There is one piece of music that is so imbued with power, so pregnant with history, so…epic…within the landscape of my mind, that it never fails to raise the hackles on my neck and make my vision swim with tears of memory.
I hope you have one of these because for me, when it begins, when I hear it after an age-long absence, I am instantly transported. I am young. I am vital. I am uplifted by the notes. I feel the chill of the dawn air. I hear the notes echo across the decades.
This video was taken this past July 4th, at Cazadero Music Camp, in the California redwoods. It is the traditional 4th of July reveille. played to rouse the campers from their sleep. But I remember when the tradition began.
Regular readers here know that, before I switched to writing as an artistic outlet, I was a musician. Forty years ago, as part of my musical education, I was a camper at Cazadero Music Camp.
“Caz” is situated in a dense redwood forest, trees towering 200′ above your head, their trunks wider than you can span your arms. The ground is soft and padded with needles and bark. Austin Creek flows through the camp, its gentle waters tapping tattoos on the aluminum shells of canoes at the dock. Blue jays flash through shafts of sunlight, and the smell of woodsmoke is in the air.
In my days there, the two tentpoles of daily life were reveille and taps, played by a bugler from the deck of the mess hall, the horn’s clear tones bouncing upstream and downstream to both boys’ and girls’ camps. It was appropriate that we awoke to music and were put to bed by the same, because that was what Caz is about: for two weeks our lives were filled with eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping, and dreaming of nothing but music music music.
To liven things up (and in keeping with the musical forms), we often had variations on the strict theme of the bugle call. Sometimes a trombone would play. Once it was a tuba. One night, a quartet played a bluesy rendition of the tune.
I recall my favorite taps: I lay in my cot, looking up into the growing night. Around me were the small sounds of young men whispering, recalling events of the day, settling in for the night. A blur crossed my sight and I heard the leathery flutter of a bat. But then, a different sound. Not the bugle we expected…. This was something else, something low, something discordant. The drones started like a key-wound toy, three mournful groans rising to open octaves as the piper filled the bag. Then the chanter began, high and reedy, the piper’s fingers embellishing with mordants the opening notes of taps. We all laughed and then shushed each other, wanting to hear. We knew who was piping; Shauna was the only bagpiper in camp, and we could imagine her there, on the deck under the lamp, moths flying above her wiry-haired head as she played. The chanter’s call skirled along the creek, dancing on the waters, bringing smiles to the faces. When she finished, applause and cheers were sent back to her by the same route. And then it was lights out.
But it was a reveille that I remember best. Like taps, our reveille often broke with tradition. My friend Kim, a percussionist, had a bright idea for a reveille that would be legend in the annals of Caz.
It was a foggy dawn, the tops of the trees lost in the mist. The forest was quiet, hushed, sleeping but for a single jay, its jeers echoing from the deep wood. I stretched, rubbed at the dew in my hair, and heard an unfamiliar sound: the low, puttering exhaust of a truck. What were the “utility” boys doing up at this hour? I rolled over just as the tympani and tam-tam struck their first blows.
We were up, all of us, before the trumpets hit their third note. In the clearing of boys’ camp was a group of brass players; trumpets, trombones, French horns, tuba. On the ground behind them, the tam-tam player with his felt mallet, and behind that, in the bed of the utility pickup, my friend Kim and his tympani.
We all stood at the rails, grinning as the players puffed steaming breaths into their horns, filling the forest with Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Triads flew, crescendos built, and when the piece reached its rumbling peak, I found tears in my eyes. When the piece was done, our whoops followed. Then, without a word, the troupe packed up and moved off to repeat the performance down at girls’ camp.
It was the only time during my summers at Caz–as camper and as counselor–that I heard the “Fanfare” performed for reveille, but in the decades since, it seems to have become a 4th of July tradition.
I heartily approve.