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Listening differently: Composer Rolf Hind talks to Jo Childs about the worlds first ever Mindful opera - 'Lost in Thought'


Rolf Hind – the pianist and composer, has played the world over from New York’s Carnegie Hall and Sydney’s Opera House to London’s Festival Hall and the Proms (appearing 5 times, no less!). Those attune to the contemporary classical music scene will be well aware of his work with some of the greatest - John Adams, Tan Dun, Helmut Lachenmann, Ligeti, and Sir Simon Rattle to name a few. But his credentials, although impressive, are a superficial distraction. It’s his innovative approach to composition that’s truly exciting.

This September, there’s a chance to experience the World Premiere of his incredible new work Lost in Thought – a co-production between the Barbican and Mahogany Opera Group that takes music to a whole new level. Described as the world’s first ever Mindfulness Opera, Lost in Thought is a 4-hour immersive performance based on the classic structure of a silent meditation retreat. I was lucky enough to attend one of the rehearsals. The results are extraordinary, an experience not to be missed.  

I caught up with the self-effacing, self described ‘pianist composer, teacher, research associate, ashtangi, gay buddhist vegan love warrior,’ over muffins and soya latte in Soho, to chat about the inspiration behind this astonishing piece – with radical yoga, Tibetan Mind-Heart and the future of music all thrown in, not bad for Elevenses...

Jojo: This is clearly no ordinary opera – what can we expect?
The piece is an attempt to fuse a performance involving a singer and several musicians with the structure of a classic meditation retreat. Being a regular retreatant myself, I've long been fascinated by the idea of trying to combine the two worlds of music and mindfulness. Audiences will experience a telescopic version (4 hours) of a silent day on retreat with periods of meditation, rest, communal eating and other activities - all heightened (I hope!) through the music.

Jojo: Why did you call it Lost in Thought?
It’s called Lost in Thought, somewhat counter-intuitively, as being ‘lost in thought’ is the opposite of what we aspire to when meditating. When asked to comment on the state of the Western world, The Thai Monk, Ajahn Chah replied: "It's Lost in Thought." I've always thought this a nice quote, neatly summing up how much pain and trouble we cause for ourselves simply through our own habits of mind. The ‘intention’ of the meditator is to watch thoughts, and become aware of the patterns and conditioning around them, so that ultimately they will have less power. In the Buddhist tradition, ‘meditation’ reveals that there is no separate self – which can transform the way we live!

Jojo: The piece explores the contact between sound, silence and meditation – how does the composition work its magic?
The first half is about getting people into a state of deep calm, so they feel comfortable enough to listen differently. The piece emerges slowly, subtly from silence. There’s a lot of percussion, unusual sounds, and some very purely generated sounds - like harmonics on strings that create absolutely pure vibrations. These are all sounds I like because there is something about them that’s not associated with anything. The trouble with a lot of western classical instruments is that they are completely loaded with associations, and whilst that is inevitable, it’s nice to push away from it sometimes.

I’ve also tried to shape the piece so that there are musical parallels for all aspects of a retreat. And, so that when the singing comes, it has massive potency. It struck me that when a teacher on a retreat reads you a poem - you are very ready, open and accepting, so the messages go deep. I think this is how all poetry is meant to read really – in this vast well of responsiveness - something that resonates with every fibre of my being. But I won't say anymore at this stage - as another "problem" of the mind is the expectation that it likes to set up, drawing one away from the actual experience itself.

Jojo: So this experience is all about listening differently?
Yes. Meditation practice helps you distinguish between the reactive and the responsive states of mind.

I'm guilty myself, in fast-paced moments, of the kind of reactivity that judges, compares and dismisses Art (or anything else come to that) - WHILE IT'S ACTUALLY GOING ON!! Rather than being fully immersed in the experience (a lovely thing that we all get glimpses of from time to time), the mind is having a conversation with itself about whether it likes it or not. We go out for an evening, we sit there with a glass of wine and say, ‘Go on, impress me, give me all you’ve got!' But what would it be like to experience music in a state of complete responsiveness? What would it be like to not say anything about the music – because the music just IS?

I'm personally troubled too by the social pressure to have an opinion about everything, even if you don't really know about it. I think that goes back to this idea of the separate self - a self that desperately tries to construct opinions in attempt to mark safe boundaries.

I hope that Lost in Thought audiences will be able to respond intuitively to the music during this performance - drop all that conditioned reactivity and go deeper into the experience of sound, silence, people, and relationships, observing how their own mind engages with all these things.

