Consorting means joining together, associating in a common lot. To Paul Winter it means music in its most communal sense, and along with nature, it’s his passion. He’s a 43-year-old saxophone player with a classical background. For 15 years he has led the Paul Winter Consort, a traveling group of diverse and talented musicians, whose rich sound blends influences from classical to African to jazz with voices both animal and human. Their style? It’s what Paul Winter has called “contemporary contrapuntal Connecticut country consort music,” and it’s hard to pin down any further. Their music is the prototype of a lot of what now passes as “New Age” or “whole earth” music, but unlike many later groups, their music never seemed shallow or derivative; their experimentation was always fresh and honest.
Although the Consort members have changed many times over the years, the over-all quality has been remarkably consistent. One of their best known albums, Icarus, was recorded in 1972 with a Consort featuring future Oregon members Ralph Towner, Collin Walcott, and Paul McCandless. Their unique and ever-changing style scared off even the most adventurous record companies, and in 1976 Winter created the Living Music Foundation. Through the foundation, Winter and others sponsor musical town meetings in New England and music-making workshops around the country, as well as producing and distributing many of their own records. Eventually they hope to release the works of Bach, Bela Bartok, and Charles Ives (all major consort inspirations). In 1978, an expanded Consort met for a summer-long musical gathering at Winter’s country home in Massachusetts, and produced Common Ground, their first album to interweave actual animal calls into the music. It features musical dialogues with a humpback whale, a timber wolf, and a fish-eagle. They continued their work with animals on Callings, a two-album musical story in which the Consort jams with dolphins, otters, sea lions, polar bears, walruses, and five different types of whales. “If I’m able to convey to the indoor city people anything about the wonder of these wild creatures, and about their plight,” Winter says, “I think I’ll do it with their sounds, because it’s the closest thing to the spirit of those creatures that you can experience short of being with them.”
Their new double album, Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) was recorded partly in the gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where the Consort are artists-in-residence, and partly in the Grand Canyon, where they spent some weeks last summer. Their next project, an album called Canyon, will be a celebration of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River area and the Anasazi Indians who once made it their home. Winter is also working on an album which is tentatively titled Song of Russia, which will center around Russian wilderness, music, and poetry. He will be traveling to the Soviet Union in June for the project. The Consort is disbanding, at least for a while, after their current tour in order to concentrate more on individual work.
They were in Chapel Hill last month giving a benefit performance for three local environmental groups. After assorted plane troubles, Winter arrived two hours late, but still before the rest of the band. While the many exotic instruments were being set on stage, we walked through the University of North Carolina campus toward a record store where he was scheduled to do a record-signing. His first impression of the bustling campus was, “Ah, what beautiful trees. How wonderful that they decided to let them keep growing here.” Throughout our talks, his appreciation of natural order was apparent, as was his warmth and poise with others. Back at the auditorium, after some quick suggestions to the sound man (“I’d like the acoustics to make us sound like a classical ensemble giving you a big hug.”), we did our interview in a small harsh-white dressing room. Although it was the time normally reserved for the sound-check and his fellow musicians still hadn’t arrived, he seemed very much at ease, enjoying what he called our “verbal improvising.” In conversation he was open and inquisitive, his manner professional yet sincere. When we got through the rest of the Consort were just arriving. Fifteen minutes later the show began.
They played for a full two hours. They were light and loose, and I was impressed by their attitude toward each other on stage — they seemed both inspired and delighted by each other’s playing — as well as by their respect for the audience. Their mood was infectious. In our interview Winter had spoken about how important it was for the audience to express itself also, especially with sound. “It’s a shared ritual,” he said, “that humans have gotten away from.” Well-coaxed by the music, these human animals were indeed expressive — singing along, dancing in the aisles, vibrating the hall with prolonged wolf-like howls, acting out songs with their hands. The animals were there also, at least on tape, and except for the whale who came on singing twice as loud as expected, they fit in beautifully. Some tunes were merry, and others, like vocalist Susan Osborn’s chant in the language of the Anasazi Indians, were mesmerizing. The music was delightful, but more than that it felt enlivening — a celebration of nature, of harmony, of wholeness.
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: You reach out with your music to touch a common ground in people. What is this common ground and how are you able to touch it?
WINTER: Expression is common to all beings, yet humans, especially in our society, tend to repress it. Music is a great catalyst for unlocking expression. It gives people an experience for a safe forum, at least for a minute while they’re listening to music, especially instrumental music. I say safe because people are less judgemental about musical sound than they are about verbal statements. It brings us immediately into a right-brain kind of functioning. In that space many people who otherwise don’t agree about anything can celebrate together. Yet here they are, sharing an experience of music, in the same way they might share a sense of wonder if they were standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or watching some new-born babies or some puppies, or even all stuck in a subway during a black-out. All of a sudden you’re all sharing something. It doesn’t matter what your politics are or your economic group or your sex or any other differences.
