At the end of September at London’s Print Room at the Coronet, the Octandre Ensemble dedicated a Composer Portrait to Rolf Hind. The evening, which presented a number of chamber-music works by the British composer, culminated in the first full performance of his song cycle Way Out East
, featuring the mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, saxophonist Stefan Baur and the GB&SR percussion duo. The three pieces, inspired by his study of Indian classical music, include a song in Burmese evoking an idyll of country life in Myanmar, a “scena” composed in the aftermath of Hind’s food poisoning on the way to Delhi, and his setting of an Indian student’s essay on the cow which became famous online. The composer was in attendance and engaged in a Q&A session about his music. However, on Facebook he advised his colleagues against such an occasion: “Composers be warned: a whole evening of your own music really leaves you nowhere to hide.”
Way Out East (2016)
Follow the Leader
: S.pf(upright piano).perc
: S.sax(tenor or sopran).perc.pf(grand piano)
This is the Cow
WP: 26.4.2016 Kopenhagen
Rolf Hind – Composer Portrait, London 2018
About the work
My music is sometimes described as meditative, probably because I do meditate, but those who
never have done so might be surprised to learn how often brutality, lust, boredom and anger
crop up when you sit on the cushion.
The mass-market Western reading of pretty much all Indian classical music is that it’s lovely
and relaxing, perhaps because its hard for us to read the encoding of mood from melody anddrone, and it was an eye-opener to me when I began to learn more about the Indian raga
system to find a richly catalogued range of mood and subject is covered by it.
The three movements of Way Out East take varying approaches to texts that are by turns
nostalgic, brutal and comic.
The first is a song in Burmese, which is heard live only in a scrambled, deconstructed version
by the singer, as she plays a game with the roving percussionist. When that game comes to an
end, a full version of this song - about a remembered, or imagined idyll of country life - is heard
on tape. When I wrote the piece, this seemed an apt response to aspects of what we know about
Myanmar. It still does.
Varanasi Haiku, the second song I call a “scena” - it is quite long and developed, with very
difficult parts for the three instrumentalists. Its starting point was a haiku I wrote myself. I had
spent the day getting from Varanasi to Delhi whilst wearing a hastily constructed nappy to
prevent accidents after a night of horrible food poisoning. By the time I got to my destination
I was pretty much hallucinating, and wrote this in the middle of the subsequent, sleepless night.
There was a huge distant thunder storm rolling in, and in my mind’s delirious eye I could still
see dogs by the Ganges trying to eat hunks of ash that may have once been people.
Dogs eat death ash. They writhe and whimper. Dawn brings Thunder and far muezzins.
‘This Is The Cow’, the third piece, has a text that became famous online. It was originally an
Indian student’s anonymous exam essay, replete with wonderful mistakes and strange uses of
language that seem to have been through Google Translate and back again. At the same time
though it has a lovely sense of tenderness and real affection for the national animal.
I’ve nodded to a formal device that comes from Indian music called a Ti hai - a rhythmic phrase
repeated three times that signals a change of section. In this piece, the entire structure is based
around this idea, but in 3 levels of speed. (This becomes clear when a second voice enters twice
as fast as the first.) The middle section (where the cow is “in the meadow in the grass”) I have
called a Shreds with Stretto, which I think/hope may be a new form.
The last two movements were written for Lore Lixenberg and Trio Zoom, who commissioned
them. When premiered in Denmark, Lore staged them with some film, and had the
extraordinary and powerful idea of showing a cow being led to abattoir during the last
movement. I resisted at first. Even though I’m a vegan, I’m not generally polemical in life or
music. But there was something necessary and intensifying about it which might be worth
bearing in the imagination of the listener.
Interview with Rolf Hind
– Rolf, what do you use to
– Well, I do start with pencil and paper
and at home I have a little study, which is pretty small,
with lots of scores and books in it, and a desk. I
sometimes work in there, but we also have a big
through-lounge piano room downstairs and
sometimes I work there, sometimes I stand up at the
piano, and sometimes I work in the garden if it’s nice.
I vary it; I don’t really have a routine.
