Winter’s Solstice

Winter’s Solstice

June 8, 2011 Off By The Jazz Messenger

Legendary musician, and Grammy-Award winner, Paul Winter has pioneered music that blends jazz, classical, world and environmental sounds into his brew of what he calls “Earth Music.” For nearly fifty years Winter has traveled the world with his Consort ensemble exploring vast music traditions and spreading his vision, desire and message of a balanced music-ecological community around the globe. His goal with his art and humanitarian message is to create a vital celebration of the creatures and cultures of the whole earth.

As part of this ongoing cause and journey, each year in New York City, he presents two annual celebration concerts on the Summer and Winter Solstice. Both of these shows present Winter’s expansive and current musical chapter and message in a live concert setting which takes place at the stunning Cathedral of St. John The Divine.

As we approach the Summer Solstice, Winter’s theme and music this time around centers on his Grammy-Award winning album MIHO: Journey To The Mountain – a work that was commissioned by the Miho Museum in the Shigaraki Mountains of Japan. Winter and his Consort will debut this complete musical work at this year’s Summer Solstice performance on June 18th while also incorporating a special emphasis on the recent disasters and relief efforts in Japan.

It is rare to find such a dedicated and masterful artist who has richly and successfully combined their music with their passion as Paul Winter continues to do. The annual Solstice concerts not only showcase this effort perfectly but also stand on their own as very special events unlike any other in instrumental music.    

I’m a longtime fan of Winter’s work and recently had the pleasure of talking with him about the origin of the Solstice experience and the upcoming Summer Solstice concert here in New York City. – JV

How did the annual Summer Solstice start?

In 1980 the Consort and I were invited to be artists-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John in New York. I was bowled-over, and asked the Dean who invited us, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton what this would mean. He said, “This means you can do anything you want, baby!”

My first experience at the Cathedral had been in 1974, when I attended the funeral of Duke Ellington. It was one of the epiphanic musical events of my life, made all the more awesome by the titanic space and acoustics of this largest Cathedral in the world. Many Ellington alumnae played or sang; Ella Fitzgerald sang “Solitude,” and that undid me. This was true spiritual music, for me, and it set the bar for what we would do there in the future, although at that time I didn’t even imagine having the chance to play there.

After receiving this open mandate from the Dean, I began thinking about what would be the most universal milestone we could celebrate at the Cathedral, and it had occurred to me that it might be the Winter Solstice. So that December we presented what we called the Winter Consort Winter Solstice Whole Earth Christmas Celebration. The Cathedral was filled, and the event was well-received, so we were encouraged to present a new version the following December. It then it became an annual tradition. (This December we’ll be presenting our 32th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration.)

Over the years the Winter Solstice event evolved till it has become kind of an epic musical pageant with extensive staging, sound system, lighting and a giant sun-gong rising with its player 100-feet up into the vault of the Cathedral.

Sometime during the mid-90’s, during our dress rehearsal night, I was feeling a bit stressed by the complexity of the production with 20 dancers, 10 singers, and an expanded Consort as well as a huge crew, and I thought to myself: “Is this the only way we can make music in this place?”

I knew that my horn – the soprano sax – could be heard anywhere in the Cathedral with no amplification, as could just about any solo voice or instrument, and certainly the Cathedral’s pipe organ could. So I began fantasizing about a totally simple event – with no sound system, no lights, no staging, no printed programs or talking: no show business, whatever. And I imagined it taking place in the early morning, when people’s faculties are fresh and when they might be more receptive to a deep-listening experience.

Imaging this as a polar opposite of our Winter Solstice production, then I thought, “Why don’t we do it at the polar-opposite milestone: the Summer Solstice?” Here we’d be celebrating the longest day of the year, as opposed to the longest night.

When I asked the Dean about an “early morning” event, he said: “Well what time do you want to do it?” and I told him 4:30am. And he said that was fine as long as we finished before the first service at 7am.