SUN: And the sense of celebration comes from the shared experience?
WINTER: That and the encouragement that music can give you toward expressing your own song. That’s the highest thing we as musicians can offer people, some taste of being in the song along with us. I mean this in specific participatory ways like singing along, or howling with us when we do our wolf song. That brief memory of having been part of the music-making is a real key. It’s that shared ritual that humans have gotten away from, which many wild creatures recreate daily.
SUN: Your music has a strong connection with wildness and nature. Is there a natural music or rhythm you can approximate to touch a common chord in people?
WINTER: You can evoke it and allude to it. You can awaken memories in people of their experience with nature. Sometimes the images in the title of a song will help to awaken that memory, and they can ride on the music as it’s playing like a magic carpet through that part of their experience or their dream events. On one level everything is part of nature. We revere the wilderness as being the “real” nature, even though cities are part of it also, like it or not. Still, the outdoor, wilderness part of nature thrills me the most, because it has an ingenuousness that organized humanity, at least in the Western world, often doesn’t have. There’s a humility and a real open curiosity in the creatures of the wild. You can see it in children too. Something happens after too many days, months, years, sitting in classrooms working only with the left brain. Something happens to that humility and that reverence and that spontaneity. We tend to become a little arrogant and feel that life is to be thought through, that the way to experience the world is through analyzing and understanding it. We feel that if we simply read the right books we can figure it all out. That’s a really naive period of life to be in, and many people stay in it their entire lives from six years old on. After too many thousands of hours in square rooms. . . . (Smiles and gestures at the small dressing room around us.)
SUN: I spoke with an African drummer recently who was playing music in this country with a dance troupe. We talked about how he gets his instrument by going into the forest for several days and with certain prayers and rituals chopping down a tree, carving the drum from it. He emphasized the sacred element in the instrument and in the music it produces. Is there a sacred element in music that’s important to your work?
WINTER: Sacred is a wonderful word, which has been reborn for me. For a long time I associated that word with religion, but in the last decade I’ve learned a whole new sense and context for the word sacred, and with it a whole new sense of religion. My idea of sacred is a sense of connectedness with the universe, of being part of it, and of being at one with it. There are, of course, many ways that can manifest, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with prayerful ritual, although that is a wonderful way to create it. I’ve experienced it first in nature, and also a great deal through music in the coming together that happens for many people. More recently, in the last three years in which we’ve been artists-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John in New York, I’ve gotten in touch for the first time with the sacred in the more traditional forms of organized religion. It’s been fascinating and enlightening. The cathedral there is an enormous wonderful space. The sense of sound and sight you experience in there is awesome. Just walking into this great gothic cathedral transforms people in certain ways. It immediately disarms the left brain. I can remember the first time I went in there. I was spending the whole day in New York, going to all kinds of meetings and things. Really hopping. When you’re in New York you get into that mentality. As I walked in the door immediately all of the stuff that my left brain had been programming just disappeared. I felt completely lifted out of it. The great architects knew the psycho-physical effects that these particular dimensions, the awesome size of the gothic cathedrals, would have on people.
About that sense of religion I’ve mentioned. It’s not a born-again kind of thing, but a sense of religion seen in its most universal context as joining together. Music is a religion for me, as is nature, as are many things. I feel fine making music in any context, no matter what the denomination. We are coming into an age where those chauvinisms about religion are going to disappear. Even the Roman Catholics and the Church of England are talking about getting back together. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury got together to talk about reuniting two ancient formidable enemies. We’re growing up as a species, and one day we’ll stop quibbling about which church we go to. That encourages me. I see music as emerging into the forefront, so that eventually we may have services that are 95 percent music and 5 percent words, because music joins and words divide. In a balance like that the words can enhance, rather than overloading the people so much that they get locked into a posture, living life in a fragmentary way.
SUN: So what are your rituals? How do you create a sacred space in your music, your life?
WINTER: Fortunately at this point the music alone does it. It doesn’t really matter for me whether I’ve meditated before playing, or whether I’m playing in a beautiful gothic cathedral, or whether, like last night in Brookings, South Dakota, we arrive at a dingy little auditorium only 45 minutes before the concert starts — there’s no time to change clothes, you can barely get the sound checked out, nobody has eaten, we get a pizza brought in five minutes before show time — and we play great. The music itself brings you into a place of wholeness.
SUN: I’m sure you’re not sitting in wholeness all the way through a show. What changes in consciousness do you go through while playing?
