Paul Winter is a seven-time Grammy-winning saxophonist, whose sextet was the first jazz group to perform at the White House in 1962. His second group, the Paul Winter Consort, interweaves sounds from the natural world with classical and ethnic traditions, and the spontaneous spirit of jazz. Their annual Winter Solstice Celebrations and Earth Mass are among the most popular events in New York.
(liner notes by Paul Winter)
THE MIHO AND ME
During the many times I have visited and performed in Japan since the Consort’s first tour in 1987, I dreamed of making an album inspired by the culture and natural beauty of Japan. On each visit I made a trip to a different natural site among the many islands of the archipelago: from Hokkaido in the north, where I saw the tanchos (red-crowned cranes) in Kushiro; to the blue-coral reefs of Ishigaki in the south; the giant Yaku Sugi trees on the island of Yakushima; and the forests of the southernmost island, Iriomote, home to the rare and fabled Iriomote wildcat.
I could not have imagined that it would be a museum that enabled me to realize this dream.
One spring morning in 2000 I received a call from my great friend and mentor, the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, Dean of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the Consort and I have been artists-in-residence since 1980. He said there were some Japanese drummers visiting the Cathedral and that I should come and meet them. The Dean’s instincts for connecting people are both legendary and unerring, so without hesitation I jumped in my car and made the two-hour drive to the city, in time to have lunch with the ten drummers. They were members of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble from the Shigaraki Mountains, near Kyoto. They spoke little English, and I even less Japanese, but we were fellow musicians and that was enough for us to feel a sense of common ground. This meeting led to a joint performance, two years later, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for an “Earth Celebration” presented by the Rodale Institute, with whom the Shumei organization has had a long-time collaboration in natural agriculture. In 2004, when the Consort was next scheduled to tour Japan, the Taiko Ensemble invited us to play a concert with them in the city of Otsu, not far from their home base in the mountains.
Our Shumei friends asked if we could arrive early enough so they could show us their museum. I groaned inwardly when I learned of this invitation, since over the years I often found museums to be rather depressing, like repositories of the past. However, I wanted to show respect to our hosts, so I agreed to the invitation, but asked if we could allow just an hour for the museum visit.
After driving several hours to the Shiga region, we began winding our way into the Shigaraki Mountains along narrow but beautiful roads which reminded me very much of those near my home in the hills of northwest Connecticut. Arriving at the Miho Visitors’ Center, I was pleased to learn that we would be making the rest of our journey to the Museum on foot. Following a path that curved around toward a forested hill, we were greeted by a uniquely beautiful bird call, which I later learned was an uguisu, the Japanese bush-warbler. Then we saw ahead the mouth of a tunnel. Our hosts told us that it was sound-proofed, so people could quiet their minds before entering the Museum. This well-lit, curving foot tunnel brought us out upon the most stunning suspension bridge I’ve ever seen, carrying us across a deep gorge. In front of us was a panoramic view of the mountains embracing the entrance to the Miho Museum, which looked like a steel and glass replica of a traditional Japanese farmhouse.
I was about to be humbled, purged of my previous prejudice regarding museums. The Miho is like no other museum on the planet. It is an extraordinary marriage of architecture and nature, totally integrated with the landscape. In every corner of it, every cell of the architecture, and every view from its windows out to the surrounding valleys and mountains, there is sublime beauty. I have never before fallen in love with a building. The antiquities of the museum’s collection come from ancient cultures throughout Asia and represent a kind of chronicle of the human journey of the past several thousand years.
My experience of the Miho was one of exaltation, the kind of feeling I’ve usually known only from places in nature such as the Grand Canyon. The Miho, to me, is beyond a museum, but I have yet to find the right word to describe it. It seems like a living organism, celebrating not only the past, but the present and future as well.
