log was exposed for you to see.

Later, since I was unable to find the plaque for the trees, I found out that they were made by Giuseppe Penone, an Italian artist. Based on a Google Image search, it seems like the majority of his work is concerned with trees. He has a number of different carvings of trees out of trees, as well as walls covered in huge sheets of bark. It is the tree carvings that most interest me though. They are either carved out of blocks of wood or whole trees themselves, and vary in thickness and therefore the age of the version of the tree being revealed. I think this is really cool and interesting because it changes how you see anything made of wood. When you look at a 2x2 you only see a square rod of wood, but if it were carved properly, it could reveal the tree that was once there. Same goes for anything made of wood, including the beds in the dorms. You wouldn’t get a whole tree, probably only a surface layer, but it is still there, hidden in the wood. What are now knots are revealed to now be former limbs of the tree. I just think it was cool.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a Japanese photographer. His works vary in subject, but many have very similar, resounding themes. Through is art he attempts to make complex things understandable by looking at them in their most basic form; he “unconceals” what he considers to be black boxes. For example, he had very precise sculptures built, which he subsequently photographed, that represented various mathematical formulas. In a short documentary on his work, he discusses how he decided not to pursue physics after high school, because he felt he did not have a great understanding of math. The visual representations of mathematical equations helped him understand them in their most basic forms. Similarly, other pieces attempt to look at basic elements and properties. These themes include light, time, gravity, earth, air, water and fire. He unconceals things we either take for granted or view as remarkably complex. Some of the ones I found interesting were his photos of a candle burning in the breeze at night, and his photos of a theater. For his Theater pieces, he left his camera lens open throughout the duration of an entire movie. He says one of the points of those pieces is how time can be represented in a photo. We normally think of photos as a point in time, but this photo represented one place over an extended period of time.  His photos of electricity are also very interesting, because they allow us to see exactly what it is. In that case, photography allows us to understand something that our body does not have the physical capacity to do. The photo I posted is one from his Theater collection. He has a lot of other interesting pieces though, which are definitely worth a look. Here is a link to his website and portfolio.

http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/portfolio.html

Beautiful vandalism

Pixnit, similar to Banksy in many ways, is a graffiti artist who uses stencils in an urban setting.  She is semi-anonymous and generally works alone (with a few exceptions).  She uses floral stencils with bright colors and places them on dark, mundane, or bleak structures in order to critique the urban environment that we live in.  PIXNIT Productions calls this “Pollinating”, and the stencils are called “Spores”.  By placing bright, decorative designs on stark exteriors of buildings, or on everyday places like crosswalks, she aims to challenge the notion of graffiti defacing property and instead tries to beautify places that are otherwise viewed as non-beautiful.

Walking down the street, we don’t realize the mundane uniformity that has been created around us in urban settings.  A brick wall is a brick wall is a brick wall.  The bricks are the same size, color, have the same layout, and hardly catch any attention.  Concrete is a uniform color, the lines on the pavement of a crosswalk are the same distance apart, all stop signs are the same color red.  We have lost the intricacies of the world around us by subjecting ourselves to man-made buildings and streets, and when someone tries to alter that environment, we call it “vandalism”.  This idea is what Pixnit challenges.  She places art on walls in such a way that although it is technically “graffiti”, it is not seen as defacing public property, but making it better, less boring, and more beautiful.

For some reason, the pictures I'm trying to post won't show up, but here's a link to a blog that has a few pictures of her work in Beverly: http://leoniebradbury.blogspot.com/2008_10_01_archive.html

Also, a link to an article on her plus more pictures:  http://www.galleryrevisited.com/artists-pixnit.htm

And to her website: http://pixnitproductions.com/PIXNIT.html

Nature?

Dale Chihuly is an artist whose primary art form is glassblowing, and much of his artwork is clearly inspired by nature. A lot of his work presents a viewpoint in which manmade objects and nature blend together neatly, and where brightly colored sculpted glass looks natural.  Although the glass reeds in this picture from the Royal Botanic Gardens in London are not real plants, they fit in with the rest of the plants almost as if they belong there. By themselves, they might look unnatural, but in this setting they complement the real plants in a way that sort of demonstrates humans’ ability to exist alongside and in nature (although, this is art – it can be and is intended to be interpreted in many ways).

 

Some of his art is less natural looking and more intrusive, but inspired by nature, such as the glass icicle-like chandelier sculpture outside a resort in Leavenworth, WA. This blown-glass sculpture is outside, and resembles hundreds of icicles stuck together, in a very unnatural way. It doesn’t look like it belongs there, but it resembles nature in a way, because it looks like icicles. This also points towards a different way of looking at nature, rather than as manmade objects and nature coinciding, like in the above picture, this is how nature can be shaped. It is at the same time very natural and very unnatural looking. It is a bit like the video we watched in class, where someone took natural things like ice or stones and made temporary art out of them. Chihuly’s art is a lot like it, but unlike the other person’s art, this is designed to last.