– Is the piano part of your [process]
– Er, no, not really. It’s an important part of…. most of my pieces that have a piano
in them have the piano prepared in some way – similarish ways, actually. There are a few things
I like, but they’re all very slightly different, and often I will have my piano at home – which is
also the one I teach on, so this can be a bit of a problem – prepared in that fashion, so that I
can get used to it. Or, I’m tweaking with it as I go, just seeing what works for the piece. I think
I got that idea from Per Norgard actually. He was talking about one of his pieces from the ‘70s
where he retuned his own piano so that it was in third tones. There’s one of his pieces called
Turn from 1976 which is meant to be played in that tuning, but obviously usually just gets
played in a standard, tempered [tuning]. The starting point for pieces for me is often a very
particular sound world, and coming to that for the flavour of the piece. It comes with other
ideas in the conception at the same time, but for that I use the piano. But I don’t really write at
the piano in the sense of trying out ideas. I think I’m reasonably good at, you know, figuring
that out in my head. In fact, as I’m using microtones more,….. that’s hard to do on the piano.
There are some harmonics you can access and stuff. Then I use Sibelius [computer notation
software] at a certain point, but I have to be a little bit strict with myself, because I have found
that if I start too early with Sibelius, I just start messing around with my ideas before I’ve really
got enough of a strong idea. That’s just my process, I think that could work differently for
everyone, but I quite like to have quite a lot on paper. It doesn’t mean that I won’t change
things when Sibelius comes into play. I don’t really use it much for playback purposes because
it’s so approximate – especially is you’re using microtones of funny timbres or funny
instruments. But sometimes I find it quite useful for setting the architecture of things – just
listening again and again and fiddling speeds and things like that.
– Do you talk to other musicians if you’re writing for them?
– Yes, absolutely, always. I don’t feel like – I mean obviously I play the piano – I
feel fairly confident about the piano and what I can do, and then I have gradually taken on
more instruments as I’ve gone on. I played the violin and the viola as a kid, so I’m reasonably
good on the viola. And so I feel more and more comfortable with string instruments generally.
And then I have used percussion a lot; gradually started using the clarinet more – gradually
getting more comfortable using multiphonics and things. I find it[‘s] a really slow process, I
mean I would never try a whole load of new things in one piece. I’d feel like ‘that’s now working,
and what might work with that?’. I think my process has been incredibly slow – I stopped for
15 years! It’s not that each piece takes an inordinate amount of time, but I think how I develop
feels to me…. [I’m] trying to keep it really organic. I don’t really force anything vey much.
Occasionally something comes along which makes me…. You know, there’s a possible big
project in the offing now which is going to make me really step out of my comfort zone, but
that will probably be good!
The Happy Composers’ League!
………I try to compose when I want to. Meditation helps this. I mean I’m not saying that I
don’t want to, but there are certainly mornings when you get up and you look at it and you
think ‘`well….. I’m just not in the mood’. That does sound a bit, you know, ‘first world
problem…’, but we don’t really need composers who are just writing loads of music and don’t
really feel like it! There’s enough people composing anyway, so finding that sort of genuine
spark and impulse – I do quite a lot of meditation retreats. Just recently I did one that was of a
sort of different flavour to those I had done before, where we were silent for 10 days, but mostly
thinking about raising particular qualities of heart, rather than the sort of ‘awareness of an
object’ type meditation. I found it particularly useful to work with joy. Just to notice it. Actually,
you know if you cultivate an awareness of when you feel happy it can allow it to radiate a bit
more, because apparently our natural predisposition, because of evolution, is to notice seven
times as much of the negative things as the positive ones. This is neurological research – I forget
where it’s from, but I heard it from a reliable source! And it certainly fits with my head!
– so it’s not just the newspapers!
– Ha! Yes – Fake news! It makes evolutionary sense, because we’re looking about
for danger in our caveman head. It’s going off the subject a bit, but cultivating a joyful, peaceful
place to start with composition, rather than a kind of pinched, slightly depressed,
claustrophobic state is what I try to do. It doesn’t mean all the music sounds, you know, spaced
out and peaceful! It’s a bit of a cultural thing where, we live in a culture where perhaps because
of this predisposition, evolutionarily, we favour the source of inspiration that is kind of darker,
and more depressing – that there’s something more genuine about that. That’s something I
really like about your music [Christian] is that you deal with joy. And a lot of the music I like
deals with joy, and positive mind states if you like – without being childish or facile.
– It’s an interesting point. I guess a lot of the music that I have loved over
the years is quite dark, but I always wondered why it had to be so. Definitely there is a sense
that….there’s almost an expectation that if you’re going to be a composer, you’re going to be
dark and melancholy. It seems reasonable to try and redress that balance from time to time.
– The Happy Composers’ League. Haha!
The interview was conducted by Jon Hargreaves and Christian Mason, artistic directors of the Octandre Ensemble.
It was first published in the program note of "Rolf Hind - A Portrait".
Photos: Octandre Ensemble