R. Murray Schafer: Apocalypsis. Direction and design by Lemi Ponifasio. Laurie Anderson. Brent Carver. Tanya Tagaq. Choruses and Instrumentalists/David Fallis. A Luminato Festival Production. Live recording June 27-28, 2015. Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. Analekta AN 2 8784-5 (2 CDs). Total Time: 113.24.
It was only a matter of time before composer R. Murray Schafer got around to dealing with the end of the world, which he did in Apocalypsis (1976-1978), a massive extravaganza comprised of two parts: Pt. 1 (“John’s Vision”) and Pt. 2 (“Credo”). The work was given its premiere at the Luminato Festival London, Ontario in 1980, and performed again in Toronto in 2015.
Given the nature of Apocalypsis — it was conceived as a music theatre piece and presented as such by Luminato — a CD (audio) recording is clearly inadequate. A DVD (video) would surely give us a much better sense of the piece. But, of course, the same could be said of any opera CD. Given that we only have an audio recording, the question becomes: “What are we to make of the text and the music of Apocalypsis?”
Frankly, I find the notes provided by Analekta woefully inadequate as an introduction to a work of this complexity. Written by conductor David Fallis, they tell us something about his preparation for the Luminato performance, but almost nothing about the piece itself. For that information, I suggest the listener go to comments by Schafer himself or to the even more extensive analysis of Apocalypsis by Stephen Adams (Adams, R. Murray Schafer, University of Toronto Press: 1983).
The text of Pt. 1 of Apocalypsis is taken almost entirely from the book of Revelation in the Bible. Revelation gives us a vision of the end of days, as told by the Christian prophet John of Patmos, featuring a vivid description of the battle between the forces of good and evil. Revelation concludes with a prophecy about the coming of Christ. In section 7 (“The Battle between Good and Evil”), Schafer inserts a declaration by the Antichrist (played by Stratford veteran actor Brent Carver), which begins with the words: “God is dead! It was a hoax designed to enslave you.” The Antichrist then goes on to extol the virtues of war, jet planes and computers and urges the destruction of museums and libraries, somewhat jarring discourse in a text that is almost wholly Biblical and drawn from ancient times.
Schafer himself has long inveighed against so-called progress in modern life and has been particularly outspoken about how man has been ravaging nature. He has long since renounced city life, having lived in the country for the past 25 years. In Apocalypsis Pt. 1, Schafer is telling us that the horrors described in Revelation have finally come to pass, that for all intents and purposes, “Armageddon” is just around the corner, and we have only ourselves to blame.
In Apocalypsis Pt. 2, instead of the Second Coming, we are given R. Murray Schafer’s personal vision: “…a description of the universe by Giordano Bruno, the Sixteenth Century Italian philosopher and astronomer, that was very close to my belief and so, in adapting the text, I decided to call the work Credo (I believe).” Pt. 2 is composed of twelve Invocations and Responses, along the lines of: “Lord God is universe. Universe has no parts yet it contains all parts. It is soul yet it is not soul. It is body yet not body. It is formed yet it is formless. It is end yet unending.” The text is obscure and unhelpful and the music, mostly pretty static choral sound from beginning to end, is not very informative either. To some listeners, Credo will be about 45 minutes of pretty boring music.
Schafer has always had a singularly inquiring mind. Over the years, he has immersed himself in Ezra Pound, German romanticism, Persian cosmology, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and more. These widely varied sources have inspired him to create compositions which are sometimes pretentious and silly, and occasionally startlingly original. In Apocalypsis, Schafer has drawn on John of Patmos’ use of mystical numbers to create a structure for the piece. For example, John associates seven with earth and twelve with heaven, so Schafer makes use of sevens and twelves in Apocalypsis. In Pt. 1, we have seven scenes lasting about seven minutes each, seven leading parts, and seven mimes representing Angels. In Pt. 2, we have twelve mixed choirs…and on and on.
More than a few audience members and critics have suggested that Apocalypsis is more ritual than opera, oratorio, or theatre, and that it is somewhat comparable to Schafer’s In Search of Zoroaster composed in 1971, which is, in Stephen Adams words, “not so much a musical composition as a newly invented ritual for a non-existent religion.”
Apocalypsis is clearly not presenting a Christian worldview. While Pt. 1 is taken mostly from Revelation, that Biblical text is still the subject of controversy among Christians. And if it depicts the end of the world in more or less Biblical terms, the propositions in Pt. 2 are far from any Christian message of which I am aware. Instead, these are the words of Giordano Bruno, the man who represents for most scholars a break from dogmatic church teaching in favour of genuine scientific inquiry. So what is the real message of Apocalypsis? Your guess is as good as mine.
Those who attended the Luminato performances in Toronto last year will have their own thoughts about the success or failure of Apocalypsis as a music-theatre/ritual experience. Listening to the audio version, I could not help but be impressed. David Fallis and his colleagues deserve enormous credit for finding the money and for doing the hard work to bring about the performances. Nearly a thousand performers were involved in the project. Shafer’s ability to create a gigantic eclectic piece that manifests a remarkable compositional discipline is certainly impressive. While often making use of contemporary techniques, Schafer has created a sound world that is convincingly primitive from beginning to end. Although most of the performers taking part were amateurs, the quality of the musical performance is outstanding. Again, David Fallis must be singled out for praise in getting such fine results.
I was amazed once again by the performance given by Inuit throat singer Tanya Taraq. As I understand it, Schafer did not give her anything specific to sing; rather, she improvised what she thought was appropriate for an old woman’s “Lament over Babylon” — a remarkable tour de force.
For something more…
Schafer has always had a way with words and his program notes (PDF) are especially useful, both as a guide to his music and as an indication of his wide interests and strong opinions. Schafer has always been wary of conductors and the notes include details of several contentious conductor encounters. Readers looking for examples of the composer’s sense of humour need look no further than the original title for Schafer’s orchestral work, Scorpio.
Follow Musical Toronto on Facebook for the latest classical and opera news, funny stuff, and an insider POV.