Touching the Earth – an interview with a Buddhist composer

Bodhivajra (Peter Hayes) is a Buddhist composer based in Norwich, UK. He has written several compositions on Buddhist themes, most notably Touching the Earth, a choral work based on incidents from the life of the Buddha. Satyadaka interviewed him for Urthona. To hear a recording of Touching the Earth go to the ‘Buddhism’ tab on Bodhivajra’s website:


Satyadaka: First, some general info. This is quite broad, what is your connection with music?


Bodhivajra: Well, my connection with music goes back a long way to when I was a child. My first music education was singing in a church choir. I think I started when I was about seven. That, plus hearing my mother play the piano and listen to music on the radio. Those are my earliest connections with music. I didn’t start playing the piano until I was thirteen and a half, which is perhaps a little bit late, but nonetheless here I am still playing! And then I went to the London College of Music in the mid 1970s. It was a Classical music course, as almost every course of music was in this country at that time. Now you can study all kinds of music but in those days it was strictly Classical. It wasn’t a performance course or a composition course, it was a general music course, aimed at would-be music teachers. Later, I got interested in jazz and playing jazz which was a bit of a new departure for me. It came about because I’d given up music after leaving College because I didn’t know what to do with it and then after I discovered Buddhism I felt a need to reconnect with music and I had an idea that improvisation might be a new way into music and I happened to know someone at the time who was running a jazz improvisation course. That was at Morley College in London, so I signed up for that and that opened up a whole new universe of musical possibilities, which I’m still exploring.


I gave up music before I became a Buddhist. It was after I discovered Buddhism that I got back interested in music. I actually left College just before the end of the course. I dropped out. I suppose there was a lot of dukkha in my life you could say – a lot of dissatisfaction. I wouldn’t have called it dukkha at the time. It was confusion and unhappiness and not knowing what to do with my life and I couldn’t make any connection with the suffering in the world and the suffering in myself and my experience of learning about playing Bach and Mozart for example. I couldn’t quite see how that was really beneficial, although my view on that has changed now. But that’s how I felt at the time. So I dropped out of College and just did various other things: a bit of travelling, a bit of volunteer work with homeless people and then discovered The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (as it was then). Very quickly I got deeply involved in that. And that made me realise that I’d cut off an aspect of myself which I needed to get back to. So I needed to find a way back into music and that’s what I did. I began a very long process at that time of trying to follow two strands in my life of Buddhism and music and way back then those strands seemed like different tracks of my life. But now they don’t seem like different tracks they just are what I do. So to some extent they’ve become more unified you could say, or integrated in my experience.


SD: Was composing part of your musical training?


BV: Composition wasn’t an official part of the course I did, except that we studied harmony and counterpoint and I think we did a little bit of imitative composition as part of that, but only a very little bit. But I did have a teacher, I think for the second year, a teacher who was a composer himself and who encouraged me to compose and I did show a couple of things to him. But there wasn’t very much at that time. I wasn’t really writing. I didn’t have the confidence then to write and do anything with it. But there was the urge, right back then, there was the urge to compose, even before I went to college, but I never really knew how to proceed with that.


SD: We’re talking here about your recent composition and project which was Touching The Earth. What is Touching The Earth?


BV: Touching The Earth is a half hour long composition for choir and piano: the traditional form of choir, that is to say Soprano, alto, tenor and bass, with piano accompaniment and the text mostly came from The Lallitvistara Sutra and the Mahavastu, which were a little bit adapted by myself and also I did write the text to one part of the music myself. And the text is describing the episode of the Buddha’s touching the earth, shortly before his enlightenment. That was his response to Mara’s attack. There is a narrative element – but I tend to see it more as four tableaux. Four scenes, or four episodes. They are obviously connected, so there is a narrative thread but I think you probably need to know something of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment to really understand that.


SD: What is its performance history so far?


BV: It was first performed at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre in autumn 2012 and last year, 2013 in May, there were four more performances all coinciding with Buddha day. These performances happened at the London Buddhist Art Centre; at Anteros Arts which was in collaboration with the Norwich Buddhist Centre; and also at Birmingham and Sheffield Buddhist Centres. So we had a mini tour last year, around Buddha Day. That’s its history so far. There’s another performance at Cambridge on Buddha Day this year – May 2014. That’ll be its next performance.


