ALFOXTON: A RENOVATING VIRTUE
BUDDHISM MEETS ENGLISH HERITAGE, HISTORY AND CULTURE
WATCH THE FILM BY HARTLEY WOOLF
A reflective delight from Hartley Woolf, filmmaker and member of the new Buddhist community at Alfoxton.
THE BUDDHIST CENTRE [ONLINE] presents this poetic and affecting documentary capturing a year in the life of the Triratna Buddhist community who have taken on the ambitious task of renovating the dilapidated estate of Alfoxton Park in the heart of the Somerset countryside.
Once home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the community’s vision is to run the house as an arts and meditation retreat centre. Following the seasons, the film beautifully reveals the changes in the land and on the building project, weaving connections between the poetry of the Romantics, physical work and spiritual practice.
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MEET THE COMMUNITY
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
THE MUSIC OF ALFOXTON
Making the Music for A Renovating Virtue
An essay by filmmaker Hartley Woolf
Filmmaker and Alfoxton community member Hartley Woolf recounts the uniquely spiritual and collaborative process of creating the soundtrack for Alfoxton’s documentary feature film.
There are in our existence, spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence – depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse – our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired…
William Wordsworth, The Prelude
Read the essay
Five musicians are poised in a room. Jayaraja stands by the microphone. There’s an energy in the air; a tangible sense of togetherness. This is the third take. Hervé, our sound engineer, wipes a tear from his eye. Jayaraja takes a moment to calm the tremble in his voice. Ben signals to begin.
The cello leads us in, tentative and slow, played by Billy. Elisa tiptoes in behind on the violin with a pizzicato accompaniment, followed by Steve’s sure-footed notes on the double bass. On a computer screen we are led through the dilapidated rooms of Alfoxton Park House. There’s a certainty to the movement now, brought by Jake and Tara on guitar and keyboard, and the video footage takes us outside: mist rolls through trees, dew vapour rises in the pale morning sun. The faces of meditators appear on the screen, their eyes closed, expressions serene.
Jayaraja begins: “There are in our existence, spots of time…” Words and music fill the room as the musicians play to the moving images, carrying Jayaraja’s reading of Wordsworth’s The Prelude like a boat on a gentle sea. Everyone is holding time together, playing for those meditators, for those hills and trees, pouring their love and affection into the music.
And I just sit and listen to the unfolding magic, taking a moment to appreciate the sublime (slightly nerve-wracking) experience of putting my film in the hands of these gifted experts for them to give it the final breath of life.
We are all here because of the way our lives have been touched by Alfoxton, each in our own way. It’s a cold, grey day in February 2022. The musicians have come to give their time and skill out of the sheer goodness of their hearts – for we can’t afford to pay them – to add the final elements to the documentary film which we all hope will inspire others and bring the Alfoxton story to life.
For one long weekend we have taken over the famous oak-panelled room of the main house, where we like to think Coleridge gave his first reading of his seminal poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s a jungle gym of microphone stands and cables, instruments and tea cups, coats and cushions, pens and paper. This is our play den for the weekend, our sacred space of musical storytelling.
Ben, a member of the Alfoxton community and the musical director for A Renovating Virtue, steers us through the process. “It’s a bit like cooking,” he tells me as we recall the experience together, one year later. He and I had talked before the weekend about how to manage my input during the recording. I needed to make sure the music was going in the right direction for the film, but it was important that the musicians always had a sense of creative freedom.
“Each piece of music was like making a meal,” he muses over the phone. “It’s hard to explain something while you’re in the midst of creating it. The meal has to be eaten by someone eventually, but at what point do you let them have a taste and say what they think?”
If I came in at the wrong time with feedback, it could disrupt the sensitive process. “Because the music was improv-based, the musicians were really bringing themselves into it,” Ben explains. “However they feel in the moment, that’s what goes into the music. My job was to make sure the musicians had good rapport with each other, and to hold a space in which it was okay to experiment and make mistakes.”
Our general process was something like this: we would all watch the film scene together a couple of times. Ben would then introduce whatever musical ideas he and I had agreed upon as starting points, and with the right amount of guidance from him, the musicians would play with the ideas, adding their own. Eventually, the piece grew organically into something ready to record.
