When I’m awake in the darkness before dawn – as the birds begin to sing, and the Earth prepares for the Sun – I feel as if life is beginning again. There’s something magical about that virgin time, when we’re free of our habitual patterns and obligations. My dream of evoking this feeling in music was the original inspiration for Summer Solstice.
We begin playing in total darkness at 4:30 a.m. within the awesome space and acoustics of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We embark on a continuous two-hour musical journey, with players stationed in distant corners or moving among the audience. Somewhere near the halfway point, listeners gradually realize that the Cathedral’s great stained-glass windows are beginning to illuminate. The light joins the sound to carry us into the first dawning of summer.
The musicians this year will comprise a new “summer consort,” with Eugene Friesen, cello; John Clark, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Tim Brumfield, organ; yours truly on soprano sax; along with four percussionists. We will be creating a new stage set and audience configuration this year. The audience will be seated in concentric circles under the great dome, surrounded by the musicians and instruments, including our nine huge Balinese Gamelan gongs, and other large percussion instruments.
For living music, Paul Winter
Summer Solstice is one of the great turning points of the year, when the sun is at its peak and the days abound with the promise of life’s fullness. Traditionally, people have paused at this time to reflect upon the journey of life.
The word solstice comes from Latin sol (sun) and stitium (to stand still). The winter solstice is when the Sun reaches it southernmost point from the equator and seems to pause before reversing its course; at summer solstice the Sun attains its northernmost point and, once again, seems to stand still before turning back.
It was believed that at the moment of solstice, time, flowing in a circle, stopped, before ends of the year were joined. These two great celestial milestones of the year, are perhaps humanity’s most ancient ritual observances.
A seven-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, Paul Winter was a college student in 1961, when his sextet won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival and was signed by Columbia Records. The next year, the band toured Latin America as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, playing 160 concerts in 23 countries. At the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the Paul Winter Sextet presented the first ever jazz concert at the White House in 1962.
Hearing the songs of humpback whales for the first time in 1968 further expanded Winter’s concept of a musical community. The Consort’s rich sound textures give Winter’s Earth Music its unique and alluring quality; sounds from the natural world are interwoven with classical and ethnic traditions, then infused with the spontaneous spirit of jazz.
In 1980, the Paul Winter Consort became artists-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Each year’s Winter and Summer Solstice Celebrations and Earth Mass are among the most popular events in New York. “People get a sense of community – a sense of the whole wide community of life, which is one of the best things we could do with our music,” he says.
Paul Winter has performed in over 2,000 major concert halls, as well as Washington’s National Cathedral, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, the Negev Desert in Israel and the palace of the Crown Prince of Japan. He has received a Global 500 Award from the United Nations, and the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, among others.
The story of the Paul Winter Consort and its predecessor, the Paul Winter Sextet, has evolved during a forty-year saga of adventure-through-music. Milestones include:
Infused with the rhythms and melodies of so many of the world’s cultures, Winter decided in 1968 to form the Consort as a forum for combining elements from various African, Asian, and South American cultures with jazz. “I borrowed the name ‘consort’ from the ensembles of Shakespeare’s time, the housebands of the Elizabethan Theater, which adventurously blended woodwinds, strings and percussion, the same families of instruments I wanted to combine in our ‘contemporary’ consort,” Paul Winter says.
Musicians such as David Darling, Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, Collin Wolcott, Nancy Rumbel, Jim Scott, Rhonda Larson, Russ Landau, Glen Velez, Paul Halley, Dorothy Papadakos, Eugene Friesen, Susan Osborn, Paul Sullivan, Mickey Hart, Oscar Castro-Neves, Nóirín Ní Riain, Jordan Rudess, Davy Spillane and many others have performed with the Consort.
“Ever since St. John’s Day, Dec. 27, 1892, when the cornerstone was thrice struck into the living rock of Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, St. John’s has aimed to be a ‘house of prayer for all people.’ To its great bronze doors have come all the faithful — Christian, Jew, Buddhist, existentialist, best-dressed, lesser-blessed, socially distressed — seeking joy and triumph over the universal demons.
“In the arboreal stillness of its towering columns and arches, they have listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Buckminster Fuller, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Duke Ellington, the Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, Rene Dubos, Thomas Berry, Jesse Jackson, Vaclav Havel, Gary Snyder, Brian Swimme, Secretaries General of the United Nations, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Paul Winter Consort.
“Under the jewel light of its 10,000 pane Great Rose window, they have prayed together for war’s end. Though its keynote is distinctly American, as is that of the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral — affectionately called “Big John” — peals a message around the globe: ‘Peace on earth, good will toward all.’ ”
– Wendy Insinger (from Town & Country magazine)
It’s always been difficult to describe Summer Solstice to someone who’s never attended. So recently we asked audience members who experienced the concert over the last two years to share their “summer solstice recollections.”
They said it better than we ever could:
“I’ve attended both the winter and summer solstice celebrations. I love both, but the summer solstice seems to resonate at a deeper level. The quiet darkness and smaller audience allows you to be more in tune with the music. You feel it throughout your whole body.”
“As my daughter and I found our seats among the hushed listeners, we felt the special peacefulness of the moment and the restorative calm of the dark morning hour. … As dawn approached the music changed with it. My daughter touched my shoulder to turn and see the stained-glass images that began to softly gather the early morning light.”
“From the first single note emerging from the darkness, all my senses are engaged.”
“It was not about seeing. It was about pure sound, the dawn of a new day.”
“I felt myself transported back to our earliest ancestors and their awe as the sun lined up to their sacred solstice markers.”