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November 2004
Celebrating the Solstice with Earth Music
The Satya Interview with Paul Winter

 

Award-winning saxophonist, bandleader, composer, explorer of the world’s musical traditions and founder of Living Music and the Paul Winter Consort, Paul Winter has been motivated for the past 30 years by the vision of a musical-ecological community, and has followed a steady course toward his unique ‘Earth Music,’ a vital celebration of the creatures and cultures of the Earth.

Paul Winter’s musical realm has long embraced many of the world’s cultures and elements with the extraordinary voices from what he refers to as “the greater symphony of the Earth,” including wolves, whales, eagles, and other species of ‘wilderness musicians.’ Longtime animal activist Kelley Wind spoke with Paul Winter about his music and the upcoming 25th anniversary performance of the Winter Solstice Celebration at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

What was your first Solstice Celebration like?
It was quite joyous. I’d say it was a revelation to many of us there that night, because it was one of the first times we’d played in the cathedral. I think it was the first time a celebration like this had taken place there. Everybody was quite thrilled with the dynamics. The cathedral is an amazing acoustic and visual space.

How has it changed over the last 25 years?
Everything has expanded. We now have half the audience facing the stage from the east and half facing from the west. The number of performances has expanded to four. But the most important change is the make-up of the audience, which has expanded to include a great diversity of people—different backgrounds, ages, and cultures.

What’s it like playing in the world’s largest cathedral? It must feel so momentous.
It still feels that way after 25 years of playing there. Well, the acoustics are extraordinary, and the space. There’s no other building on earth that I know of where I could do this. The only other place that I could imagine would be the Grand Canyon. I mean, this is an unusual cathedral. It’s Episcopalian and very open and welcoming, both in its spirit and in its space. It’s not just the physical space, it’s the spirit the cathedral has.

The original mandate of the cathedral, when it was begun in the 1890s, was to be a house of prayer for all people and so it’s always been extremely ecumenical. There are two giant Jewish menorahs that flank the high altar, and there are huge Shinto vases from Japan also near the altar, it’s very common in any of the services to have speakers from Islamic traditions, from Hindu, Native American, Jewish—it’s kind of a famous interfaith forum. To me the cathedral is an oasis in the western world.

For people who don’t know about the Blessing of the Beasts at the cathedral, can you talk about that a bit?
This emerged from the Earth Mass that we presented for the first time in 1981. After we were first invited to be Artists in Residence, the Dean of the cathedral asked if we would create music for the mass. I asked if we could celebrate the entire Earth as a sacred space and have our animal friends as celebrants in the mass, and he said yes. We were invited to play in the cathedral because of the ecological dimension of our music. The cathedral became known in the 80s as the “green” cathedral.

I found a seed theme in a wolf howl—a tundra wolf from Alaska—that worked with the words of the kyrie (one of the mass movements), and in a humpback whale song to which we put the words to a sanctus, and a recording of harp seal pups to use as the inspiration for the agnus dei. So these animal voices are the co-composers and their voices are heard throughout in the fabric of the music.

There’s a lot of other music, a lot of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and different kinds of traditions that were part of the repertoire that we brought into this mass. Ever since 1981 we’ve performed the mass as part of the Feast of St. Francis the patron saint of ecology. By ‘85, the idea arose to have the animals themselves in the liturgy so that the climax is a procession through the cathedral led by an elephant, a camel, a llama, somebody walking with an eagle on their arm, another with a 12-foot boa constrictor around their neck, and somebody with a glass case holding a cockroach. Hundreds of animals come through the cathedral of all shapes and sizes to celebrate all of creation. It’s become the most widely attended event of the year at the cathedral. People bring their animals to be blessed during the mass. There’s usually about 4,000 people and 1,000 animals.

Yes, I’ve been lucky to go a few times and I remember that there are a lot of children involved as well, which is always so inspiring to me.
For me as well. My little girl who is now eight looks forward to it every year. A few years ago she got to carry a baby boa constrictor down the aisle. It was particularly stirring to me to see her walk up to the high altar on which were standing all of these tall gentlemen with their high hats and their robes, and hold this little snake up to them with a smile on her face. I imagine some of them would probably hesitate themselves to pick up that snake, but here’s a little five year-old who is totally at home with it.

Your music is so inspired by the environment and animals. Have you always felt a closeness to nature?
My sense is that we all did as little kids. All of us lucky enough to have some exposure to animals as children have an affinity. I think it’s in our genes, as a part of the larger community of life. It’s only with urban civilization that we’ve moved away from that. For me, when I heard the voices of the humpback whales in my 20s, it drew me back to a place or a sense of relatedness that I’d had as a kid.

Are there issues regarding animal advocacy that are particularly important to you?
Sure. All of them. The protection and preservation of wild creatures; the humane treatment of captive creatures. I think this is an era in which animals have come back into our consciousness—particularly wild animals—we urgently need to reconnect with the whole life community. We are the youngest of all 20 million species on earth. Other creatures have wisdom as to how to be appropriate and harmonious in their environment which we haven’t yet learned. And there’s no guarantee whatever that our species is going to be a success story like these older species. We’re nature’s newest experiment, we’re maybe barely into our adolescence as a species and we’re by and large behaving as juvenile delinquents.

Are you a vegetarian? Can you tell us why?
Yes I am. In 1965 I read The Recovery of Culture by Henry Bailey Stevens [published in 1949], which convinced me I didn’t need to eat meat to be healthy. I realized that I had never really wanted to eat meat. I had spent a year in Brazil right before that and often there you see carcasses of animals hanging from hooks in the butcher shops. And it repulsed me. It didn’t make sense to me that we were killing and eating these creatures. But I hadn’t really had the information before then; it was sort of a habit or a given in the culture in which I grew up. Since then, there are many reasons to reinforce or affirm the path of vegetarianism having to do with health, compassion, and the reason that will probably come to be the most overriding reality to many people on earth is there is just not enough land to waste on raising animals to consume as meat. It’s hugely wasteful of land and destructive, and the earth will just not sustain it indefinitely.

What are some of the things you hope your audience walks away with after experiencing one of your Solstice Celebrations?
I think of music in terms of what I’ve aspired to most of my life, what I call “Earth Music,” celebrating the creatures and cultures of the whole earth.

A deeper sense of relatedness to the solar system, given that the heart of the event is the relationship between the earth and the sun. Also, a deeper sense of the relatedness to other peoples in the world because of the different cultures that are celebrated in our music, and different creatures because of the animal voices that are interwoven throughout the event, and maybe a deeper relationship with themselves.

To learn more about Paul Winter and the upcoming Winter Solstice Celebration, visit www.livingmusic.com.

 


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