SD: How did this piece come about?


BV: It came about really during a time when I was on retreat at Padmaloka. It might have been 2011 or 2010. We were talking in our study group about the arts. I was talking about the arts and my involvement with the arts and I was talking about past retreats that I’d been on, such as The Game of Life retreat and The Game of Death retreat. And then I got talking about FWBO days, as they were called then. And I went for a walk afterwards with Vajragupta and we had a talk about all this and I was saying that those days, when people used to come from all over the movement and meet together, those days became a platform for artistic and musical work from within the movement. So people would create things, perform things and there would be a movement-wide audience, which was really good for musicians, artists and writers in the movement. And we talked about how we don’t have that any more, at least as far as I’m aware. Perhaps the nearest thing we have to it is the International retreat which has happened about three times now, at Taraloka. It’s going to be at Adhisthana this year. So the idea developed, during our conversation, for me to write something for the International retreat, which would also pick up on my former interest in writing for choirs in the sangha, which I hadn’t really done much for a while. This would perhaps harken back to 1992 when I wrote Carpe Diem, which was performed at FWBO Day with a choir of about 60 people, all from within the sangha.


Because the International retreat coincided with Buddha Day, I had the idea that Touching The Earth would be a good title. Plus, it’s an outdoor retreat, so there are earth connections there. I wrote about half the piece, or maybe a bit more…at least half the piece I wrote on a solitary retreat in winter 2011. I then showed it to Arthasiddhi who I’d asked previously if he would conduct it, and he was very keen to go ahead. He started rehearsing what I’d written so far with his choir, and in the next two or three months I worked on finishing the piece. But then we had a bit of a dilemma about actually performing it at the International retreat because we weren’t sure acoustically whether it would work, either singing outdoors with a largish choir or singing in a marquee. And we thought we might have acoustic problems; people might not be able to hear each other, or the piano, and would the sound reach far enough back? Because they have hundreds on these retreats. So we decided in the end not to do it at the International retreat. But we’d put a lot of work into learning the piece and we needed to create a performance possibility. That came about in the autumn of 2012, a few months after the International retreat, in Cambridge. It was half of an evening which also featured a composers’ competition – composers within the sangha writing a piece of music for a sangha choir.


SD: Perhaps you could say a bit more about the inspiration side of it.


BV: I was inspired by the idea of doing something for Buddha Day but also inspired by the idea of bringing together choirs or singers from different parts of the sangha. It had a sangha aspect as well as a Buddha aspect. But in a way that’s the easy bit – to get inspired by ideas. Obviously the next step was to sort out the text. Over a period of, I think a couple of months, I played around with different possibilities for text. I was immediately drawn to the Lalitavistara Sutra because I was already quite familiar with that, and also to the Mahavastu which I had used a little bit of once before. Gradually, from looking at those texts a shape for the piece evolved. When writing something which is a setting of a text, the musical form becomes dictated by the text. It’s not that I had lots of musical ideas first; I didn’t have any musical ideas really. I didn’t feel I could proceed until I’d established a text. In the end, with a bit of help, I came up with a text which divided up into four sections: The Earth, Mara’s Attack, Touching the Earth and Pure Being.


Then I began to look at the text and get some basic ideas. I started on part 4, Pure Being. They were some of the first notes I wrote down. The problem with starting with a later part of the piece is that everything that comes before it has got to lead up to it! But anyway it did eventually work out. The choir sing a Round in Part 4. I tried it out with my choir before I’d really got into writing the whole piece and that Round with a few little adaptations did make it through to the final version of the piece.


SD: How did the choirs from around the Sangha get involved.


