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Parting … Such Sweet Sorrow: Nisht Geferlach and Gamelan Sulukala to Play Once More With the Lights
It’s a parade of lasts. Not tragic lasts; perhaps they’ll even be joyous ones if we can celebrate what we’ve had more than regretting what we’ll lose. One of these “lasts” — the final one, a concert by the Goddard Gamelan Sulukala on Saturday, June 3, at 7 p.m., at Goddard College’s Haybarn Theater in Plainfield — won’t actually be a last, but it will be poignant nonetheless. For the gamelan concert, like the recent (May 6) show by the Fyre and Lightning Consort in Plainfield and the upcoming performance on Saturday, May 27, by the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band (7 p.m. in Montpelier’s Unitarian Church), will constitute a farewell to Marshfield musicians Steven and Kathy Light. They have for 50 years been an intrinsic part of a musical community like none other, arguably birthed in Plainfield but widespread now in central Vermont. It has been an incubator, a safe space for musical invention — with the countervailing detail that these explorations have been, mostly, into the past, not the future. In the instances noted above, “early music” as presented by the Fyre and Lightning Consort includes compositions a thousand years old, from medieval and Renaissance Europe, plus other veins of musical history; Indonesian gamelan music, dating, some say, to the eighth century CE; and klezmer music — a Yiddish contraction of the Hebrew words “kley” for instrument, and ”zemer” for song. Klezmer, comparatively, is a spring chicken, its Eastern European roots traced merely 500 years into the past. (Roots, though, are subterranean and penetrate to depths beyond our cognition). These form the substance of the innovative musical community that has nurtured Kathy and Steven Light since they arrived as Goddard students in the 1970s, and which they in turn have nurtured, expanded, and shepherded forward. Almost unthinkably — yet totally understandably — they are preparing to move to Minneapolis, close to their children and grandchildren.“What we have here in this community,” Kathy reflects, “has made it possible for us to do all the things we’ve done and loved. And I include singing in Anima; I include the Onion River Chorus; and Word of Mouth, the Bread and Puppet Theater, and then, of course, Fyre and Lightning, the klezmer band, and the gamelan. All these things would not have flourished in many places. So I feel a lot of gratitude and poignancy in that.” The Fyre and Lightning Consort has come to an end. It was a wisp of an idea when Steven Light responded to an ad in the newspaper, early in the 1970s, from a Northfield resident. “Hey!” Steven paraphrases from memory. “Anyone interested in playing recorders together?” He was. “I had been super-interested in early music since I was in high school, and while I was a student at Goddard I also studied a lot with early music people in Boston.” He went on to earn a master’s in fine arts in Early Music Performance from Sarah Lawrence College in 1980. (Both Steven and Kathy are now retired from careers in music education.) So he replied to the ad, and eventually a quintet gelled that became Fyre and Lightning. Its founding members included Dennis Murphy, a sometime Goddard faculty member with a doctorate in ethnomusicology, who figured prominently in virtually every brainy experiment in the Plainfield/Marshfield musical test tube. Kathy joined, too, and Ellie Hayes — almost as omnipresent as Murphy — moved up from Boston, and the consort’s instrumentation swelled far beyond those incipient recorders. (Think lutes, violas de gamba, vielles, harps, hurdy-gurdies …) Fyre and Lightning lasted 49 years, but had scaled back to a trio — the Lights and Ellie Hayes (Murphy died in 2010) — for their final concert on May 6. Hayes saw it coming. “Kathy sent me an email, around October, saying she and Steven had big news. I guessed it immediately, ‘You guys are moving, right?’ “It’s hard. It’s been a really precious time with them the last few months” The Goddard Gamelan Sulukala, alone among these three bands, will survive the departure of the Lights. The term “gamelan” refers to a defined collection of primarily percussive, resonant instruments; it must therefore be staffed by a sufficient number of people to play them. Thus, the loss of two — even though the Lights are co-directors of the group — is not a death knell. Ellie Hayes, one of the dozen or so remaining, says others will assume leadership after the June 3 performance. Gamelan exists in Vermont because Dennis Murphy created one, at Goddard in the 1960s. “He built the first ‘village-style’ gamelan anywhere outside of Indonesia,” Kathy Light explains. (The alternative “court-style” gamelan is, predictably, grander and more ornate.) The