Mindfulness Opera: An Interview with Stuart King

Clarinettist and leader of contemporary music ensemble CHROMA appears as one of eight performers in Lost in Thought (Coming to The Lowry Sun 18 & Mon 19 Oct) guiding audience members on a journey of mindfulness and meditation. We spoke to him about his experience with the world’s first mindfulness opera. 

What is your role in Lost in Thought? And what motivated you to be a part of the project?

I play clarinet and bass clarinet as part of the instrumental ensemble in Lost in Thought. I have worked with Rolf Hind closely on many projects through the years both as a fellow performer and, more recently, collaborating on works that he has composed for me or written with me in mind. With each new project I progressed a little deeper into the exotic and beguiling world of Rolf’s imagination and his experience of mindfulness. For some years, we have discussed his ideas for a mindfulness opera taking inspiration from his experiences on silent retreats. Coming from the point of view of someone with no firsthand experience of mindfulness or meditation, I was excited and fascinated to be part of the creative process and be an ‘instrumental retreatant’ in the final public ‘experience’ that is Lost in Thought.

A Mindfulness Opera
A Mindfulness Opera

Lost in Thought is in some ways related to Rolf Hind’s piece Sit, Stand, Walk which you have performed. Can you tell us a bit of about your experience with that piece and how it relates to Lost in Thought.

When Rolf was first sketching ideas for his mindfulness/silent retreat opera project, he told me he had the idea of casting me as the guru. Rather than imparting my wisdom verbally, I would express myself through the bass clarinet. Some time after Rolf had worked on these initial drafts, he suggested writing a sort of concerto for solo clarinet and large ensemble for me and my ensemble CHROMA. Many of the guru figures were worked into the concerto, Sit, Stand, Walk, which was premiered at Spitalfields Music Summer Festival in 2011. The title refers to the three different positions one can meditate and these were represented in the piece musically and in the physical staging. The piece begins with two cellists seated and the soloist and ensemble hidden off-stage. Like Lost in Thought, the piece begins from silence and very faint, distant sounds on and off-stage. One of the features common to both works is Rolf’s use of microtones, natural harmonics and detuning to colour the pivotal tonal centres of each piece. We discovered, through experimenting, that the best way of producing some of these ‘detuned tones’ for Sit, Stand, Walk was to play on a half-assembled bass clarinet! So the first section of the concerto is played using just the left hand joint of the instrument. This produces some hauntingly beautiful sounds that blended wonderfully well with the two cellos. Eventually the guru was able to ‘preach’ once the bass clarinet had been fully assembled.
Had you any experience of mindfulness prior to your involvement with Lost in Thought?

Prior to the workshop phase of Lost in Thought, I had no experience of mindfulness at all. By nature, I am a fairly physical person; preferring to release tension or stress at the gym or through strenuous exercise. I have always been quite restless and keeping busy and active is second-nature. Mindfulness and meditation never featured in my life as a result.

A Mindfulness Opera
A Mindfulness Opera

How you have you found exploring mindfulness and music in this way?

Despite my predilection for physical activity, I was keen to see how I would take to exploring mindfulness and in performance. I was surprised to discover that I could quieten my mind more easily than I expected to in the first workshops. Walking meditation was perhaps, unsurprisingly, my favourite. I became somewhat obsessed with ultra-slow walking. The heightened awareness of every fibre in my body, my feet in contact with the floor, the muscles used to balance, the blood pumping through my veins was hypnotic and endlessly fascinating.

One of the greatest challenges was and still remains, the transition from the calm headspace hopefully achieved during long silent sits to being ‘performance-ready conscious’. In one workshop I was so blissfully relaxed and calm in my head that I found it impossible to perceive the speed of the next musical section that I was required to direct. I went from a state of zen calm to panic in the blink of an eye!

Do you have any tips for audience members who might be experiencing mindfulness for the first time?

The best advice was given to me in the first workshops, and is, I believe, a standard point of guidance. It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable and fidgety sitting in total silence with a group of strangers. Be gentle with yourself. Allow thoughts to enter your head, acknowledge them, and then let them go without judging them or trying solve or answer them. Concentrate on your breathing and relaxing the muscles in your body as if you were trying to lull yourself to sleep. Try to let go of any expectations of what you think you should be feeling. Just enjoy being in the moment and experiencing your body as if it was first hour of your birth.

Lost in Thought comes to The Lowry, Salford Quays 18-19 October.