BV: They didn’t really get involved until after I’d written the bulk of the piece on that solitary retreat, and after Arthasiddhi agreed that he was happy to proceed with it. I was prepared for the possibility that I might write most of the piece and then show it to him and he might say ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t really like it!’ Anyway he was very enthusiastic and he more or less straight away, in January of that year, started working on it with his choir in Cambridge which was already an established choir. So in a way they were the main body of singers, from Cambridge. At the same time I started working with my smaller choir in Norwich and we talked to various people in other centres and Vipulakirti, who’s based in Birmingham, found a few singers from Birmingham, although he didn’t have an up and running choir at the time. And also Dayabhadra in London. I don’t think he had an up and running choir at the time but there were a number of people who had sung in Sangha choirs and a few people who were enthusiastic and wanted to be part of the project. So it was from those four places that the singers came and because we are geographically far apart we didn’t have very many rehearsals all together. We basically learnt the music in our own locality but we also used modern technology, by which I mean that myself and Arthasiddhi created various MP3 recordings of different parts of the piece and also for particular voices. So singers could learn their parts at home, listening to the MP3 and then meet at their local rehearsal and sing with others. Gradually the piece came together in that way. I can’t remember how many joint rehearsals we had, but I don’t think it was very many. But we had day long rehearsals in Cambridge with everybody, or as many people as could make it. I think we had between 25 and 30 people in the choir. It wasn’t the same for every performance but it was roughly around that number.


SD: And you had had some experience of this way of working twenty years ago. Was Carpe Diem a good preparation for Touching The Earth?


BV: I guess it was, but it was a long time ago. In those days we didn’t have modern technology. We didn’t even have email to keep in contact with each other. The way I remember it was that I organised workshops at various centres to try and attract people to come and sing in it. There wasn’t even an established choir in those days, except perhaps in the Brighton sangha. I just hoped to create what is known as ‘a scratch choir’ to just bring it all together in workshops and rehearsals. I had several weekends when I was away in London or Brighton or possibly Croydon. And loads of people came to those workshops. I think we had about 60 people in the choir altogether. It was an amazing response and people seemed really to want that kind of activity in the Movement. After Carpe Diem several choirs did form and continued singing, at least for a while, and we did produce other performances over the next few years at FWBO days. But then it kind of petered out, and I moved into different musical areas. But over the last few years Arthasiddhi has really revived choir singing, in Cambridge in particular. He’s always encouraging people at other centres to do that. I think we’re having a bit of a revival at the moment. Touching The Earth came at a good time from that point of view.


SD: Who conducted Carpe Diem?


BV: Suchitta conducted it and I played piano and we did have a number of instrumentalists as well. But in Touching The Earth I decided to keep it simple. I did initially have some ideas about involving other instruments, but given that it was quite a big project for me, in the end I thought no, keep it simple. So it’s just choir and piano. Having said that, the music itself is not that simple but just having piano made it more straightforward.


SD: What are the musical influences at work in the piece?


BV: The music is not based on any particular model. It’s a mixture of various influences in my musical life; mainly from classical and jazz music. To be more specific, there’s quite a strong influence of jazz harmony in the piece though it’s not at all a jazz piece. I learnt a lot about harmony through studying jazz: chord extensions and altered chords. So a lot of the music in Touching the Earth is not just triad based. For example, harmonic aspects that I’ve gained from studying jazz include using major 6/9 chords, major 7th chords, sus chords and other chords that are built up in 4ths as opposed to being built up in 3rds. I mean that’s not just found in the realm of jazz but I learnt it particularly through jazz. McCoy Tyner comes to mind in connection with chords built in 4ths. In Part 1 there’s a section called ‘I move with the wind’ which reminds me of when I first heard music in 7/8 time. I was child singing in a choir in a performance of a setting of psalm 150, by Benjamin Britten. It had a section in 7/8 time which I still remember from when I was about 9 or 10 years old. Ever since then I’ve always enjoyed irregular time signatures, even though they’re quite difficult to play with. Also in that same section there’s a minimalist element in the music. That’s not to say it sounds like Steve Reich because it doesn’t but Steve Reich has been quite an influence on my music, I do like his music. I’ve listened to quite a lot of his pieces. But the minimalist element here is mostly in the piano part which is very repetitive and also harmonically it’s quite static. Nothing much changes but it’s rhythmically very dynamic.


