“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language" Henry James
“Oh, the summer night, Has a smile of light, And she sits on a sapphire throne.”Bryan Procter
“Music is the healing force of the universe.” Sun Ra
THE SUMMER SOLSTICE
This week summer officially arrived-the solstice comes on June 21st. The summer solstice occurs at the moment the earth's tilt toward from the sun is at a maximum, and on the day of the summer solstice the sun appears at its highest elevation with a noontime position that changes very little for several days. It is the day with the greatest amount of sunlight-the longest day of the year in our hemisphere. We often celebrate it in various “unofficial” ways. We take days off from work, go to ball games, have BBQ’s, hang by the swimming pool and engage in other leisure activities. Schools are out by then, so it can also be a time for families to be together. Historically, though, the summer solstice has been an extremely important marker to humans. Yes, there were celebrations and dances and feasts in many cultures, but they were about much more than just fun. They were about the cycle of the universe and our connection to and our dependence on how that cycle was happening. It was a holiday, but it was often a holiday in the original meaning of the word: a “holy day.” The observations were a tribute to the connections between humans and something much greater than human.
In Ancient Egypt the summer solstice was especially important because it heralded the coming of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Shortly after Sirius arrived each year, the Nile would overflow its banks and the flood season would begin. The Egyptians relied on Mother Nile’s flood to revive and nourish the land. They believed that Sirius was responsible for the flooding, so if the solstice arrived on time Sirius would make its appearance at the right time. In fact, they set their calendar based on the star’s arrival in the night sky; as soon as the priests saw Sirius planting season and the New Year had begun. And it was the solstice that announced that. (Sirius, by the way, was also known as the “dog star”, hence the dog in the logo for Sirius Radio)
Many other cultures also linked the summer solstice to fertility and the possibility of growth and life. The Chinese saw the solstice as time to honor the ‘yin’, or the feminine forces IN the universe. It announced the coming of a season of crop growth and nurturing-the earth giving birth. In ancient Greece, the solstice was one month before the Olympic Games, and festivals took place including Prometheia, which celebrated the Titan Prometheus, and Kronia, which honored the agricultural god Cronus. And for many Greeks the summer solstice was also the first day of the New Year. Northern European peoples such as the ancient Slavic, Viking Druid and Germanic cultures all celebrated the solstice with bonfires and rituals celebrating the return of the sun. Their long winters nights were finally over and they could now go about their farming, trading and sailing. In Gaul (France) they had a celebration called the Feast of Epona. This festival honored a mare goddess of fertility who also protected horses. Once again, the solstice was linked to the Earth’s fertility. North American Native Americans observed the solstice with feasting and elaborate ceremonies, many of which were coming of age ceremonies-rituals of rebirth. Clearly this was a universal time to mark a link between us and something celestial, supernatural, and holy.
We can still do that festive marking of the solstice today, although it doesn’t necessarily have to have a supernatural connection. Make Music Philly is in its sixth year of sponsoring city wide musical events that celebrate the solstice with musical performances on streets, in parks, in institutions and more. These performances call on people to get together, recognize the solstice, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, celebrate it by making music at over 100 spots around the city. The key part of this celebration is the group participation. You can be part of a drum circle, sing with an impromptu chorus, play with a pick-up ukulele ensemble, sing with a barber shop quartet or a gospel choir, jam as part of a harmonica chorus, and much, much more. Organized by the Make Music Alliance and Make Music Philly, this city-wide event recognizes the solstice, and celebrates humanity and its unique and wonderful ability to create and make music in so many different forms and styles. The website for information is http://www.makemusicphilly.org/ There you can find listings of events to attend and participate in, directions to get to them, and you can even sign up to present an event yourself. So check it out-get active. So much of our culture these days is watching other people perform. That is great-as a professional musician I love audiences (smile). But it is also nice to participate; to do that uniquely weird and human thing of making and creating meaningful sound. We can open up our mouths or bring our hands together or grab something called an “instrument” or make an instrument, and somehow we get to produce this glorious wondrous thing called “music.” So come on out-give it a try. Find an event or two or three and welcome and celebrate the summer by making music, Philly.