The Sound and the Furor: R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis gets an epic production at Luminato

The Sound and the Furor: R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis gets an epic production at Luminato

Apocalypsis composer R. Murray Schafer
(Image: courtesy of Espirit Orchestra)

This month, Luminato will mount Apocalypsis, an oratorio by the 81-year-old composer R. Murray Schafer. The production features 24 dancers, 12 string quartets, 142 brass musicians, 750 singers and a battalion of technicians. There will be at least 1,000 performers, which means that there are 1,000 ways everything could go wrong. And yet, if all goes right, the show will be more formidable than any CGI-enhanced summer blockbuster.

Apocalypsis is the grandest undertaking in a career defined by grandiosity. Schafer is a mystic, a savant and a rebel. In high school, he memorized the complete text of Macbeth, and a few years later, the University of Toronto’s faculty of music expelled him for insubordination, including his refusal to sing choir parts he found boring. Schafer spent most of his adult life in rural Ontario (he’s owned secluded farmhouses near Bancroft and Peterborough) but frequently travelled to Europe documenting what he called “acoustic ecology”—the specific soundscapes of small villages and communities. On one of these trips, he struck up a friendship with the modernist poet Ezra Pound; they used to discuss Arab music in Pound’s dilapidated castle in the Italian Tyrol.

As a young composer, Schafer despised staid Anglo-romantic orchestral works. He disliked Mozart and preferred the primitive clang of the harpsichord to the subtle tones of the piano. And his pieces have always felt more like events than compositions. One of his most famous productions was a sunrise opera on boats at Two Jack Lake, near Banff; for another spectacle, he staged a roving 11-hour piece about the Egyptian sun god, Ra, through 29 rooms at the Ontario Science Centre.

When Schafer began to compose Apocalypsis in 1976, he envisioned a contemporary spin on medieval religious pageants: expansive ceremonies that brought together nobility, clergy, performers, artisans and peasants. Schafer wanted to meld 20th-century avant-gardism—atonality, absurdism, contemporary dance—with medieval majesty.

The first act retells the book of Revelation, a trippy orgy of blood and thunder in which John of Patmos foresees the fiery destruction of the world. Schafer imagined the catastrophe as a swirl of chaotic pitch and rhythm, with thrashing dance and stentorian monologues. Contrary to the feel-good religious rock operas of the ’70s (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell), his take on the Bible was pure fire-and-brimstone terror. Schafer adapted his serene second act, Credo, from the writings of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century renegade Italian philosopher who was burned at the stake for suggesting, among other things, that the universe is infinite. That portion serves as a cleansing ritual: Bruno’s Zenlike pronouncements and Schafer’s swelling choral harmonies create a sense of renewal after the disaster.

People have tried to mount Apocalypsis in Toronto before, but they failed when they couldn’t rustle up enough funds. The only complete staging was a 1980 version at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario. Throughout the production, Schafer was enthusiastic, tireless and a colossal control freak. He’d schedule extra rehearsals in Toronto with barely any notice and insist on procuring props that the producers didn’t have money to buy. Moments before the opening performance, he reshuffled the stage setup, carelessly moving a massive gong right behind where a guest of honour was scheduled to sit. Despite these hiccups, Apocalypsis was a hit—patrons snaked around the block for tickets. Schafer placed choristers not only on the stage but also in the aisles and at the back of the auditorium, creating an immersive, stereophonic and spooky sound.

Jorn Weisbrodt, Luminato’s artistic director, aims to crank up that intensity. Weisbrodt discovered Schafer in 2012 when he moved to Toronto—his husband, the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, was a Schafer fan who’d sung his songs in elementary school. Weisbrodt was surprised to learn that Canada had a contemporary composer who was every bit as ambitious as European titans like Mahler and Schoenberg. In 2012, he approached Schafer with a proposal to create a new, supersized production.

This Apocalypsis will combine professional musicians, amateur artists and local celebrities. There’s the affable Broadway star Brent Carver, cast against type as the Antichrist; the experimental composer Laurie Anderson providing the voice of John; the trans performance artist Nina Arsenault playing the Whore of Babylon; and the throat singer Tanya Tagaq as the Old Woman, who laments the ruined city after the fall. The most inspired decision is Weisbrodt’s choice of director: Lemi Ponifasio, the colourblind head of the New Zealand company MAU, who favours bare staging, shamanistic movements and austere black-and-white costumery.

His style is a departure from the original—the 1980 version featured colourful papier-mâché masks and banners embroidered by church volunteers—but Apocalypsis is the kind of project that begs for innovation. Schafer wrote the piece in graphic notation, a pictorial style that reinvents traditional composition. Sonic effects are notated with balls of fire or crashing waves; lines of music twist and turn like flags in the breeze. His hand-written score also includes diagrams of esoteric instruments—percussive devices from ancient Egypt and Iraq, buckets filled with scrap metal that pour from the ceiling like an act of God, and a made-up trinket called the chimes of light, which a Toronto artisan has custom-produced for the event.

The biggest challenges that the Luminato team faces are not creative but logistical. “I’m going to manage the show like you’d run the army,” explains Caroline Holloway, the producer. Each choir practised independently, leading up to a weekend-long full rehearsal in late May. Onstage, head conductor and music director David Fallis will give cues to seven sub-conductors, who are expected to execute his orders with military efficiency. The choristers have been assigned colours according to their group. If you’re red, for instance, you have a red folio for your music, a colour-coded map dictating how you move around the hall and a prescribed time at which you’re expected to enter the venue. Just getting the 750 choristers into the building will be a monumental undertaking.

Yet it’s the human element that makes Apocalypsis spectacular. Ironically, for a pageant about the destruction of our species, the piece is a tribute to what people are capable of. It harks back to a time before UltraAVX and CGI, when the most powerful machine was the moving body and the most majestic sound the thrumming voice.

By R. Murray Schafer
Sony Centre for the Arts
June 26 to 28