Then in Part 2 there’s all these superimposed chords in Mara’s attack. The sound of that, or that technique, reminds me of Stravinsky or Bartok and I recall how amazing it was when I first heard The Rite of Spring. When I got to see the score I realised that Stravinsky was doing things like an Eb 7 chord in the treble over an E triad in the base, which I thought was astonishing – how could anyone do that? But he did it and it was brilliant. Ever since he wrote that you hear echoes of it in other people’s music. There’s an echo of it in Mara’s attack.


SD: That would be an extreme dissonance you would have thought and therefore not something that people would do…


BV: Yes, it is a dissonance. At the time he wrote that, tonality was breaking up, tonality was completely changing and everything was beginning to go atonal in the realm of Classical music at least. That’s all changed now. With the advent of minimalism – Steve Reich and Philip Glass and others – there also came a re-emergence of tonality. Probably around the 1970s/80s.


SD: In jazz there was a similar development, wasn’t there?


BV: Do you mean free jazz?


SD: Free jazz – yes, tonality broke down. Has there been a similar return to tonality in Jazz?


BV: Well, alongside Coltrane and Ornette Coleman more conventional jazz still kept going. The same is true of Classical music. Stravinsky and Schoenberg were breaking down tonality but it didn’t mean that people stopped playing Beethoven or Bach. But I suppose not many people wrote in those traditional, more conventional, styles.


SD: Is there more to say about the other two Parts of Touching The Earth?


BV: Yes, in Part 4 there’s a section called ‘difficult to fathom’ where the harmony reminds me of Olivier Messiaen, who I listened to a lot in my late teens and early twenties. He was a strong influence at that time. Not that I ever really learnt to write in his style or anything, but there’s something about the harmony there. It consists of major chords with sharpened 4ths which is a particular sound I really like. These chords just cycle. They go round in a progression. I think it’s three chords which are repeated in a cycle. They all have that feature – major chord with raised 11th (or raised 4th).


SD: Which is quite a jazzy sound, isn’t it?


BV: It is, yes, in that particular context. It doesn’t sound like jazz in the Messiaen context.


SD: So you composed the piece and you weren’t thinking of any of these influences. You didn’t think ‘Oh I’ll have a bit of Stravinsky, a bit of Messiaen, a bit of McCoy Tyner.’ It’s just that you did it and now, looking back, you can see these influences.


BV: Yes.


SD: How does your music relate to your spiritual practice? It’s a ridiculously broad question, but….


BV: I could answer and say everything I do relates to my spiritual practice, whether negatively or positively, but let’s try and be more specific. I suppose the obvious things are that if I compose music which is a setting of a dharma text, then there’s an obvious connection there, at least in the content…the content relates to spiritual practice in some way, as in Touching The Earth, but also as in a recent CD of mine – One Thousand Beams of Light, which I subtitled ‘Songs with Buddhist themes’, because they’re all settings to Buddhist poems or texts. So that’s the obvious thing. But perhaps, generally speaking, any music I write is an expression of myself. It comes from my mind, or my states of mind. I suppose any kind of written music or created music is autobiographical. Not in the sense of dealing with facts about my life, but it sheds some light on who I am. That’s not necessarily a spiritual thing, I suppose, but what is a spiritual thing? It’s just being authentic and trying to express something through a particular medium.


Another of my musical activities is that I play with, and write music for, a jazz band called Red Shadow Quartet. We’ve been playing together for about ten years now, which is quite a substantial time. An interesting aspect of that is the improvisational interaction we have. Although we write music for the band and we often perform standard jazz material from the jazz canon, we always do have strong elements of jazz improvisation, which means that we’re working with a form but we’re trying to find freedom within that form. So we have a written basis and then we improvise within that, usually based on the harmony. That is very interesting to me because it means that to a large extent we don’t really know what’s going to happen, what we’re going to play, and this brings up thoughts about security and insecurity; a certain anxiety about going into a solo for example, or a certain excitement about going into a solo, or inspiration or whatever. All of these things come up in the moment. It reminds me of a quote from Keith Jarrett, which goes like this: ‘You’re never in a secure position; you’re never at a point where you have it all sewn up. You have to choose to be secure like a stone, or insecure but able to flow.’ Usually we think of insecurity as being a kind of anxiety – something to be overcome – but actually he’s talking about insecurity in a positive sense, of having let go so there’s no basic ground to support you, there’s just going into this unknown space. Even though you have the structure of the form and you have the harmony and so on, there are still things that you don’t know. Sometimes we even improvise without having that harmonic structure. Then there’s even less ground to walk on. You’re just out there listening and responding, which is a very interesting place to be. In terms of spiritual practice you could say that’s all about holding on or letting go – continually making choices in that respect.


