Wednesday, October 19, 2011


It's almost Solstice!  Yay!  I love this time of year.  I also love Solstice rituals.  I have my own, and sometimes go to other people's.  It's so beautifully cold and crisp and shivery and dark.

Dr. Smartypants and I were talking about rituals recently.  I had gone to an Episcopal church to play a gig, and was amazed by the level of ritual there.  The minister (priest?) bowed every time he said the words "Jesus Christ" and they rang bells and whatnot, the choir processed up the aisle and back around to their seats, and the little acolyte girls lit candles while wearing their white robes. 

I was bemused and perplexed by my reaction.  It was "seriously?  You actually get on your knees?  You cross yourselves?  Then you go and act like you do outside of church?"

We discussed the point of ritual, after Dr. S said that he didn't really have a problem with rituals.  I said that I had a problem with mindless, meaningless rituals.  I thought for a bit, and then said that I thought of a ritual that meant something to me, but would not mean much to anyone else. 

Set the mental stage:
Musicians get dressed all in black (men in tuxedos).  They arrive at the usual time, and get their instruments, warm up a bit in the dressing rooms, then leave all their 'worldly' goods and go to the stage with just the instrument and the music.
The go to the semi-lit stage with the rows of chairs and stands.  The sit in their pre-planned, earned places.  There is a hierarchy.  The audience is rustling around, preparing too.  They have the programs in their hands, and are dressed up, anticipating.  They know what happens next.  Onstage, the musicians continue their warm up, preparing their thoughts for the night.  They are still individuals, but are moving toward unity. The house lights blink, and the audience settles in.  The house lights go down, and the musicians' warmup ends.  The concertmaster comes to the front to the applause of the audience, and the acknowledgment of the orchestra.  The musicians shuffle their feet, the string players sometimes tap their bows lightly on their stands.  He stands, back to the audience, and nods at the oboist, who sounds the unifying A.  This is the moment the orchestra members cease to be individuals.  The concertmaster's back to the audience also divides the players from the consumers.  This is the only moment that is for the musicians alone.  The players all unify into one pitch, one sound.  The audience is in darkness.  Then the conductor comes to the front, again witht he audience applauding and the musicians shuffling and tapping.  He gestures to the orchestra, and they stand, ending the shuffling/tapping sounds.  He is the bridge between music and audience.  He makes no sounds, but controls the audience's access to the sound.

For the next hour or two, the music tells its own story, and the musicians submerge themselves in the greater organism that is the orchestra.  Soloists are heard, but always in context.  The audience hears the total of the music, not the individual elements. 
As the last note is played, all eyes -- orchestra and audience -- are on the conductor, who gestures to end the piece.  There is a beat or two of ecstatic silence, during which time stops.  The sounds of the recent past are hovering in the mind's ear, and all are joined by the music-full silence.  No one breathes.  Then the conductor's baton lowers, and the spell is over, the circle is broken.  The orchestra stands one last time as a group, as a family, as an organism.  The conductor bows, the audience applauds, and the individuals are released from their covenant.

The lights go up.  The audience breaks into a thousand smaller pieces, all stretching, chatting, becoming individuals again.  The orchestra disassembles their instruments, thoughts returning to family, dinner, bills, dogs, dishes.  They remove their uniform black clothing, donning again the garb of everyday individuals.  They break apart and fan out, each to his or her own path. 

This ritual is significant to me, as are all of its smaller incarnations.  Each step is as vital as the candles being lit or the choir processing to their seats.  There may be no incense, but there is a odor of sanctity.  The smell of rosin on bows, of the wooden stage under the spotlights, the leather music folders.  There is no raising of sacred vessels, but there is the tap of the white wooden baton, the shuffle of feet, the hum of the percussionist to the timpani to check intonation.  There is the scrape of a cellist re-positioning her peg on the floor, the whisk of the swab in the clarinet in long rests. 

This is the ritual that means something to me.

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