Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Wolf howls and seal barks become a concert in Paul Winter's hands

For Paul Winter, preparing an environmental-impact statement means hauling out kettledrums and saxophone.

Winter and his group, the Paul Winter Consort, are part musicians and part environmental activists. They believe in taking audiences on what Winter calls ''an advance into the wilderness.'' Such wilderness trips mesh wolf howls and eagle cries, whale bellows and seal barks - while the group's symphonic, jazz, Latin, and African instruments create a vibrant folk-jazz sound.

About these ads

Winter's aim is ''keeping nature in front of people in some way'' by leaving an impact on people through the voices of animals. This philosophy rapidly drew applause from environmental groups, and as far back as 1973 they've been asking him to do benefit concerts.

''We all began to realize,'' he explains, ''what an impact music has as a means of carrying a message about endangered species or habitat.'' To Winter, his music serves as a ''joining force,'' rousing public sentiment and ''awakening a spirit of involvement,'' a statement perhaps more visceral for many people than, say, an ad hoc political committee.

Most environmental groups would agree that Winter's music has left an impression on the public. Last month, for instance, he received the annual Joseph Wood Krutch medal from the Humane Society of the United States for his ''significant contribution towards the improvement of life and environment.'' Praising his music as the sound of the new age, the Humane Society calls it a binding force between man and nature.

Winter turns the stage into a soapbox. When he points out the plight of endangered sea otters off the California coast, his statement is followed by a simple song in which instruments mimic the gentle chatter of sea otters.

To get such sounds, Winter has floated in a raft off the coast of British Columbia and let the whales ''sing'' to him. High in the Sierras, he once serenaded wolves with his saxophone until they replied.

These sounds eventually culminated in his own musical descriptions of animals , ''the motion of a wolf on the run or a whale diving down'' - music that Winter explains comes from the depth of his thought.

From his studies have come sensitive pieces. They speak of missing links barely remembered in the tickings of a technological world - the simple, lonely, often haunting sounds of the wilds. For example, Winter has composed ''Wolf Eyes ,'' where the wail of a saxophone intermingles with the howl of a wolf, and ''Ocean Dream,'' a mental transport to a distant world of whales and waves.

About these ads

Earlier pieces, though devoid of animal recordings, carry this same force. ''The Whole Earth Chant'' is a rich, instrument-laden piece - kettledrums thunder, percussion soars, and the earth seems to break open with life.

Winter has now moved in a new direction - his latest album called ''Missa Gaia'' (Mass for Mother Earth), which he refers to as ''a statement about all of us in our sacred connection to the earth.'' The album, recorded at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, evolved from a request made by the dean, ''a very adventurous man,'' according to Winter, who asked him to create 20th-century music for his service. The result is a sensitive mixture of pipe organ, choir, vocals, wolf howls, and whale songs dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi to commemorate his 800th birthday.

Ultimately, Winter says, the purpose behind all of his music is to awaken people to the music within themselves. ''All animals express themselves, not just the ones that have taken lessons,'' he explains. ''The motto I love about that was said by Henry David Thoreau: 'That the woods would be silent if the only birds that sang were the ones that sang the best.' ''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.