In his latest book, Schafer describes a composition as “a multicultural event in which we laugh at ourselves and each other.” It’s a good description for the memoir itself: its scope is vast, but its tone is irreverent, lighthearted. Schafer does nothing here to dispel his reputation as an enfant terrible. He makes cheeky, bombastic statements (“there is no culture in Canada”) and ruthlessly critiques others. He recounts jokes he played on orchestras and obnoxious clashes with everyone from university administrators to Census Canada. But he’s just as tough on himself, openly revealing personal and professional failures. This incredible candour is matched by incredible detail, even in sixty-year-old stories—thanks in part to lifelong diary keeping. However, the book sometimes reads awkwardly, littered as it is with the mental roundabouts and elaborations found in diaries.
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.
Like Schafer’s compositions (sound and music, performer and audience), his life marries contradictions. He careens between music and visual arts (his artworks feature throughout); he’s a restless globetrotter who sets up house in a farmhouse. Schafer’s compositions also mix music with literature, nature, politics, design, and more. Obviously well read, Schafer frequently refers to thinkers of all stripes. This glimpse into that mixed bag of inspirations is especially interesting given that Schafer often writes programmatically. Although fans of his scores, music education, and soundscape books will find back-stories to these creations, they should not expect treatises or essays on the topics.
Schafer turns eighty years old next year, and many ensembles have already announced programming in conjunction with the anniversary. This memoir will be a good introduction or refresher course on the career being celebrated.