Music for Wilderness Lake

I love playing the trombone, and I love being outdoors, so when I can do both at the same time, it’s a good day. And although I don’t have to worry about bothering neighbours here, there doesn’t seem to be that many opportunities to actually play outside – by the time the weather is warm enough, the mosquitoes have arrived!

One of the most fun occasions I’ve had to play outside was in May, 1993. I, along with eleven other trombonists, was hired to take part in a performance of R. Murray Schafer‘s Music for Wilderness Lake, as part of the Scotia Festival of Music. Schafer himself was there as composer in residence, so that made it even more exciting.

Our performance took place at Long Lake in Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia, with Camp Kidston as our base of operations. Music for Wilderness Lake is in two parts: “Dusk” and “Dawn”, which are meant to be performed at – you guessed it – dusk and dawn! This meant that both performers and audience were required to sleep overnight, and as you can see in one of the photos, tents dotted the camp. In fact, I don’t even think we bothered with “sleep” – there wasn’t much point going to bed when we all had to be in position around the lake by 5:30 AM – and I had to canoe to my spot! I remember that one resourceful trombonist (let’s call him Jim) had the presence of mind to bring beer, and sold it out of the trunk of his car!

For the performance, the twelve trombonists spread out around the lake, and respond to some cues as they hear them. Because of the distances involved, no two performances will be the same, and depending on where the listener is located, nobody hears the same thing. Some of the cues were visual and were directed by Schafer, who positioned himself on a raft in the middle of the lake and used coloured flags to indicate certain events. It’s a very cool piece, and very well written for the instrument. Schafer exhibits a thorough understanding of the technical capabilities of the trombone. The time of day, as well as the weather conditions, are an integral part of the music. At dawn and dusk, the air is very still and conditions allow for optimal refraction of the sound waves. This allows one to hear the music very clearly, even at a great distance, and also results in multiple echoes – it is certainly a unique experience. I would love to perform this work again, but it’s not often one finds himself at a lake with eleven other trombonists! I guess that’s what memories (and photos) are for.

Speaking of which, click on the photo below if you’d like to see my set of six on Flickr.


Music for Wilderness Lake returns to a more remote era, to an era when music took its bearings from the natural environment, a time when musicians played to the water and to the trees and then listened for them to play back to them.” – R. Murray Schafer

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6 Responses to Music for Wilderness Lake

  1. Dear Mister Sorensen,
    I was there, and it is has been one of most tremendous experience I ever had. Discovering one of the best expression of the symbiosis between nature and culture ! It was magical listening the brass hidden in the morning fog, with the wild fauna (Canadian elk ?) responding and thus, taking part to the performance.
    It have been so important for me that I included the event in one of my course called Perceptions and uses of the built environment (although it was a natural one), that I give to students in architecture in Belgium.
    I would the the opportunity to ask you if they was any recoding of the event (or similar one). So that I would have the pleasure to hear this again, but also the opportunity to make my students listen to it.

  2. Dale says:

    Nice to hear from you, Jean-Luc.

    The very first performance of Music for Wilderness Lake was recorded by the CBC in 1979, and a documentary film was made as well, directed by Niv Fichman and Barbara Willis Sweete, two of the founders of Rhombus Media, by whom the film was produced. The film is available on DVD or VHS from Bullfrog Films, which is based in the US. You could perhaps try contacting Rhombus Media to ask them where else it might be available.

    You might also consider contacting R. Murray Schafer through his website. He has also written some books about “soundscapes”, or the acoustical environment. A description of his books can be found at his publisher’s website.

    You would be interested in a book called Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.

    I hope you find this information useful.

  3. Robin Elliott says:

    Great blog, Dale. We examined this work and watched excerpts from the 1979 film in HMU240, Music in North America … I should have had you come in to talk to the class! Maybe next year …

  4. Ernie Pattison says:

    I just came across your blog about ‘Wilderness Lake’. I was one of the trombonists in 1979 for the CBC recording. It was north of Bancroft Ontario and we did not have an audience. Your description brings back a lot of memories. R. Murray Schafer had a farm or house close by and we rehearsed in his barn/studio. One of the film makers, Barbara Willis Sweete, was once married to a trombone player herself. I remember part of the soundtrack was recorded using the dummy head with a microphone in each ear to mimic the way a real person would hear things in stereo. There were also individual mics in canoes in the vicinity of each trombone quartet around the lake. And the mist impaired our ability to see the flag cues from the raft. All in all a fun gig. Your lake looks very picturesque. I think ours was more heavily wooded and remote. Thanks for the memories. Ernie Pattison

  5. Dale says:

    A performance took place at Laguna Gloria in Austin, Texas in June 2014, presented by The Contemporary Austin, and directed by trombonist Steve Parker. There are a couple of videos available here, including a mini-documentary produced by KLRU-TV (a PBS station in Austin) for their program Arts in Context.

  6. Dave buckley says:

    My friend Doug Burden played on the original performance and I recall watching it on CBC. Neat.
    Dave Buckley

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