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Biography & Autobiography Composers & Musicians

My Life on Earth and Elsewhere

by (author) R. Murray Schafer

Porcupine's Quill
Initial publish date
May 2012
Composers & Musicians, Personal Memoirs
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2012
    List Price

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My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, a memoir by the internationally-acclaimed Canadian composer, music educator and writer R. Murray Schafer, traces the author's life and growth as an artist from his earliest memories to the present. Scenes from his youth as an aspiring painter, a music student at the University of Toronto and a sailor on a Great Lakes freighter give way to memories of his several years of work and wandering in Europe, where he gained a deeper understanding of his vocation, and found, especially in Greece, the inspiration for much of the astonishing music he would create after his return to Canada.

About the author

Born in Sarnia in 1933, R. Murray Schafer is an internationally-acclaimed composer, environmentalist, educator, scholar, visual artist and writer. Despite only one formal diploma (the LRSM -- Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in London), Schafer has taught at Memorial and Simon Fraser universities, and received honorary degrees from Trent, Simon Fraser, Carleton, Toronto, and Concordia universities in Canada, and from Mendosa (Argentina) and Strassbourg (France). His music is widely praised and performed all over the world. His major achievement, the epic Patria cycle, is more often praised than produced, since it requires wilderness settings and performances that last all night -- or longer. Schafer lives in Indian River, just outside Peterborough, Ontario.

R. Murray Schafer's profile page

Excerpt: My Life on Earth and Elsewhere (by (author) R. Murray Schafer)


Despite the pleasure of working with Weinzweig and Guerrero, and meeting McLuhan, I was having difficulty in several other courses. Things were building to some kind of climax around Christmas time of my second year. In many ways, the university was a place that cared for authority rather than invention. For one thing, attendance was compulsory and a roll-call preceded every lecture. I hated these rules, which seemed the very antithesis of imaginative scholarship.

In those days the university choir was conducted by Dr. Richard Johnston, a tempestuous Texan whose face burned red during the temper tantrums that he seemed incapable of controlling. We used to call him 'Furnace Face'. I resented having to sing in his choir since I had sung and was still singing more interesting music in the Grace Church Choir. The English choral tradition was still quite strong in Canada in those days, with a repertoire that extended back to Elizabethan times. When you've sung Thomas Tallis and William Byrd motets, or Handel's Messiah with multiple choirs and orchestra, as we did each year in Massey Hall, the prospect of sappy pop songs is not at all inspiring. So I used to take large art-books with me to the rehearsals and calmly inspect them while the choir floundered through a repertoire of tasteless and toothless choral music.

'Choir stand up!' commanded Dr. Johnston from the top of the chair he always stood on. The choir stood up. 'Choir sit down!' came the abrupt contravening order. The choir sat down. 'Choir and Mr. Schafer stand up!' bellowed the commander. Schafer calmly turned the pages of his book on Rouault or Cezanne. 'Schafer!' screamed the doctor. 'Stand up!' Several girls began to swoon, recognizing the symptoms of the well-known tantrum that would sour the mood for the rest of the evening. 'Come up here!'

Nonchalantly I wandered to the front carrying my precious book. 'Sit there!' ordered Il Duce, pointing to an empty chair directly in front of him. 'Now, once again, CHOIR AND MR. SCHAFER, STAND UP!' The choir stood up. Schafer opened his book and began to read. 'SCHAFER!' It was the loudest sound the school had ever heard. The dust rose from the windowsills and the lights flickered. Dr. Johnston leapt in the air, landing with such force that his feet went clear through the seat of his chair. I looked up to see him furiously waving his baton only a few feet in front of my nose. I did the only natural thing. I got up and ran away. He lunged after me but the legs of the chair trapped him and he came clattering to the ground. As I darted out the door, I saw girls hurrying to pick him up off the floor.

Now, before I go on, let me say that Richard Johnston and I grew to be friends in later years. We never spoke of that incident again. More important concerns united us. Chief among these was the fight to establish Canadian music as a subject fit to be taught and performed in Canadian schools and universities. The good doctor went on to establish an enviable collection of Canadian musical manuscripts and memorabilia at the University of Calgary and several of my manuscripts eventually found their way into this collection.

The other professor with whom I had a run-in at the U. of T. was Professor Rosy-Rear, also an American. Rosy-Rear was not his name but it is close enough. Of all the courses I had to take, his was the stupidest. Music education has never been distinguished by imagination but there are limits to how much stupidity a person can handle. It was during the Christmas exam that matters came to a head. I am not sure whether the questions on the exam were designed by a blockhead or for blockheads. I remember two of them. One was: 'What would you use rice for in cleaning a violin?' I have since asked many violinists this question without ever receiving a satisfactory answer. I even asked the famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, who didn't know either. The other question was: 'How would you teach a hare-lipped boy to play the clarinet?' I answered this by saying I'd suggest another instrument. The rest of the questions were equally stupid and I rose to leave the examination hall after ten minutes; but the invigilator stopped me, by saying that I had to remain for a minimum of one hour. That was the rule. So I filled in the time by writing a little essay for Rosy-Rear on the subject of how music education might be more inspiringly taught. I didn't expect this to strike home and, in any case, it was probably a silly essay since I hadn't given the matter any advance thought. I recall that I concluded rather flippantly by telling him that it would please me greatly if he would give me zero on the exam because then, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom I had been reading, I would have the distinction, if not of being better than my fellow man, at least of being different.

