Tag Archives: Winter Solstice

Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.

wintersolstice

Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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A Little Light Music

winterHere we are, well into the free-fall frenzy of the final month of the year, the now super-sized holiday season that appears to be a whopping two months long instead of what used to be individual days separated by weeks of ordinary days. Growing up in my house, there was a a polar oppositeness in the recognition and observation of holidays. Dad was more of a humbug guy and, other than enjoying the fruits of all the womenfolks’ labors that resulted in a cornucopia of plenty to savor, he would have preferred to continue his daily routine uninterrupted by such unnecessary rituals.

Mom, on the other hand, believed in the magic bestowed upon special days. Probably a little too much, but maybe it was her way of trying to tip the balance from Dad’s point of view. Or maybe she just preferred fantasy. The downside of holidays is having too much expectation and always being disappointed in the reality. Between the two of them, she was likely the most unhappy as a result of holiday cheer; and, despite the evidence to the contrary, her hope sprang eternal.

Their children, as an offshoot of this bipolar environment, chose to reject traditional holidays and their underpinnings – much like Dad did – but, rather, decided to find magic in the real as opposed to the fictitious – a healthier Mom. What this means is that we resist the relentless reminders of “the season” and try to avoid the persistent false advertising about the Dickensian ideal of good will and peace on earth. No matter how many thousands of these observations of a single day or groups of days we have, as a species, it seems we are no closer to reaching the more perfect union that the holidays encourage us to seek.

We know from whence it came: we are the primitives in our caves, winter and darkness biting at our frozen digits. It must have felt like the world was ending, the sun sneaking away to warm other creatures that we didn’t know existed over the horizon. We needed some sort of story to comfort us, a way of repeating the fear – of owning it – and keeping in mind that there is hope for the return of the light. It is a primal story, and it has been molded into many variations by different sects; but, even though these groups interpret their stories in their unique tellings, it is still about the light.

winter_solstice

This holiday is about the Winter Solstice, no matter how far afield the explanations stray. It’s funny how a natural phenomenon, so basic and so real and having such immense impact, can be interpreted in such fantastical ways. There is the physical-science explanation; the cosmic, spiritual connotations; the religious-story overlays; the familial-bonding imperative; and the commercialism spin – the Winter Solstice has become a growth industry. All these things exist otherwise, but for some reason the Winter Solstice has had to carry the load, becoming all things to all at the end of the calendar year, and being buried in there somewhere in the rubble.

I celebrate the Winter Solstice as a jumping-off point, an end to one period and the start of a new one, a cyclical reminder of nature and life, darkness and light, beginnings and endings. It is, for me, a time of reflection. A time to slow down and think about the year past and the year ahead. And even though we now know that the light will be returning, most assuredly, we must not take that for granted. Ever. It is the gift for the season and it costs nothing. Happy Winter Solstice to the entire Northern Hemisphere! That’s something to celebrate.

SolarEclipse

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