For the past fifteen years, on each of the solstices and equinoxes, regardless of weather or fatigue or the consequent obligations of an ordinary life, we take ourselves and an initiate down to a river for a ceremony. At an appointed hour, at dark, we walk past the the gentrifying edges of a residential district in exurbia, listening to the hubbub of the street and the smell of night, and we come to the water. We cross by walking, in silence, single file, on the auxiliary grating of an active railroad bridge. The lights from a nearby restaurant project our shadows into the fog above the river and we move quickly so as not to be seen by the revelers often on the riverbank. We dismount from the tracks, walking on a narrow road through an unlit barren urban outback. We breathe easier here.
We traverse a path, in the dark, below the great highway. The impact of the traffic on the struts above us is amplified and sometimes sounds like gunshots, so we walk with an alert apparent confidence. There is a dark, colossal air about the place that both inspires and threatens and then we turn left and go through a passage under the railroad tracks and up a rocky trail into the woods. The light from the highway no longer reaches the path now and we enter into a dense thicket and climb down a treacherous chute of rocks into total darkness. It is here that the drums that we carry-the djembes, the congas, the dumbeks- become burdensome.
We must carry the instruments down a steep drop and then across another rocky slope and then we gaze upon the immense cavern that lays before us. It is a rectangular aperture in the face of the dark wood and it vents a small stream which falls several feet from a ledge at our shoulders. This watercourse remains visible for only several yards, disappearing into yet another tunnel that subducts the entire landscape we have just traversed. Our objective is to enter into this chamber, without illumination, and to allow ourselves to be led into the heart of this darkness in a state of delirious musical frenzy, generating a massive wall of rhythm that will be powered by an animal energy and by our own inevitable fear. Intoxicants may be used.
We climb onto the shelf of concrete with our materiel and begin unpacking the instruments. Torches are carefully laid against the wall and the sound of tuning ricochets from the deep interior, returning to the ear after a long delay that indicates an immense passage ahead of us. We begin to play, dithering at first, but at an indeterminate moment a rhythmic idea announces itself and we realize that we are beginning. We ask the initiate to lead us in. This request is usually received in some shock by the initiate, so some coaxing follows. They are told that other senses will be used to navigate: the feet are well positioned to feel the uphill, curving trajectory of the space and to countermand the helplessness of the eyes. Water can be smelled and directions can sometimes be gleaned from the breezes that emerge from the interior. Occasionally there are loud explosions and other unidentifiable sounds made by the unfathomable acoustic self-reflections of the space.
We begin. We walk in water throughout the entire journey, playing and walking and feeling our way through the water in the dark space. We call it the Death Tunnel. It runs into the hillside just below the cemetery. Some of us have felt intangible soft things brush up against us in the darkness and some have actually wept and fled from the place in unfeigned terror. Drumming in the Death Tunnel is like nothing so much as drumming inside of an immense ear. Each beat rebounds from the invisible edge of the riddle we are in and seems to fold back on itself. The drummers play at the center of a reverberation. When their rhythms are tuned to the standing wave of the entire, unseen chamber, breezes blow with enough strength to extinguish small fires.
The initiate is now moving forward into a featureless space, feeling the shape of their movement with an alert, catastrophic attentiveness. Their natural terror is disguised and expressed by the music, which is by turns commanding, supplicant, tender, aggressive, and playful. Flashes of light are sometimes seen, but it’s no longer clear if one’s eyes are open or shut. We dance into the mouth of a darkness. Time straddles our dilating eyes and there can be no measure of the duration of our immersion.
Far enough into the dark rock, we come at last upon a mystery that is only explained when we are able to see in a new way. Sometimes this mystery is not even visible. It is roaring and a hot wet breath is expelled in all directions, and further transit is impossible. We devotees now come to a rest and stand in an aqueous uproar. we are singing or chanting or lying on the ground, in a state of mutual amazement, until, at last, an angel of silence passes over and amongst us and our incantations diminish to silence. We turn and begin finding our way back out through the dizzy sepulchrous maze. We sense, with relief and delight, our looming emergence into the outright air, a brightening, and our resuming music reflects this. We return to the mouth of the darkness and there is much jubilation.
A torch is now produced and carefully ignited and we devotees now entertain ourselves with an extravagant display of fiery gestures made in time to the lightlit music we now propose. We proceed once more into the now illuminated tunnel, the initiate’s movements with the burning torch a lucent semaphor for our musical thought- elaborate moving shadows are now cast upon the walls by a blinding light and we find ourselves in a vast curved chamber that arcs away into the distance. We arrive, again, enraptured, at a place of some impalpable weight and we now see the place of our first terminus for the first time. We are in an immense cylinder, a sixty foot high chamber out of some Inca animé. Water falls from an opening high in the roof above, the last glorious plunge of a small creek running through the suburbs, and assaults the concrete floor with an immense roar that almost stuns us. In flood the force of the falls is beyond bearing, but tonight we walk through the roiling until the torches sputter and fail and then we return, in darkness, once again, to the mouth of the greater vessel.
We play a third time, elaborating a theme of our own choosing, enacting it in such ways as are compatible with our spiritual energy, ritual imagination, theatricality, and physical energy and this song constitutes our final ritual offering. Food and drink are now exchanged. Speech resumes.
We stand in the water and pack our drums, and we climb down the ledge onto the rocks and up the slope and back into the woods and down the path and under the bridge and past the highway and over the river and up the hill, blind, blinded, and bardic, rerisen on the wings of our glee.