Another aspect of how my music relates to spiritual practice is to do with some retreats I went on back in the mid 1980s / early 1990s. We had a number of Performing Arts Retreats, as we called them, in the Movement, where people involved in the arts all got together, had a retreat together and had workshops and creations of various kinds. The two most significant retreats for me were the Game of Life retreat, based on the Wheel of Life; and the Game of Death retreat, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was after going to both those retreats that I eventually decided I was going to stop working in the Movement, which is what I’d been doing, and get back to working in music. Really that was a great inspiration to me. I don’t know that I can quite say why. I suppose that the arts, or my involvement in music, in some way fuels my spiritual life,. Without those things I think there would be something missing. Although having said that, I had to give them up to go on my ordination retreat. So I don’t know, perhaps I could just give it all up! But actually it seems like a very rich way of exploring my Buddhist practice and also sharing that with other people. Trying to communicate something to other people; or communicate with other people. That’s what I wanted to do with Touching the Earth. I would really like to follow up on Touching the Earth and write something for another festival: perhaps Dharma Day or Sangha Day. But I haven’t got around to that yet. Touching the Earth was a big project and it’s not finished yet because we’re due to do another performance in May. It was a very big project and it’s three years since it started.


SD: Do you do music retreats any more?


BV: The only music retreats I’ve done in recent years have been solitary retreats where I’ve had a composition project on the go and I’ve used the solitariness of solitary retreat to be able to work in that way. So on that retreat I had the usual kind of retreat programme really: meditation in the morning, then during the morning after breakfast up until lunch, instead of doing study, which you might normally do on retreat, that’s when I do my composition. So, for three hours or so each morning. Then in the afternoons and evenings I’d go out for walks or do some other kind of practice, maybe puja or more meditation, perhaps some study as well. But those are the only music retreats I’ve done recently. But years ago we used to have music retreats within the sangha where all sorts of strange and interesting things happened but that is another story…


SD: You support yourself through teaching music, don’t you?


BV: Yes. It is a question that does sometimes come up for me, that over a lot of years I’ve contributed a lot of music to the sangha which has never earned me any money at all. (Except for some sound tracks I did for Clear Vision.) Generally speaking I just write these things because I want to write them and I think if I haggle about money or look to get paid for them then they’ll probably never happen, or perhaps they would but I don’t want to put all my energy into that. I’d rather put energy into writing the music and I do, as you say, support myself through teaching music. But sometimes I think it would be nice to adjust the balance a bit and maybe earn some money from writing music and some money from teaching, just to enable me to live. But yes, that’s how I support myself – teaching, and sometimes I do get paid for gigs with my band, although they are few and far between.


SD: How can people get to hear Touching the Earth?


BV: If you go to my website, and go to the Buddhism page, there is a sub page which is Touching the Earth and you’ll find there a recording of a performance that we did last year in Birmingham. It’s an audio recording. You’ll also find a video of the Sheffield performance. So there are two performances available there on the website. They are both live performances. We’ve never done a studio recording. It would nice if it happened but I’m not sure I want to organise all that. The performance coming up in May is due to be recorded. So depending on the quality of that, we may have another recording available. There are also details on the website of the CD, One Thousand Beams of Light.


SD: You’ve said that you’d like to write some further pieces in the future, for other festivals perhaps. Any other ideas in the pipeline?


BV: As I said, Touching the Earth was a very big project and to some extent it overlapped with the CD project. I had those two things going on at the same time for a while and I think part of me needed a bit of break after that. I do have some things in my head – though not quite in the pipeline yet…



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