WINTER: Well, you go in and out of it. There’s certainly no insurance policy about how to hold on to it. I don’t think about it while I’m playing, wondering whether I’m in a space of wholeness or not. It is a slight shift in consciousness. So much of the rhetoric about consciousness leads people to believe that it is kind of earth-shaking, like an L.S.D. experience, or that only after years of sitting can you get there.
SUN: When actually it is much more ordinary.
WINTER: Yes, it can be. I like to encourage people toward the idea that slight shifts can make a huge difference. Even a slight shift, like turning out the lights, can transform how your mind is working. It allows your other senses to get back in the game. It’s easy. Turn out the light. You don’t have to take a lesson or anything. Or you can begin resonating, vibrating, so that what’s going through your being is a sound, be it a sound you’re making on a kazoo or by chanting with your voice or on a cello or whatever. That’s a shift that can also make a big difference and it’s something that you can do easily. There are so many things like that you can do during the day, like doing a sun salutation in the morning — sometimes you don’t have time to do any kind of morning ritual other than that. It’s an acknowledgement to yourself of respect for your body, respect for whatever, and that acknowledgement is powerful. There are days I have at home between tours that are so precious to me. I’ll get up and think that I have to race to do everything I want to get done. Yet I know that if I simply pull back the covers on the bed instead of leaving it unmade, everything that I do that day will have a better chance of being more conscious. My mind says, “Hey, that doesn’t matter. I live alone, nobody is going to come and see how my room looks.” But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it just for the sake of doing something more consciously. Then I find that I can handle many more things that day than I had thought, just by taking each one as it comes and trying to complete it.
SUN: What’s the difference between the Paul Winter playing on stage and the Paul Winter playing his sax at home in the living room? Is there a different quality to your playing?
WINTER: At home I’m much more a beginner. The attitude that you need to go on stage is one of confidence, that there is something you can do for people, that you do fairly well. That’s the reason they come, and what you come with is an expert’s mind. At home I’m looking to develop something much clearer and more conscious than what I’m doing on stage. There’s nothing cocky at all about it, it’s the same attitude I’ve had since I was playing music as a kid. I’m not thinking, “Here I am, a professional. I play this instrument all over the country and people know me for it.” I think, “I am a beginner and I need to learn to play this thing well.”
We arrive at a dingy little auditorium only 45 minutes before the concert starts — there’s no time to change clothes, you can barely get the sound checked out, nobody has eaten, we get a pizza brought in five minutes before show time — and we play great. The music itself brings you into a place of wholeness.
SUN: So if in concert you’re the expert, how do you keep the magic from becoming routine?
WINTER: It’s difficult. The answer is the other people. That is one of the great joys of playing in a group. We get each other off all the time. It’s this paradox that none of us are complete by ourselves and at the same time we are complete within ourselves. It’s an ecology. You have these beings as different in some ways as lions and tigers and gorillas and wolves. Yet these five or six beings in the Consort form a wonderful living, breathing organism. It makes me remember that I’m not a universe unto myself, even though I might be a model of the universe. If I was complete by myself I wouldn’t even need to be here with you. I would just stay on my farm and be a complete hermit.
SUN: What’s the relationship between improvisation and set forms in your concerts? That seems to always be a dynamic tension.
WINTER: It is, and that’s what makes it nice. We love the beauty of set forms. There’s some music like Bach that we’ll play totally as it was originally written. And we also love embellishing upon written works, and also playing music that is totally created at that moment with nothing prefigured. Those are just many forms to work through.
SUN: Do you decide in advance that one song is going to be performed as written and on another you’re going to allow yourself to let loose?
SUN: How do your highest goals as a musician relate to your highest goals as a person. Are they ever in conflict?
WINTER: They are absolutely the same. Music for me is a synonym for aliveness. I don’t know how much better the music can be than the person who plays it in terms of its wholeness or the spirit and aliveness that comes through it. There are exceptions to that. There are people who are revered as being great virtuosos who are bastards in person. But that judgement I make about their personal behavior is coming through a certain set of standards. Within their own space they may be very whole and kind. We can get over-concerned about all of those eccentricities in human behavior. We’re each given a huge complex puzzle of traits, like many facets of a gem, and that’s what makes us unique. What’s important is the process, the growth, working toward full expression. Maybe for some people that means that their social behavior isn’t going to be loved, but that’s how they are.
SUN: So is the highest goal for you becoming and expressing who you are?
WINTER: That’s sure one of them. I don’t know what’s my highest goal. What everybody has, both as a prerogative and as a responsibility, is the full expression of themselves, of the song that is their self. We do it in many different ways, not always through music. So far in this life I have had the extreme privilege of doing it with music, which is something that I came to very early. I feel lucky in that.
