Written by Jennifer Butler
(Published with permission by composer Jennifer Butler. Previously published by CBC)
R. Murray Schafer’s annual Wolf Project is a participants-only collaborative, experiential week of chant, music, theatre and camping in the wilderness of Haliburton Forest. Composer Jennifer Butler has been a participant in Schafer’s Wolf Project since 2000 and recalls the ‘ritual, silence, togetherness and isolation’ of the yearly happening.
In Murray Schafer, Canada has lost not only its greatest composer, but also a writer, educator, environmental activist, musicologist, literary scholar, visual artist and mystic.
I feel so indebted to Murray Schafer. His music and ideas have profoundly inspired me since the first time I encountered them as a young composer, but it’s the almost 20 years I have spent as a part of his Wolf Project community for which I feel most grateful.
The Wolf Project, or And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, as it is formally titled, is the epilogue to Schafer’s immense cycle of 12 theatrical works called Patria. Each August, anywhere from 40 to 70 participants gather in Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, on the edge of Ontario’s famous Algonquin Park, for an immersive week of theatre and music, ritual and silence, togetherness and isolation. This project began more than 30 years ago, and since that time more than 200 people have participated in it.
Poets, dancers, musicians, storytellers, composers and many others all add their expertise to the experience. However, we are all encouraged to step out of our comfort zone, too.
There is no audience, except ourselves. Schafer felt that “something profoundly unhealthy had happened to art during our time” and the Wolf Project began as his attempt to do something radically different. “First, exaltation,” he writes, “Let us speak of that. The change that occurs when we are lifted out of the tight little cages of our daily realities. To be hurled beyond our limits into the cosmos of magnificent forces.”
The Halliburton Forest is a rich wilderness, home to loons, deer, moose, beavers, bats, wolves, owls, coyotes and black bears. We camp in tents and returning to this wild place year after year with a slowly evolving group of humans has allowed for the creation of a unique set of rituals and stories that are directly attached to the land.
Schafer’s script is centred around the complex mythology developed throughout Patria, and focuses on reuniting the main characters of And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon and The Princess of the Stars. Over the decades, Schafer has invited many creative voices to add to the script, calling it a “co-opera.” During the week, participants are encouraged to bring their own contributions to the forest encounters and to the nightly campfires. Poets, dancers, musicians, storytellers, composers and many others all add their expertise to the experience. However, we are all encouraged to step out of our comfort zone, too. Everyone sings, even if they don’t know the notes. Composers become poets, teachers become actors, poets become camp directors, and clarinetists collect drinking water from a canoe in the middle of the lake.
Nature, and the natural soundscape, was incredibly important to Murray. Throughout the week, despite a busy schedule of rehearsals and camp duties, we collectively gather and pause every day to acknowledge both the sunrise and sunset. In this setting, nature often has the final say in how events will unravel. Over the years we have performed the two-hour long operatic finale to the project in pouring rain, under blue skies, with light drizzle, in strong winds, under cloudy skies, and enveloped in punishing heat. One year there was even the threat of tornados in the forecast, but we voted to go on with the show.The Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve is the site of the annual gathering of Wolf Project participants. (R. Murray Schafer’s Wolf Project/Facebook)
And in the end we are changed. As we pack up our tents and bring down our tarps, as we load the canoes again and begin our journey homeward, we feel the hold that this place and this experience has on us, and saying goodbye is difficult.
Murray continued to attend Wolf week well into his 70s, but at some point was only able to come for the final day of performances and celebration. Eventually his health prevented him from making the canoe journey across Wildcat Lake at all, but he still welcomed us at base camp. This is where I last saw him, in the summer of 2016. His memory was noticeably diminished, yet when a group of us began to sing a favourite chant he joined in and led us with all of his usual vigour and command.
Thinking of Murray today, my mind returns to the final night of the Wolf Project. On this night we gather for a special campfire filled with humour and parody. Many skits feature “the man in the purple pants,” as Murray is affectionately called because of his brightly coloured rain pants, or “Murky Schemer,” another nickname given to us by AutoCorrect. Some of these performances are the best of the week, and I will always remember the deep vitality in Murray’s laughter when he appeared at the centre of a joke.
Gradually the energy of the campfire dies down, and we move to the edge of a high cliff overlooking the lake. Out of the silence we hear the first undulating tones of the Princess’s aria, for soprano voice. She is singing from a canoe on the water. Her voice echoes majestically off the surrounding hills. The music is at once intimate and distant. As the canoe is slowly paddled to the far shores of the lake, we become very still, straining to listen. The echoes are now louder than her voice. In the end we cannot tell when the piece is over because the music remains in our ears long after it has stopped.