Social Commentary

Banksy is a quasi-anonymous street artist from England whose work has appeared around the world. Through his dark and satirical graffiti he comments on authority and consumerism. By painting on bridges, streets, and the walls of buildings he reaches the masses. His statements are pertinent and they force the viewer to reflect on contemporary society as well as his or her own actions.  He once stated, “You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

In 2008, he painted a mural depicting children pledging allegiance to a plastic Tesco shopping bag on the outside wall of a pharmacy in Islington, England.  Tesco is the UK’s equivalent of Wal-Mart.  The same apprehension many Americans feel towards Wal-Mart, is also felt by the English towards Tesco.  Downsides of these big box stores abound.  They promote consumerism by claiming to meet all of a shopper’s needs.  They also drive out the variety and vitality of communities in which they are located.  Mom and pop shops struggle to compete with the stores’ low prices and eventually they are forced out of business.  While the meaning of Banksy’s work is open to interpretation it is definitely clear that he is commenting on consumerism.  He seems to say that in our near future, if not already, we will fully succumb to the power of big box stores as they embed themselves deeply in our lives.

Last year, residents in Bristol, England began protesting the opening of a Tesco in their area.  The community voiced concern for local shops and farmers who would suffer from the construction of a supermarket.  This past April, as a result being ignored, community protests turned into rioting.  Several petrol bombs were confiscated from rioters.  In response to the events, Banksy release a poster depicting a lit petrol bomb with Tesco’s logo.  In doing so he showed his support for the protesters.

 

Take a look at more of his work: http://www.boredpanda.com/80-beautiful-street-crimes-done-by-banksy/

ONE HUNDRED LIVE AND DIE - Bruce Nauman

I chose to look at the artwork of Bruce Nauman, and this piece grabbed my attention with the bright-neon lights and retained it with the provocative statements.  At first glance, I did not associate words such as "shit", "hate", "kill" with this piece.  After seeing "piss" however, I did a double take and read the statements more clearly.  After reading his phrases, my emotions jumped around for each statement.  He incorporates very positive and extremely negative phrases next to each other, inducing a drastic and quick change in emotion.  Nauman is ingeniously protraying how terrible life can be while still expressing a sense of hope for humanity. 

While I am sure not all (and I really hope not) of his statements can be attributed to people today, I feel that a combination of them can accurately convey individuals in our society.  We do not always do the best or most positive things in life and obviously no one is perfect.  I believe that Nauman does an accurate job in depicting the good and the evil in our world in one artwork.  Nauman's piece may induce change in some individuals or it may simply provoke meaningful conversation regarding the direction our society is heading towards.  He accurately portrays the wide and diverse range of lifestyles and personal choices present in society.  I definitely think Nauman's piece is justly provocative and unconceals the truths of humanity and human intention.

A better world without? (Synthesis)

I see a few basic themes in these discussions: societal resistance, and adaptation. 

 

Why is it hard to give up a technology? Why is it so hard that it’s worth writing about? Something that a few people observed is that society’s norms and expectations play a huge role in what we are able to live without. Even if you individually can live without the internet (or clothing or a phone), will society accept your decision? Or will you be ostracized or left behind? It seems that our personal choices only matter when they do not effect how we interact with others, but as soon as the world around us places expectations on us, our choices are limited. Yes, I can choose to not check my email, but then I wouldn’t know when my thesis group is meeting. Yes, I can walk around without clothes on, but then Campus Safety will give me 4 points. Because we live in a social world and because we are accustomed to interacting with each other in a specific way, there are certain consequences associated with removing a technology that we cannot necessarily cope with. 

 

In a different light, once we have given up the technology, how do we deal with its absence? The consensus seams to be adaptation, for better or worse. Removing the internet is hard at first, but becomes easier as we find other ways to remotely connect with those around us. The same goes for cell phones. Some examples require more sophisticated adaptation, such as restructuring our city layout to accommodate a world without portable water. These adaptations are generally constructive, and would shape a new world without the missing technology until it is no longer perceived as “missing”. However the adaptation can also be in favor of new technologies that are more “advanced”, leaving a void in the history of an object or resulting in the loss of an art form, like developing film. 

 
So when we remove technologies from our lives, what do we gain or lose? Without my cell phone, I lose connection to people who are far away, but also gain a sense of presence with the people who are closer. With digital cameras, it is easier to take, print, and share photos, but the loss of film cameras is also the loss of a skill and art. Once these technologies are removed from our lives, are we better for it?

Cups


There are many “simple” technologies that I would be unable to live without. Or, at least, life would be much different. Initially when I was thinking about how a lack of certain technologies would alter my daily life, I thought of modern technologies like cell phones or computers that would make communication and life in general much more “difficult.” However, I think it is those technologies that are so incredibly basic, which we tend to take for granted, that would impact us most. For example, I cannot imagine life without cups. Cups, or anything else that holds liquids for that matter, impact how I live.

            A world without cups would be much different. We would be forced to drink with our hands, which are “inadequate” technologies because they do not hold much liquid and leak. In addition, without cups many of my actions are dependent on the unpredictability of our bodies. At dinner, I would have to get up and go to the faucet each time I wanted a drink. With cups, I do not have to worry about when I will be thirsty. I know that if I thirsty, there is an easy solution. Similarly, we would be forced to live locally. My actions would be entirely based on how far away I was from the closest water source. Water would not be portable. If I went on a run, I would have to plan where I could drink next, because I could not take water with me. Therefore, cups allow us to have more “control” and allow us to live in the spaces and times that we want to live in.

            I think it is interesting to analyze this question in the context of basic technologies, because it is those technologies that we are entirely dependent on.

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