The Garden Soirée: Communal Transcendence / by Sam Abelow

Robin and Madeline jamming at the Garden Soirée

Robin and Madeline jamming at the Garden Soirée

Five years ago I traveled to Peru and did Ayahuasca with a shaman in the Amazon Rainforest. I realized in that experience that my tendency towards mysticism and altered states of consciousness would always be a part of me. However, my mission would be learning and sharing ways to access psychedelic and unusual states of consciousness naturally, without the use of substances.

A Brief Background

The other realization I had, while briefly living in the jungle with a broad range of people from around the world, was that the reconfiguration of social conventions had radically altered people’s behavior. With these rules somewhat suspended, people’s personalities became much more varied; I saw people activate in primal, or elemental ways. For example, I witnessed a group of adults strip down and dance in the rain, their feet muddy, like children. The notion that a slight change in the social context can unleash a truth of the human personality has stuck with me.

I attended a Holotropic Breathwork workshop at Kripalu with the creator of the method, Stanislov Grof. We employed his technique in which breath and loud music produce an LSD-like effect. This experience reinforced the observation that a series of tweaks in the rules of social engagement could shift people’s behavior dramatically.

My sojourns into mystical states of consciousness were most often done alone, but the desire to share my inventory of techniques and interests remained. Certain experiences with New Age style drum circles compelled me to contemplate further how I might provide a context in which, without drugs, all sorts of identities and personality types could commune within.

Meanwhile, a rich fantasy revolving around the idea of Morocco, Jerusalem and other ancient Arab and North African countries stayed with me for quite some time. I saw my fantasy as an oasis of relaxation and of paradise: lounging on pillows beneath a tent, the smell of frankincense and vibrant fabrics. Mediterranean food is also a favorite of mine.

The Symbolist Soirée

This all crystallized when, recently, my long-time interest in Gauguin turned into an in-depth study. In a comprehensive biography, I came across the group of artists, novelists, playwrights and poets, known as the Symbolists.

These innovative creatives realized that through use of suggestion — that is, the symbol — they could infer meaning the way that a dream does. In other words, their art expressed the sort of nebulous feeling and meaning that a fantasy or dream does. They postulated that the combination of the different senses — smell, sight, sound, etc — could amplify aesthetic and spiritual experiences.

Symbolists held events in which artists decorated a set for a theatrical performance with original music compositions. Afterwards, a poet would write about the event. Upon reading this, I was inspired to bring a similar confluence of art forms and social interaction into the present day.

Furthermore, during this time, I wrote an article titled, An Artist’s Case for the Moderation of Technology.  That is where I outlined my critique of the modern “party.” My suggestion was that a re-evaluation of the aesthetic presuppositions regarding gatherings was valuable and the solution included the decorative arts. The impetus to make my vision of a party happen had become concrete; I had to walk the talk.

My mother had been cultivating a garden all summer — a true work of art in and of itself — so my vision began to center itself around that setting.

The invite guests recieved

The Garden Soirée

The first-ever Garden Soirée, as inspired by the Symbolists, was held on September 23, 2017. My father took the event in stride, going to great lengths to set up couches and chairs on the lawn, along with a fire pit, and a makeshift yurt. My girlfriend, Madeline, decorated with tapestries, and a Buddha statue, as well as dim lighting. I cooked quinoa with raisins and made fruity hibiscus tea; we also grilled chicken.

Madeline and myself wearing Kaftans

Madeline and I both wore Kaftans — traditional Arab dress, like a long robe. Madeline’s golden hair (for the night) and makeup had transformed her, as I said to a friend, “Into a sort of goddess from some other realm.” My father dressed as I would imagine Paul Cézanne would’ve while painting his landscapes in Plein Air.

The atmosphere provided the context for conversation and a feeling of respite. Mother nature had come to join us as well, as the evening air was that ineffable balance between cool and warm, similar to the sky which was setting with orange streaks against the pale blue.

While ambient, acoustic music played over a speaker, guests arrived in their unusual outfits, which expressed an elegance of earlier centuries. Ken, who is in his late seventies, wore a Kaftan, and his wife a vintage Eastern robe, with an antique metal belt. Robin and her boyfriend Jason arrived in the utmost majesty. She wore a delicate floral headdress and Kimono-like gown. Jason described his one-of-a-kind ceremonial robe.

We became a cast of characters; authentically expressing our most ideal form.

Discussions of the Diptych

Our porch was transformed into a white-cloth smorgasbord, with two wonderful bouquets of dahlias. In that area, I had on display two five foot tall paintings which are titled “Eros” and “Logos” — the archetypal feminine and masculine respectively.

After two months of work throughout the summer, the paintings had been completed just days before the party. Guests, such as Robinson Martinez, responded to the painting. Some projected their own personal unconscious onto the painting. Robinson, who had recently been through a divorce, saw a sadness in her face, but saw the watering as a sign of her willingness to move forward.  Another man saw the female figure as free from the pressures of the type of work he does in technology, amongst the abundance of nature, enjoying herself.

Robin, who is an extrodinary young woman and artist in her own right, read the painting on its universal level: she saw the woman’s gaze like a meditators, as her consciousness is subtle and moving inwards; thus she has a spiritual quality; but the figure in my painting is also amongst nature, so she is sensual; her breasts are prominent and are echoed in the flowers as well as in the hills, so the painting has to do with the nurturing quality of nature, in its ideal aspect.

Dinnertime Discussion

I joined a group of friends in the yurt. While eating, I briefly described my vision for the party, then our conversation went across a varied stream of topics, while the quiet moon had risen. 

For me, music is a vital tool for accessing a broad range of moods. My curation of the Soirée experience included a performance by my longtime collaborator and friend, a percussionist and spiritual-seeker, James and a vocalist, guitarist named Pablo.

All of the guests gathered in the tent, with blankets and cushions, to enjoy the meditative and diverse-cultural sounds. Frankincense wallowed, and a serenity fell over the crowd.

It was during the interactive use of the gong, in which James and Pablo stood up and surrounded each participant in a bath of sound that people really began to traverse into other realms. Ken said, “I have had done all sorts things across this world, but I have never experienced something so exotic and powerful. The sound was palpable and filled my senses like incense.”

This was the insight of the Symbolist artists: the phenomenon of synesthesia, where senses seem to blend into one another — this can provide an all-encompassing effect.

From left to right: Rachel, Matthew, Robinson meditate while Pablo and James perform a sound healing for Ken and his wife Doris.

After my emersion in the sonic waves, I opened my eyes and observed the novelty of these friends, all like modern-day Buddhas, completely present, and peaceful. Rachel, with a flower in her hair, akin to Gauguin’s Tahitian Women, sat peacefully next to Matthew whose utter freedom of mind seemed to be reminiscent of some Edenic paradise.

I scooted over next to Florence, who appeared to be in a particularly deep state. She told me, “I traveled into my inner vision.” And come Monday, she would travel back to New York City to head-up her major Public Relations firm. She later recounted: “It was the best garden party I’ve ever been to.”

Late Night Crowd

A smaller group of people stayed late into the night. We took out all sorts of instruments from my collection: African drums, shakers, tambourines, a guitar. My friend David had brought his Djembe, and Robin her Turkish drum. We all shared songs and improvised together, allowing ourselves to fall deeper into the moment, as the circular mantra-like jams floated on. Sometimes we laughed hysterically, sometimes we swooned and swayed; all of us let out a quality of ourselves that was distinctly primitive, instinctual and unfiltered. In that sense, it was truly human.