144 singers in 20 boats in Central Park

Two pieces by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer get their New York premiere

144 singers in 20 boats in Central Park

Darial R. Sneed

New York City Opera artistic director George Steel hopped out of the rowboat and reported that “the geese were very interested in the bass section.” This is as it should have been for the aquatic sound test of R. Murray Schafer’s Music for Wilderness Lake and Credo a few weeks before their New York premiere on June 21 at the 7th Make Music New York (MMNY) festival. Based on France’s Fête de la musique, MMNY began experimenting on Central Park Lake in 2010 with Iannis Xenakis’s sextet Persephassa, written for an audience surrounded by percussionists. They performed it with the musicians on rafts and the audience in rowboats and have used the lake every year since. This year, the daylong festival presents more than a thousand events in all the boroughs.

“It’s more of a happening than a concert with ushers,” explained festival founder Aaron Friedman. It was Americas Society-Council of the Americas’ music director, Sebastián Zubieta, who suggested Schafer, Canada’s most famous living composer—outside of Canada—and an influential pedagogue credited with inventing the field of sonic ecology and motivating an entire generation to listen. MMNY began with the idea of performing a piece—written for a lake near Bancroft, Ont., (Wilderness Lake)—on a lake in Manhattan. Zubieta went at dawn in November and made recordings to hear if Central Park Lake was quiet enough. It was. “The city almost disappears,” he says. “It’s amazing how strong nature is.” Credo was added to the program afterward. It has never been performed outside.

Credo is the second part of Apocalypsis, which has hardly been performed since its 1980 premiere at Centennial Hall in London, Ont.; it was last revived in 2001 in Toronto. Schafer is happy they will try it in Manhattan’s wilds. “I’m doing productions outdoors all the time, these big works out in the wilderness for an audience of 12,” he said. A performance in Central Park will turn this ratio on its head, even at 7:30 a.m., when Dawn from Music for Wilderness Lake will be played for an audience of music fanatics, joggers and people who wake up in the bushes when 12 trombonists start to blow.

Written in 1979, Wilderness Lake is one of Schafer’s first environmental compositions. It is in two 10-minute parts: Dusk, performed outdoors as the sun sets, with audience and performers camping at the lake afterward, and Dawn, played the next morning. It’s usually done the other way around so people don’t have to sleep rough, and that’s how they’ll do it in New York. At lake-size distances, the trombonists must play independently and take aural cues from each other for most of the piece, but at key moments, the conductor activates and uses coloured flags to organize from his conducting boat.

Credo will begin at 5 p.m. with 144 singers in 20 boats conducted by Steel. Each boat has a dedicated rower to keep the fleet from drifting too much while still moving enough to create different perspectives on the musical object. Though changing distances, the weather and acoustic phenomena inside metal boats and over the water are considered in Schafer’s outdoor work, this performance adds a new variable: The recorded accompaniment of double basses and church bells can be downloaded in advance for headphones. This is a way around park rules against amplification, explained Zubieta, and will let “people mix the accompaniment as they want.”

Apocalypsis was written in 1976 as Schafer’s response to a biblical lack of detail regarding paradise after the apocalypse. The Bible left it to “Renaissance painters to illustrate the happy singing and harp-playing survivors,” writes Schafer, whose 12 choirs sing 12 “invocations” and 12 “responses” while surrounding the audience. Credo has been performed with hundreds of singers before, but a massed choir that overwhelms indoors might be barely audible outside.

Ontario’s Stratford Summer Music Festival and Huntsville Festival will perform Wilderness Lake this summer as part of their celebrations of Schafer’s 80th birthday, but Canadians curious about Credo must come to New York and rent a boat for $12. The brave can bring their own—Friedman looked up the ordinance.

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