We had no idea if anyone would come, so we decided to make it free. At least then nobody could complain. With no budget, the only PR we could get was a Public Service Announcement on the local NPR station. Luckily, we had strong word-of-mouth, and when we arrived at the Cathedral around 3:30am that morning, there was a line down the block. 700 people came. I thought it was the most profound event I think I ever played. So a new tradition was started; and this year will be our 16th Annual Summer Solstice Celebration.

What is the significance of celebrating the Solstice?

The Solstices are perhaps the most inclusive milestones we can mark. Indeed they have been the primary annual rituals for Northern peoples for many thousands of years, from the times when people believed they had a responsibility to participate in the rounds of the year, to pay respects to the cosmos, and light fires, and dance and sing or whatever, to ensure the renewal of the fertile relationship between the Earth and the Sun.

The Solstices are times when we might awaken, even for a moment, a sense of the greater perspective of our journey through the Universe, and our integral relationship with our star, the Sun, which in turn is related to our galaxy, the Milky way, which in turn is spiraling through the many billions of galaxies.

Why does the performance start at 4:30am?

The birds begin to sing around 4:30am at the time of year, so I thought this would be a good time for us to start. I wanted to begin in total darkness so people would have a good length of time to be immersed in a deep-listening mode. Most of us rarely take a vacation from the visual, and fully experience our aural facility which I think it’s an untapped field of play for our imagination, and maybe for our soul as well. In the concert we have musicians playing from different places in the Cathedral, so people have no idea where the sound will come from next. And the music is continuous, with no breaks, no applause, no talking.

Sometime around 5:30am, we all begin to become aware that the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral are gradually illuminating with the first sunrise of the summer. The slow crescendo of light that carries us then into the dawn is more powerful that any effect I think that theatrical lighting could ever achieve, because it’s awakening a deep genetic memory in us. As long as our species has existed, we have been moved by the daily rising of the sun.

This is the first year that you are having a reception for the entire audience after the performance. How did this come about and what will be included?

People who have attended our Solstice events often comment on how friendly the other audience members seem to be there. Something about the welcoming embrace of this great space of the Cathedral, and about the ritual of the shared listening experience seems to evoke an almost village-like feeling among the people. I’ve always wished there were a way for people could then connect with each other, as they are in this mode of exaltation, especially all these stalwart folks who make the pilgrimage to this very early Summer Solstice event.

This year we’re performing music from our new album, MIHO: Journey To The Mountain, inspired by the extraordinary Miho Museum in the Shigaraki Mountains of Japan. It happens that our friends of Shuemi community in Japan, who built this Museum (after engaging I.M. Pei to design it), and who commissioned us to make this album about it, also grow the most delicious green tea I’ve ever tasted, as well as “natural agriculture” coffee from their center in Brazil. I asked them if they would host a reception for the entire audience after the concert, right there in the nave of the Cathedral, and they are delighted with the idea. So they are shipping from Japan enough tea and coffee, and also their “natural agriculture cookies” for everyone, they’ll have 20 members of their New York chapter there to serve everyone. This will also give us a chance to have a table with information about the current situation in the disaster areas of Japan, along with information on ways people can support the relief efforts.

Musically, what do you have in store for this year’s Summer Solstice performance?

This will be the premiere performance of the music from our MIHO: Journey To The Mountain recording. The Summer Solstice Celebration is the perfect context for this music. The unfolding journey in the album, from the contemplative to the celebrative, is a perfect analog to the gradual evolution from darkness to the dawn, in our morning event.

Paul Winter Consort – “Song of Miho” featured at this year’s Summer Solstice.

16th Annual Summer Solstice
Saturday, June 18 at 4:30AM
at The Cathedral of St. John The Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue @ 112th Street
New York, NY 10025

For more information and ticket information go here:

The Paul Winter Consort – MIHO: Journey to the Mountain
Paul Winter

[ Audio clip and photo courtesy of Paul Winter/Living Music ]