What springs to mind when you imagine holiday music? Christmas carols sung around the piano? A choir and orchestra performing Handel’s Messiah or a ballet troupe dancing The Nutcracker? Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang bopping while Schroeder jams on a tiny keyboard? Adam Sandler rhyming Hanukkah, Veronica and marijuanica?
Whatever your biases about seasonal sounds, local musicians Michael Marsolek and Lawrence Duncan would like to add another, more seasonally appropriate, experience to this list, something they call a Musical Dreamtime Journey.
It’s a unique type of performance they’ve been offering in Missoula and beyond for the past five years. Held on a winter evening near the solstice, a Musical Dreamtime Journey combines improvisational, acoustic music with a unique setting to provide a contemplative, spiritual experience that is typically neglected in our hustle-and-bustle approach to holiday preparations. The performances take place at churches or other community spaces. In the center of the performance area, Marsolek and Duncan set up an amazing array of instruments: didgeridoos, flutes, a bassoon, saxophones, drums and percussion instruments, harps, Tibetan singing bowls, bells and chimes, and more. Around this elaborate centerpiece, the audience arranges itself on the floor on cushions or blankets they bring with them (some chairs and benches are also available). Performance is by candlelight, in the round, no children under 12 allowed, and no applause to interrupt the “breathing space” between pieces. These steps are taken to enable communion between the players and the audience and the spirits of the season.
All of the contemporary winter holidays have roots in ancient traditions acknowledging that the winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year. Many holiday traditions attempt to use light as a prophylactic against the dark, though some traditions perceive that the darkness bears its own gifts. Musical Dreamtime Journeys take the latter approach, honoring the dark, cold time of the year as the perfect time to retreat, rest, and renew. This is the polar opposite of the modern American countdown of shopping days and overload of holiday parties and activities.
Duncan describes it this way: “It’s possible to really feel connected to the earth. You can tell if it’s midwinter there’s a kind of movement inward, an inward gesture. We all share it with nature. Where are the leaves? Where’s all the life and growth? It’s gone inside and the same thing happens with us.”
We override this natural tendency at our peril—just look at the prevalence of holiday blues and people overspending and medicating themselves with food and alcohol. If we instead take the time “to cultivate ritual,” as Marsolek says, more in keeping with this natural rhythm, we can finish the holidays serene instead of depleted.
Since its first year, with one performance in Missoula, Musical Dreamtime Journey has expanded to 15 performances this year throughout Montana and into Idaho and Washington. This year also marks the release of the duo’s new CD, appropriately titled A Musical Dreamtime Journey. The process of recording the CD has added another dimension to the musical legacy of the MDJ. It was recorded in the studio, some pieces last winter, others in the spring, and the finishing touches in late summer. The process was for the players to record their improvisations, then select pieces they wanted to include and put them in the appropriate order, adding anything that seemed to be missing (for example, they decided the recording should have a harp solo), and then naming the pieces. They used no amplification, dubbing or special effects, adding only what was necessary to lead smoothly into, out of, and between one piece and another. This contributes to the seasonally-appropriate simplicity and quietude of the music.
There seem to be three different types of energies that the Musical Dreamtime Journeys tap into: what the performers bring, what the audience brings and what the spirits of space and time bring. While the live performances emphasize all three categories, the recorded sessions downplay the second category but emphasize the first and third. The result is a complement to the live performance that you can take back with you to your daily life. While you are probably unlikely to devote undivided attention to listening to the CD, as you would if you were attending the live show, the recorded music puts those contemplative energies into a portable format that you can use as needed during holiday activities, whether you are wrapping gifts, enjoying a hot toddy, or even in your car on the way to the mall.
Duncan and Marsolek emphasize that they will not be “playing the CD” at the events, (even though it is a CD release tour) but the flavor of certain pieces may come up again, through combinations of instruments or thematic elements. Given the intriguing fruits of improvisation that occur in the communal space and time of a Musical Dreamtime Journey, I don’t think anyone could want it any other way.