Interview: Paul Winter (re: Winter Solstice Concert)
Paul Winter’s Winter Solstice Concert is one of the most popular events in New York City during the holiday season and people from around the globe visit the world’s largest gothic cathedral and experience the beautiful lights, music, dance and unique community. The annual celebratory concert is regarded as Winter’s magnum opus and it serves as the centerpiece of his bold artistic vision that began over 60 years ago.
For the most part of your career, you have been ahead of the curve in your vision of a true global community and have celebrated this philosophy in your music and pageantry at the Winter Solstice event. Can you tell us how you arrived at this grand perspective back in the day?
Music has been my magic carpet to the world. During this amazing journey of many decades, my sense of “my world” has continually expanded, till it’s carried me beyond the Earth to an on-growing fascination with the Cosmos as well.
My earliest memory of the alluring power of music is from when I was five years old, in Altoona, and my parents took me to a Shriner’s Dance; and I sat all evening on a little chair behind the drummer in the dance band, transfixed with everything he was doing on the drum-set with both hands and both feet. But I was also fascinated with the people dancing, and how happy they all seemed to be. It seemed like when this music was played, it made people glad to be together.
That experience of community stayed somewhere in me. I couldn’t have known it then, but the seed of my life’s work was planted there, that night.
Musical ensembles became my passion: big bands, marching bands, the local symphony — each of them to me, the best kind of manifestation of community. And then during my college years I became immersed in the jazz community on the south side of Chicago, and experienced the convivial nature of the black culture, and how integral music was to this. Also during those years I was corresponding with fellow jazz fans behind the Iron Curtain, and I was intrigued with how much this music meant to people in that distant, mysterious land. When my college jazz sextet was sent by the State Department on a six-month tour of 23 countries in Latin America, my musical consciousness exploded. I became aware of the rich diversity of traditions in the world, and then later was drawn to return to Brazil in the mid-60s where I lived for a year.
But soon my sense of community was to be expanded beyond that of our two-legged species. In 1968 I heard for the first time the recordings of the songs of humpback whales, and this opened the door for me to the greater symphony of the Earth. It was around that time that I formed a new ensemble, calling it a “Consort” — which means family — as a forum for all the musics and instruments and voices I had come to love. We travelled widely, playing in many countries, and I had opportunities to play and record on six continents.
So by the time the Consort and I were invited to be artists-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1980, our field of play embraced the cultures and creatures of the whole Earth. And the Cathedral seemed a perfect forum for our multi-faceted musical world. I wanted to create an event for all people, of all ages and backgrounds, and I began to wonder what might be the most universal milestone of the year that we could celebrate. The winter solstice may be the most profound turning point in the year, as it marks the turnaround towards spring and new life, and it embraces the entire Earth community.
Regardless of one’s specific religious beliefs, the winter solstice is an open spiritual celebration of the season. Can you talk about the significance of the (spiritual) openness as it pertains to the solstice event?
Winter solstice may well be the most ancient and universal ritual celebration in the lives of northern peoples of the Earth. Traditionally it is a celebration of light — of the return of the sun and the rekindling of fire in our hearts. The candles of Hanukkah and on Christmas trees are kin to the fiery rites of old that celebrated the miracle of the Earth’s renewal.
As we now come into this darkest season of the year, as days grow colder and the December nights get longer, people feel a deeper yearning to connect, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of community. This is what happens when something huge looms over us all, and overwhelms our separateness, and we begin to feel more a part of one world. In this context, our compassion comes forth. Thus this season of giving, and forgiving. We come in from the cold; and the fire — of warmth, light and love — become more precious to us.
The Cathedral of St. John The Divine is just as much a part of the Winter Solstice celebration and show as the music, musicians and dancers. For someone who has never set foot in that structure, can you explain how you use the facility for the solstice event and why it is such a special place especially during the holiday season?
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a uniquely welcoming, open-hearted and open-minded temple. It is like a forum for all humanity, and — with our annual Earth Mass and its procession of animals — for all species. The mandate of its founders, in the late 19th century, was that it be a house of prayer for all people. So this heritage makes it a very appropriate home for a universal event such as the Winter Solstice Celebration. The size of the Cathedral also invites a performance on a grand scale. The length of two football fields, and tall enough to contain the Statue of Liberty, it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the most spectacular performing space in New York City. The feeling of exaltation I get, playing in the Cathedral, is something I’ve experienced in only one other space: the Grand Canyon. And what is most special to me about the Cathedral is not just the spectacular space, but the acoustics, with its seven-second reverberation time. I dreamed of an event here that would be beyond a concert, that would give people a participatory kind of experience, one that would reawaken spirit, just as the sun itself symbolically is renewed at solstice time.