Jojo: Do you think the way we’re engaging with Art is changing?
A lot of people are thinking about this right now which suggests that the whole way art is approached, experienced and comodifed is a bit ‘tired.’

I teach and conduct research at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and am proud and thrilled that, at my instigation, they have now set up a Mindfulness program for students and staff, mainly to help them with playing and performance issues (even the Director himself is now a keen meditator!). But these practices also have a strong effect on the way people listen too. So I suppose we are training a new generation to engage with their artistic work differently. In the wider world, experiments with Mindfulness are proliferating at an exponential rate, and Art is opening out to be more immersive, mixed genre and boundary free. This all happened in the 60s and 70s too with Fluxus and the avant-garde. But there was definitely a retrenchment of the less progressive in the 80s and beyond. So in my opinion, new directions are now being rediscovered.

Jojo: Is this emerging ‘Mindful’ art movement expressive of a wider transformation across society?
Possibly. I think people also may not be quite as smitten with technology as we are led to believe. It's interesting that at times of great technological steps forward, people rediscover a longing for authentic human connection, whether it be the Victorians with their penchant for transcendentalism, or us today, with our need to find our focus in the 'now' (through mindfulness), amidst all the virtual chaos that surrounds us.

Jojo: How has your own meditation practice influenced the way you live?
I haven’t fully worked it out yet! I think the second time I went on a retreat, it hit me like a sledgehammer: ‘Wow, this is all true! And the way we are living is all wrong!’ Then, when you return to your daily life, it's SO hard to make the adjustments you know you should, or even just to fit yoga or meditation in every day. We can’t all go and become monks or yogis, much as it sometimes appeals - but there is a need for some of us to explore these practices and ideas within society - trying, with whatever skills and capabilities we have, to make things a bit different, kinder and truer.

For me, I think a real ‘radical acceptance’ of experience comes down to a lot of things I think about in my life now, like my radical yoga practice – which whilst beautiful, also leads me on some quite emotional journeys. With yoga you realise there is a very strong connection between the way you use your body and how your emotions are trapped. And also, the concept of submission (a word that is very unfashionable in the West!), where we drop the judging and just let go to it!

Jojo: Some people may say Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga don’t belong in the Arts – what say you?
There is nothing that does not belong in Art. Each artist brings to their work their own preoccupations, a filter and perspective on "reality", and would not be any kind of artist if they had to censor this, or second-guess an audience. My experience is that audiences do not like bullshit, and that's the only thing that doesn't belong!

Jojo: What do you hope audiences take away from this unique experience?
One of the things I love about the Vipassana retreat that this piece is based on – is that it’s very, very gentle and doesn’t lead you down a certain way. It just encourages you to be open and curious, whilst at the same time creating a harmony and energy between people - a mysterious and beautiful thing. So I hope that the audience feels free to wonder among the music, the play, the silence and the words - finding parallels, beautiful things, difficult things, and maybe even discovering new or forgotten parts of themselves...

Jojo: Finally, what’s your vision for the future of music?
A lot of people in my sphere are thinking hard, and quite rightly, about the question of who music is for; so inclusivity and the widening of audiences are much talked-about. All of this is good, but I do sometimes wonder if there isn't something even more radical lurking behind it all – an engagement with the experience of music that goes beyond the judging mind, the fashion-led experience. Could it be more than a mere night out, or a soundtrack? Could it thread its way into our very being, our breathing, into our hearts? I don't think this is idealism, because for many players and composers it already is this. But maybe we’ve been a bit too apologetic up to now about how much we think it can do, and mean. One of the most inspiring books I know is Hermann Hesse's extraordinary Glass Bead Game, where in an imagined future the greatest and most admired humans play a beautiful game, a kind of 3-dimensional chess combined with fugal counterpoint, a full and enormous expression of all that it means to be human, fusing heart and mind as the Tibetans do. I hope that's the future.


Lost in Thought
Friday 25 (6pm), Saturday 26 (12pm), and Sunday 27 (12pm) September 2015
LSO St Luke’s
161 Old Street
London EC1V 9NG
Booking and info: barbican.org.uk

Please note: only 100 tickets available per performance. At time of publishing (20 July), Sat and Sun almost sold out.

Music and Concept Rolf Hind
Director Frederic Wake-Walker
Associate Director Alice Knight

Lost in Thought is a co-production between the Barbican and Mahogany Opera Group.