Paul Winter:
turning nature into music

An interview by Tom Knapp,
April 1994

Paul Winter hears music in the trees.

He feels rhythms in the rocks and sees notes in the wind. He hears fantasia in the voices of birds, whales and wolves. "Music is an expression of sound that reflects the beauty of life," he said in a recent telephone interview. "Almost everything in nature does that. I'm broadening the idea of music to go beyond art. It's much bigger than that."

The Paul Winter Consort is a fluid group of like-minded musicians playing a blend of ecological jazz, folk and classical styles. A soprano saxophonist, Winter incorporates a wide range of natural sounds into his own compositions -- not as background, but as integral threads of melody and harmony. "It's kind of an indirect collaboration," he said. "For me, it's very nourishing."

Winter's passion for nature predates the trendy posings of some performers. He began his musical pilgrimage in 1968 after hearing a tape of humpback whales. "I was as touched at hearing their singing as I was at hearing some of the jazz greats," he said. "It's an expression of the soul of the earth."

Unlike many ecological activists, Winter doesn't paint grim pictures of environmental decline. Instead, he celebrates the natural world. "Music-making, at least the way we do it, is the definition of optimism," he said. "There is no pessimism in the wild."

His music is a journey into "the joy and miracle of being alive. ... You temporarily let go of the mental formulation that preoccupies us most of the time, which might make us pessimistic or discouraged or whatever. I think you become aware of larger patterns in life, a large connectiveness. I don't mean to say you simply become euphoric or mindless. It doesn't mean to ignore the problems. But I come away from my best music-making experiences feeling that we have the power to turn things around."

The arduous task of finding natural sounds to use in his music is, for Winter and his consort, a labor of love. "We listen at great length to different recordings to find passages ... that we can play on our instruments," he said. "It's not particularly hard. It just takes a lot of devotion."

An Altoona native, Winter started playing drums at age 5 and the clarinet a year later. He began his performance career with dance, Dixieland and German "oom-pah" bands in his teens. He formed the Paul Winter Consort in 1967 and established the Living Music record label, based at his home in Litchfield, Conn., in 1980.

His quest for unique acoustics and atmosphere take him out of the studio and into cathedrals, up mountains, through forests and down the Grand Canyon's Colorado River on a raft. "I'm really interested in the effect that the wilderness has on people, the exalted wholeness that you feel," he explained. "We need that tonic of wilderness to give us the experience of another point of view." Everything falls into place when he transforms sights, sounds and feelings into music. "I call it an aural visualization," he said. "I take a lot of notes, both in prose and in musical themes. Then I come back to my barn in Connecticut with my notes and my memories and any photographs I might have and try to recreate the experience. ... You just imagine how you might paint that as sound."

Winter's work -- he and members of his consort have close to 40 albums on the market -- is usually shelved in the new age section of music stores. He prefers the label Earth Music. "It really speaks of our aspirations, which are to celebrate the creatures and cultures of the whole Earth," he said. "It's very difficult to describe in words." Whatever the category, his music has found its niche. The consort received a Grammy for the 1993 album Spanish Angel. Five earlier releases -- Canyon, Whales Alive, Earthbeat, Wolf Eyes and Earth: Voices of a Planet -- were Grammy nominees. Winter's environmental efforts have earned him numerous awards, and his 1967 album Road went to the moon on Apollo 15. Two craters were named for his songs. With more than 50 albums in the works, he has no shortage of ideas. "That's the last thing I'm afraid of running out of," he said. "The world is a vast symphony. I have only scratched the surface."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Concert review!