Friday, September 25, 2009

RiverSing (Cambridge MA)

Sept. 20, 2009

RiverSing was an unexpectedly poignient, 'by the people' ritual-cum-festival that I literally stumbled upon. I'd been driving indecisively around Harvard Square, debating between finding a cafe to sketch in or going back to the apartment to blog, only to find that the road I'd turned onto -the major road I'd turned onto, one of the only roads I recognized in the entire city and which I was quite sure had not been closed off the day before - was closed off. And it was dusk. And I'd left my GPS back at the apartment. And I was tired of wandering aimlessly and getting lost, which had been the two major activities of my day, and which had changed from Fun Adventures to Stressful Mindfuckery about two hours prior.
So the sight of barricades and police cars did not inspire me to 'make a joyful noise unto the hills' ...except, instead of construction machines or ambulances, there was a large crowd of people on the other side of the street, and as I rolled down my window I heard... folk songs? Next to Harvard??

Sometimes the event you need to find finds you instead. Sometimes, all you have to do is park and get out.

According to the Revels website, "Revels was founded in 1971 by musician, educator and author John Langstaff to celebrate the seasons in performance through the power of traditional song, dance, storytelling and ritual from cultures around the world." It turns out that RiverSing is an annual community event to mark the transition from Summer to Fall, and though it started with a parade and ended with dancing long after I left (I'd parked directly in front of the barricade, and didn't want to get towed), I was there for the singing part, and that itself was pretty special.
So many people were there, families and singletons and groups of friends, all gathered along the edge of the Charles and singing folk and gospel songs and even hymns, right outside, right next to thousands of strangers.
It was the first time I'd been in a city and felt like the crowd had a deeper meaning and purpose than whatever temporal, temporary event was going on, a meaning I could get behind and enter into.
Part of it was the imagery - a large bread-and-Puppet type Summer goddess, the cartwheeling children, and, right as the conductor read a poem about migrating birds, a V of Canada geese winging their way down the river and across our heads, to vast applause. And part of it was the pageantry, the ritual of the evening; the songs and cues and choreographed transitions were created with intention; the artwork and sets all spoke to a common, ageless theme.
Whatever the reasons, the event had a handmade, meaningful feel, and for me at least, it all culminated at dusk. As the sun sank behind the buildings, the conductor, George Emlen, led us in his song "River Hymn." It was so simple, solo verse and group chorus, but you could tell as he introduced it that he was leading us in a ritual. As we sang together, call and response, the crowd's energy turned toward the water in a ripple of awareness as a slow-moving boat gliding towards us, a solitary musician standing silent at its prow. The song continued and the small, illuminated craft floated closer, its bow hidden by a giant golden Sun and the stern bedecked with a blue Moon.
"Now everyone be quiet," Emlen instructed. As the real sun sank behind the buildings, the quiet notes of the saxophone poured across the darkening Charles.
Like I said, sometimes all you have to do is stop driving.

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