The following year, the Consort returned to Shiga, to play in the stunning 5,000 seat Meishusama Hall at Shumei’s Center on an adjacent mountain across the valley from the Museum. During this visit, our cellist Eugene Friesen played an afternoon solo concert in the entrance hall of the Miho. We began to discover then that the Museum held amazing acoustic spaces. One of these we nicknamed the “kiva”: an extremely resonant octagonal stone room, with a large open-air hole in the ceiling, similar to the sacred Native American kivas of the US southwest. One facet of the octagon is open to a driveway, so that this room can be used for a car entrance in rainy weather. This “kiva” has a similar reverberation time to that of our musical home in New York, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The ten singers of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, who had come from Russia to take part in our concert, sang an impromptu recital of their ancient Russian village music there, and the sound was absolutely riveting.
I became fascinated with the evolution of the vision for the Miho Museum, and the inspiring ideas of its architect, I. M. Pei, who wrote: “The journey itself would have to be part of the experience. There could be no short cuts, but rather a slowing down, a sense of leaving one world and traveling to enter another.” I was also intrigued by the influence of music on his work: “When you look up you might think that this (the glass roof) is a very complex structure. In fact it is not. There is a system to this construction, and the system is based on the triangle. I believe in the triangle because it is the simplest and strongest geometrical construct. Yet one can create great spatial complexity through juxtaposition and combination. It is a lot like the music of Bach. The music of Bach is a variation on a theme and yet what richness he was able to give it! It continues to impress me and influence my architecture.”
It has been a great honor and privilege to be invited to create music celebrating the Miho Museum. The challenge has been profound, to create an album that would reflect the multi-faceted dimensions of the museum, with its interweaving of the ancient and contemporary, of art and nature, and of East and West. And how to celebrate the antiquities with music? As I perused the museum’s exhibits again and again, I became aware of a central theme: that of the eastward progress, over the millennia, of the idea of paradise, humankind’s longing and almost universal quest for a heaven on earth. I wanted to find an array of voices, both instrumental and vocal, from across Asia, symbolizing the diversity of cultural traditions represented in the Museum, which could interplay with some of our western instruments, in a kind of “Miho Consort.” I listened for instruments that have a particular yearning quality, and I sought out “rare bird” musicians whose playing has an organic blend of the wild and the sublime.
I came up with twelve “protagonists” for this musical novel: from south Asia, the sarangi and voice of Dhruba Ghosh, along with the bansuri of Steve Gorn; from west Asia, the voice and sazabo of Arto Tuncboyaciyan; from central Asia, the frame drums of Glen Velez; from Tibet, the voice of Yangjin Lamu; and from Japan, the koto of Yukiko Matsuyama, and the drums of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. Our Western instruments – Paul McCandless’s double-reeds, including Heckelphone, English horn and oboe; and my soprano saxophone – actually evolved from ancient prototypes in Asia.
The seed-theme for the album was inspired by the number “three,” which is integral to the Miho, both in I. M. Pei’s beloved triangle, the seed-cell of his design for the Museum, and to the Shumei community, with their three principal activities of natural agriculture, beauty in the arts, and spiritual healing. The outer notes of our three-note theme form the interval known as the tritone, embracing three whole-steps. The tritone also happens to occur in the scale of the Japanese koto.
The first half of the album is titled “Many Paths to Paradise.” I hear each of these soloists as spirit-voices of the human journey, making their symbolic musical pilgrimages across the vast landscapes of Asia.
The title for the second half is “Shangri-la,” the place of harmony, where our voices come together in various ensemble pieces. For musicians, an organic experience of playing together can be a kind of paradise. And this perhaps expresses the reality that paradise – Shangri-la, Xanadu, Shambhala, Heaven, or whatever you might call it – is not so much a place as a state of being. In the tranquility of the final piece, Morning Sun, with the luminescence of Paul McCandless’s oboe, and the polyphonic interweave of the voices along with the final high tritone by the keyboard, I hear this promise – of a new day, of a world of beauty, and peace: the promise of the Miho.
— Paul Winter
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