- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Musicians Kathy and Steven Light at their home in Marshfield
This July, central Vermont will lose two pillars of its musical community when Steven and Kathy Light of Marshfield move to Minneapolis. For the past 50 years, the Lights have enriched the region with performances of a unique range of music: medieval and Renaissance melodies with their ensemble the Fyre and Lightning Consort, Jewish klezmer music with Rick Winston's Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band, and Javanese gamelan with the community group Gamelan Sulukala.
The Lights will perform their last concerts with all three groups over the course of a month, starting with Fyre and Lightning on Saturday, May 6. The performance will feature Steven, who founded the ensemble in 1974; Kathy, who joined six months later; and Ellie Hayes, a member since 1981.
During the concert, Steven and Kathy will play an astonishing array of instruments, which is typical for the 70- and 71-year-old. Steven will perform the program's medieval and Renaissance music on the lute, recorders and cornemuse, a French double-reed wind instrument; for the Galician, Irish and Scottish tunes, he'll play traditional bagpipes and double bass. Kathy will play harp, recorders and a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval folk instrument. She'll also sing.
That will be Fyre and Lightning's final concert after 50 years of performances. The klezmer band, too, will fold after 42 years following its final concert on Saturday, May 27.
Only the gamelan ensemble will survive the Lights' departure. Since they founded Gamelan Sulukala in 2013, Steven has led on the drums and Kathy on the bonang barung, which consists of rows of circular gong chimes. After the Lights' final performance on Saturday, June 3, the 16-member group will be led by Peter Cressy, a percussionist; and Jessa Loranger, who studied gamelan as a graduate student.
Steven is also leaving behind his position as events coordinator of Plainfield Arts, a series he and Kathy started in 2015 in the newly renovated but underused Plainfield Town Hall Opera House. The series, which has since drawn sellout audiences and a loyal following, will continue under the leadership of Karl Bissex and a group of board and community members.
Vermont has been the Lights' home since they met at Goddard College in 1971. In a phone interview, Kathy described the prospect of moving as "heartbreaking, bittersweet. Change is a big challenge."
Steven added, "It's completely impossible to reconcile the pros and the cons." The couple are moving to Minneapolis to be with their two daughters and five grandchildren, who range in age from 12 to 2-year-old twins.
"Maybe it's time for us to go to their stuff," Kathy said. "Our kids came to all of our stuff."
The core of that "stuff" was early music. Steven and Kathy both came to Goddard — he from the Bronx, she from a Detroit suburb — to study the discipline. At the time, the busy campus hosted Bread and Puppet Theater as artists-in-residence and a village gamelan handmade from iron and rolled steel by ethnomusicologist, multi-instrumentalist, teacher and composer Dennis Murphy. (Gamelan Sulukala play a fancy court gamelan that was donated to the college and collected dust for 10 years before the Lights resurrected it.)
Murphy, who died in 2010, would become the Lights' longtime mentor and a member of both Fyre and Lightning and Nisht Geferlach. The last song on the Fyre concert program, "Big Green Tree," is his composition.
The music teacher had an outsize impact on the couple's approach to musical styles. "Dennis' attitude was that music skills are transferrable," Steven recalled. "You want to learn as much as possible, and you don't need to stay in your lane."
After graduating in 1975, the Lights spent three years living with Larry Gordon, a renowned singer and choral leader, on a commune in Plainfield with the memorable name of New Hamburger. They also joined Word of Mouth Chorus, the progenitor of Village Harmony. Founded by Gordon, who died in 2021, the chorus specialized in the Sacred Harp tradition (aka shape-note music) and Renaissance music. Word of Mouth toured with Bread and Puppet Theater; the Lights participated in tours from the 1970s through the puppet company's 1980 performances in England, France and Italy.
Hayes, who plays a stringed instrument called the vielle, recorders and penny whistle with Fyre and Lightning, also went on that European tour; she met the Lights when she joined Word of Mouth in the late 1970s. Eventually, she also sang with Kathy in the women's chorus Anima, played trombone and piano with Nisht Geferlach, and joined Gamelan Sulukala.
Asked about the prospect of Fyre and Lightning's end and the Lights' departure, Hayes, who lives in South Woodbury, summed up feelings echoed by many local musicians.
"I feel like I'm walking to the edge of the world with them. This is their identity; this is what they've been doing for 50 years," she said. "We'll just be happy if we can get through the concert without falling apart."
"It's a very bittersweet feeling," agreed Winston, who lives in Adamant. The 75-year-old Goddard alum met Steven in Murphy's gamelan class.
"Everybody's gone through having good friends leave, but [the Lights] are such an important part of the community here," he said. "And their efforts to resurrect the Plainfield Opera House have been very successful and very appreciated."
Winston founded Nisht Geferlach in 1981 (the same year he cofounded the Savoy Theater in Montpelier), when the organizer of the now-defunct Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival expressed concern that she had programmed Polish, French Canadian and Italian groups but no Jewish music. Winston, who grew up with Yiddish-speaking grandparents in Yonkers, N.Y., rounded up the Lights, Murphy, Hayes, Anne Zuckerman, and native Yiddish speaker and singer Avram Patt to form a klezmer band.
"We thought we were just getting together for this one job," Winston recalled. While the band's members have changed over the years, the Lights have remained stalwarts. They play trumpet and clarinet, the melody instruments.
Winston called both Steven and Kathy "devoted" music teachers. Steven taught music at what is now Northern Vermont University in Johnson from 2006 to 2021, a career that overlapped with his 32 years of teaching instrumental music at Hazen Union School in Hardwick until 2012. Kathy taught music at the pre-K-12 Cabot School, Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex and Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury. At Hazen, a junior and senior high school, she taught chorus for 12 years.
"They influenced generations of Vermonters," Winston noted. The Brian McCarthy Jazz Orchestra's eponymous saxophone player, who often plays with jazz great Ray Vega, learned his instrument with Steve at Hazen. And Andy Gagnon, the Stowe schools' instrumental music director, studied voice with Kathy and instrumental music and composition with Steven.
The Lights' teaching abilities particularly struck M.T. Anderson, a National Book Award-winning author who lives in East Calais and has played in Gamelan Sulukala since 2014.
"They really understand what it's like to learn. They're extremely good at gently ushering people forward," Anderson said.
And, he added, they have a good "sense of management," a useful talent when leading a community group that has included everyone from teenagers to people in their late seventies. Members' concerns can be equally wide-ranging, from Anderson's self-confessed musical "snobbery" — he has written books about Dmitri Shostakovich and George Frideric Handel — to a former member's tendency to knit during performances when she got bored.
"They find ways to bring together different levels of expertise and engagement and form a community out of it," Anderson said of the Lights. "There's an incredible generosity to them. They really do give everything for the community."
At the Gamelan Sulukala concert on June 3, he added, "We're all going to be in tears."
Fortunately, the Lights aren't gone yet. As Hayes said, "They'll be around for the next couple months, and we'll make the most of it. If they were leaving tomorrow, it would be horrible."