gamelan used by Gamelan Sulukala was donated to Goddard College, but it disappeared into the college’s bowels until the Lights discovered it 10 years ago. They set about rehabilitating the instruments, and were able to recruit players, some of whom hearken back to the early days with Dennis Murphy. Gamelan players sit individually before their own aggregations of gongs, pipes, and tubes, mallets in hand. Their music is staid and tightly coordinated, but the sounds linger hauntingly in the ear. “We play a combination of newly composed American gamelan music and traditional Javanese music,” says Kathy. Their June 3 au revoir performance probably has the Lights wondering if there are gamelans to be found in Minneapolis. But first comes the final concert by the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band! There is nothing “staid” about their music — which is not to say that every soaring, exuberant tune compels its listeners to get up and dance, although that is klezmer’s reputation. The slow tunes are beautiful and layered and summon a reflective atmosphere that no American musical styles can capture. It’s Jewish, Eastern European music (Ukraine, Poland, and Romania figure prominently). It’s also diaspora music, which in the U.S. means it reflects the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Yiddish culture in New York City’s then-bustling Lower East Side, with a dash of Dixieland thrown in. Rick Winston, of Adamant, plays accordion in the band and has this observation about its magnetism. “I think in Western music we all grew up with the orientation that major [keys] equals happy and minor [keys] equals sad. Klezmer and other modalities from that part of the world are proof positive that minor keys can be quite joyous, quite soulful, and incredibly expressive.” In 1981 Winston was serving jury duty with Karen Lane, who was involved in organizing entertainment for Barre’s Ethnic Heritage Festival. Lane asked Winston if he could help fill a void by recommending or rounding up some Jewish musicians. Her timing was exquisite. Like blues, bluegrass, and Cajun music, klezmer was experiencing a rediscovery, and Winston, host of a folk-oriented radio program on WDEV, was clued in. He even had source material, if he could find the players to learn it. And so he did. Steven Light could play the trumpet, and Kathy the clarinet. Ellie Hayes could play trombone. Dennis Murphy could play bass and tuba, and Winston the accordion. Then there was Avram Patt, of Plainfield (now of Worcester). Patt wasn’t a musician, but he was a music enthusiast and a first-generation American who grew up speaking Yiddish at home. His parents were true to their roots and the culture lived within him. Patt would serve as emcee, singer, and storyteller. They practiced three times and went on, with trepidation. The wind blew their music stands over and their sheet music fluttered away. But people wanted to hire them! Patt bought some used drums and became a solid percussionist. Membership shifted a bit, but the core of Winston, Patt, Murphy, and the Lights studied the idiom, evolved, traveled widely in the region, and became a Vermont phenomenon: the state’s only klezmer band. (In 2015, five years after Murphy passed away, this writer became their bass player.) Something valuable that the band members share is their sense of authenticity. Winston and Steven Light, like Patt, are Jewish and grew up in New York City; although klezmer music was largely dormant then, the music’s sensibilities ring familiar to them. Lindner, though not a New Yorker, has a similar connection through his father’s family, and Kathy Light, a Gentile from Michigan, has fully absorbed it. “Having Avram in the group, particularly, is a grounding force,” she says. “That he knows the language and the stories and the songs, and just the way he emcees. No one else could do that. It’s like a legitimacy, an unbroken connection.” For Patt, who has had a varied career in government and leadership and now serves in the state legislature, Nisht Geferlach’s music not only has reunited him with his heritage, it has also exposed and nurtured the diversity that lives here. “I think we have been, in our own way, part of a changing Vermont,” he says. “Certainly there were pockets of Jewish communities in Vermont long before I got here, but the Jewishness of the time was in little, private communities. I’ve made a point of doing Yiddish things more publicly, and I’m already thinking about things like storytelling — anything I might do to keep being a Yiddish resource of sorts in Vermont.” Cultural enrichment has been a great gift provided by Gamelan Sulukala, Nisht Geferlach, and Fyre and Lightning, enabled to a phenomenal degree by the devotion and dedication of Steven and Kathy Light. It’s been fun, too. Let’s savor it while we can.