SUN: Part of who we are is our animal nature. How do you keep in touch with that part of you which is animal?
WINTER: Our animal nature is quite different from that of a wolf, say, in our habitats, our social interactions. But we do have deeply powerful instincts, just like a wolf, that we rarely get in touch with. Listening is the least utilized instinctual sense by our species in the civilized world. It’s the one which many spiritual teachers feel is the real path to enlightenment. Once again, turn out the lights and find out the dimensions of this extraordinary faculty which we have and neglect as we watch our way through life.
SUN: You’ve worked in close contact with whales and wolves and other animals. Is there anything you can put into words that you’ve learned from them and their calls?
WINTER: I hear so much in the callings of all the wild animals I’ve been with. They’re expressing themselves all the time. They don’t have barriers to expression like we do. I learn so much from the concern they have for each other, the beautiful interaction between them. For example the whale’s song, which travels for thousands of miles in the sea. You’ll see a whole pod of whales traveling north together, maybe half a mile apart. You’ll look out across the sea and see a group of seven or ten of them all surface and blow at the same time, and they’re far apart. They’re in that together and involved in ancient relationships with 50 million years behind them. It’s awesome. Everybody I know who has been with the whales is so moved by their grace and beauty. Our species, which is supposed to be so intelligent, has been here maybe 200,000 or 300,000 years. In that short time we haven’t found our success as a species. These creatures have. They are among the survivors from countless other experiments of nature that didn’t survive. The ones that we see are the small fraction that have made it. We don’t know if we’re going to make it. We haven’t been here long enough to say that we’ve made it.
SUN: Would you like to say anything else?
WINTER: I like to encourage people to make music together, make sounds together. Let’s not even call it music if that’s going to imply to somebody that they have to take lessons or learn to play certain chords or have a certain musical tradition. Just make sounds together as communal beings, with three or four people sitting knee to knee in a room with all the lights out, sharing sounds, using the same instinct for improvising that we use in conversing all of our lives. We improvise constantly in conversation. So just be a little more humble in that here we have a language, these sounds, that are a little different, a little new to you. Say you have an instrument that you’ve never played in your life, say you’ve picked up a cello, and all you can do is make a couple of different sounds on it, maybe thump a little on the body of it, and you’ve got your voice. That’s plenty to share with these other people without worrying about impressing them or doing it wrong. Then just listen to the random textures that happen. You find out quickly that you can feel very much at home doing that.
An important question for me is how can we do things together. We have all of these things that we do alone, we sit in the morning and we do this and that, we stretch and we jog. Like Alan Watts said, “If I did all the things I was supposed to do before breakfast I wouldn’t get to eat until supper time.” But what can we do together after we’ve spent the important time alone? How can we reconnect? This is one of those things that we can do together. We don’t have to have a guide or take a lesson or even speak the same verbal language. It’s just making sounds. We do many workshops around the country, setting it up so people can go on doing it without us. All you really need to do is create that context I was speaking of — find a darkened room and three or four other people who are willing to sit with you and make sounds. You find out a lot. The way to turn it from jamming to consorting is to keep reinjecting the ingredient of silence because that will reawaken the listening. As long as the listening is there, there is mutual respect and it’s a sacred space. All we need do is listen. When we lose the listening and fall asleep into just simply individual streams of sound-making we stop acknowledging each other’s space. That’s okay, we’ll fall into that again and again, and there will be that reminder in the back of your brain that says, “Oh yeah, silence. Let me throw in a little silence.”
Like Alan Watts said, “If I did all the things I was supposed to do before breakfast I wouldn’t get to eat until supper time.” But what can we do together after we’ve spent the important time alone?
SUN: How do you throw in silence?
WINTER: You stop making sound. If each person will offer silence at various times, the listening will stay on as conscious a level as it was in the beginning. In the beginning you don’t know what’s coming. Everyone is a little bit apprehensive, and in that moment you’re as whole as you can be. It’s simply that listening, that apprehension, that brings an alertness. It’s a cross between tension and attention. And that to me is a definition of wildness. It’s not a heavy uptight tension, it’s an alert tension. Wild animals have that all of the time. Their senses never turn off. We, however, make full use of our senses only at times when we don’t know what’s happening. As soon as we think we know we shut them off. We become arrogant, unconscious. And we spend most of our lives that way because we always think we know where we stand. We went to school for all of those years so that we could understand it and go out and get a job manipulating it. Then after years of the boringness of that people begin to wonder what’s wrong. It’s very simply that their instincts have been turned off for thirty years or so.
SUN: Losing their beginner’s mind. . . .
WINTER: Yeah, beginner’s mind. All you have to do to reawaken it is listen.