I expected to get zero on the exam but I suppose the essay was a little thick for the good professor with the result that he simply handed it over to the faculty director, Dr. Arnold Walter. Dr. Walter was a brooding Spenglerian sort of man who reserved his smiles for his dinner; at least, no one had ever seen him smile in the faculty corridors. He was, to be fair, an excellent lecturer, illustrating talks on Beethoven and Wagner with rhapsodic piano accompaniments. With him, after lectures, I would venture to talk about Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre. I don't know what he really knew about these people but, to the sophomoric mind, he seemed to know a great deal and I admired the latitude of his learning. He and McLuhan were the only two lecturers who really set me thinking in those days.

Anyway, I was summoned that day to Dr. Walter's office. When I entered he was clenching his fists into little balls and squeezing himself. Suddenly he pounded the desk and roared: 'I too haf read Jean-Jacques Rousseau!' The violence of the assertion was startling. It seemed to preclude any rational discussion of Rousseau's philosophy. I was told that I must apologize in writing to the two wounded professors or I would have to leave the school. A picture was painted of a young man forced forever to do menial work because he lacked a university education. A contrasting picture was sketched of an ambitious scholar going on to graduate school for which scholarships were tantalizingly touched on. Princeton University was mentioned. I was given twenty-four hours to think it over.

I returned the next day without having thought it over at all. I was hoping that, when his temper cooled, Dr. Walter might be persuaded to discuss Rousseau's philosophy, and I hoped to learn something from him. It was a brilliant crisp day in mid-winter. The sun was shining brightly and the snow was sparkling. I entered Dr. Walter's office and he said, 'Vell, haf you made up your mind?' I was just about to reply when I noticed the way the sun was shining through his ears. He had big ears -- what the French call 'les etoiles.' I could see the little blood vessels in them. Then a strange thing happened. I laughed. It was one of those nervous little laughing fits boys get before they are to be punished. 'Get out!' said Dr. Walter. 'I can see the sun shining through your ears,' I replied. 'Get out! Get out! GET OUT!' His voice echoed down the corridor as I left, never to return.

Years later I began to receive letters from the alumni association of the University of Toronto and began to think that somehow I had indeed graduated. Many years later the University of Toronto offered me an honorary doctorate and in my acceptance speech I told the story of my departure from the Faculty of Music more or less as I've just narrated it to the merriment of both the graduating class as well as the Chancellor and faculty.

Editorial Reviews

My Life on Earth and Elsewhere

R. Murray Schafer is a brilliantly talented painter, musician, and writer--and he knows it, his ego exposed in this otherwise wonderfully written memoir. My Life on Earth and Elsewhere traces his growth as an artist, beginning with dreamlike scenes from his early childhood and teenage years but focusing on his travels through Europe as a twenty-something, in the 1950s and 1960s, and his career as a freelance composer and educator. Blind in one eye since birth, Schafer chronicles the events he finds in his memory with beautifully poignant language, scattering his sketches, paintings, and photographs of his theatrical concertos throughout the book.

Many of Schafer's encounters--namely tea with Ezra Pound while the poet was in a psychiatric hospital and a business meeting with Muppets creator Jim Henson--seem almost too fantastic to be true; and the language he uses to describe his experiences exudes self-absorption. Excerpts from Schafer's diary and letters further create an air of pomposity, more prominently when he mentions his proclivity to keep a diary while immediately thereafter revealing that he finds "it interesting from time to time to read extensive passages from other diaries, especially those of great artists." He writes with a voice that assumes everyone wishes to listen. Additionally, Schafer revels in his successes while often blaming errors in his work and actions on others or on circumstance; his acknowledgments of personal flaws appear only in the form of guilt--for instance, when he leaves his first wife for another woman, and then leaves his second wife for yet another woman.

A reader may doubt that Schafer dined with Pound because of the artist's ego conveyed through his writing style: "At this point I was perhaps the only Pound enthusiast who had seen the conclusion of the great work [Cantos]. Can you imagine how many EP scholars contacted me over the next few years to find out how the Cantos ended?" And concerning a performance of his own work, he writes that, "I had been informed that the new work would have the distinction of being first on the program 'when the audience was fresh.' I determined to confuse them by agglutinating my piece to the next piece on the program so that there would be no opportunity to open the doors between numbers, and latecomers would have to wait outside until the intermission." Though his self-inflation occasionally detracts from the authority of the text, Schafer's memoir is engrossing, memorable, and offers both insight into the inner life of an artist and inspiration for those striving for a career in the arts.

Most fascinating are the events detailed during the author's nomadic years in Europe and his time as a sailor on a Great Lakes freighter. His scholarly work as a professor and composer in Canada, where he currently lives, offers a deeper glimpse into his artistic and philosophical processes. My Life on Earth and Elsewhere may bring readers to Schafer's music, and it will surely illustrate how experiences shape passions and passions shape people.

ForeWord Reviews

?This beautiful book is bound in lovely paper, decorated on the cover and inside with copious examples of [R Murray Schafer's] art. I am reminded of why books matter....?


?Like any good memoir, this is as much about the writer's milieu as it is about the writer. Major figures crop up in Schafer's tales: musicians such as Britten and Cage along with many others, including Marshall McLuhan, Ezra Pound, even Jim Henson. Forrest Gump-like stories fill the pages; Schafer has a knack for finding himself a player in big events. Unlike his thirty-plus other books, this is a personal memoir – but it is also a portrait of the history and public landscape of musical and intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century.?


?...Schafer's memoir is engrossing, memorable, and offers both insight into the inner life of an artist and inspiration for those striving for a career in the arts.?

ForeWord Reviews

?The book has the glow of sincere conviction about it that adumbrates just about everything Schafer says and does. It is a well written account of a remarkable life remarkably lived.?

The Literary Review of Canada

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