I was happy to hear that the Choral Art Society has programmed R. Murray Schafer’s “Snowforms” for its Christmas in the Cathedral Concerts, Dec. 3 and 4 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. 

Schafer, a Canadian composer, writer, musicologist, musical ecologist, calligrapher and all-around Renaissance man, is arguably one of the musical world’s most influential figures.

His book, “The Tuning of the World” is the bible of contemporary music, devoted to the premise that music begins with intense and informed listening to sounds of the natural and man-made world that too often are either disregarded or not really heard at all.

Unlike many musicologists, Schafer has written much original and thoroughly enjoyable music.

The last time I heard one of his compositions live was at the 2007 Portland Chamber Music Festival with violinist Lydia Forbes. I was completely enthralled.

“Snowforms,” composed for women’s choir, has as its text nine Inuit words for types of snow — falling snow, drifting snow, snow like salt, etc. — and was inspired by the composer watching a storm at his farmhouse in 1981 and making sketches of drifts.

Later, he took the sketches and traced a pentagram (representing the five lines of the musical stave) over them. “The notes of the piece emerged wherever the lines of the sketch and the stave crossed,” he said.

The drawings were modified as necessary to accomplish musical rather than artistic results, and the whole was printed so the snow shapes were in white on a pale blue background. 

As described by a musician who has sung the work (Jill Teasley), the two parts, soprano and alto, are represented as parallel lines divided into five-second pulses. When the pitch of either part changes, its line moves up or down.

The pitch is also annotated. “At times, each line breaks into sections in which the singers are instructed to divide and occasionally improvise around assigned melodic shapes,” Teasley wrote.

The notation makes for a smooth, soft sound, appropriate for a landscape blanketed in snow. 

All of this sounds like “augenmusik” (music for the eye), but it is not. The soundscape Schafer creates is the epitome of snow, and each section, denoted by the Inuit word, portrays another of its aspects. At the same time, musical values, not the program, are pre-eminent.

Schafer has composed several other “celebrations of natural phenomena” — fire, wind, moonlight, sun — and remarks that:

“As the urban populations of the world grow, the forces and charms of nature are more distanced from increasing numbers of people. But I do not write such works out of nostalgia; they are a very real part of my life.”

Singing such a work, with its novel annotation, is difficult. The annotation merely smooths out and softens the transitions of what is a contemporary score (with its polyphony, sometimes dissonant long-held chords and chromatic passages), but the ethereal result is well worth the effort. Bravo to the Choral Art Society for attempting it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]