I had already told Ben beforehand what I wanted each scene in the film to feel like; what its underlying sentiment was. He then communicated this to the group. It was important to me that the film should capture something of the magic of Alfoxton; that ineffable spirit, the myth and mystery. I also wanted the soundtrack to express the affection I feel in my heart for the people of Alfoxton. A musical embrace, if you like.
Once the music-making began, I did my best to be conscious and skilful with my feedback. Of course, that is easier said than done – as is often the case when collaborating with other artists. For me however, this is the beauty of filmmaking. The whole experience presented an excellent context for mindfulness practice: patience, not holding too tightly to ideas, giving in to the natural flow of things. Listening with full attention, staying in touch with myself, kind and timely speech.
As we progressed through the weekend, our sense of unity deepened. Each piece was its own creature. For some, we made use of ‘graphic scores’ – a visual way of communicating musical ideas without using traditional notation. Ben would plot the timeline of the piece on a large sheet of paper, and then add simple notes and symbols to signify changes.
For other pieces, it was even simpler. With the kitten scene, for example, each musician took it in turns to improvise their own response to the footage while watching. We then agreed on our favourite response and built from there.
“I wanted the music to be valuable in its own right as music, not just background noodling,” Ben recalls. We achieved this through the use of different time signatures and modes. One of the pieces uses the pelog scale – a pentatonic scale used in traditional Javanese gamelan music, and a favourite of Ben’s.
The weekend drew to a close. With all the intensity of spiritual and creative practice, it was important to let loose. On the last night we did just that by putting on a ‘5Rhythms’-style dance night for the community, with live music from the musicians. It was a special night.
Now, over a year later, much progress has been made with the renovation of Alfoxton Park – with plenty yet to do – and we continue to change and grow as a community. I find the mind itself is like a house, with countless rooms in varying states of repair. Some rooms are well-lived in; comfortable, familiar. Others have become long forgotten corners of the infinite estate of the imagination; dusty, dark and cold. There is work to be done, and in meditation each morning we set aside our trivial occupations in order to tend to and nourish ourselves, performing invisible repairs and refurbishments. We strive on to make this house of the mind one in which we can live happily, in harmony with others. A warm and welcoming place of potential, learning and growth. Such are our hopes for Alfoxton.
We nail it with that third take. As the music reaches its climax, Jayaraja celebrates the wonders of dawn breaking over the Quantocks in the words of Wordsworth. Together we pass over the bridge and return to the main chord sequence, hearts full of love and purpose, in gratitude to Alfoxton and each other.
Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit. On I walked,
In thankful blessedness, which yet survives.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude
In 2024 Alfoxton will host a ‘Music & the Dharma’ retreat, facilitated by Ben, with dates to be confirmed. Over five days of workshops and creative collaboration, we will explore the crossovers between music-making and spiritual practice.
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Listen to the Soundtrack
The full original score for ‘A Renovating Virtue’, including tracks from the initial director’s cut which didn’t make it into the final official edit. Free to download: donations appreciated – support Alfoxton!
The Alfoxton Diaries: February 2023
Featuring ‘Frost at Midnight’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Alfoxton Diaries: March 2023
Featuring readings from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals
The Alfoxton Diaries: April 2023
On birds of prey and connection to nature. With Pete the Temp!
The Alfoxton Diaries: June 2023
Drawing, painting, music, inspiration + good work = joy!
HELP ALFOXTON TO GROW
“Alfoxton is like nowhere else. A beautiful enchanted woodland teaming with wildlife, it is also a highly creative emerging arts retreat centre run by a warm and engaged Buddhist Sangha. The energy is palpable!”
“For me, Alfoxton can only be described as something of a miracle…If anything is worth supporting, this project is it. It gets my full and wholehearted recommendation.”
“Alfoxton: magical, surreal, cosmic – 100% authentic. It has blown open my heart, I’ve been so blessed and transformed by the community and the land. I am full of gratitude and hoping to contribute as much as I can to the vision…”
“Once in a rare while you find yourself in a place that is not only environmentally but also socially and spiritually inspiring. This was my experience at Alfoxton, connecting with old soul friends…”
“I love that there’s a community here who live so sympathetically with the land and appreciate all the creatures who live there. Alfoxton holds so much potential. And there’s so many ways that funding this place can have a positive impact.“
“Going to Alfoxton puts me in touch with my deepest values. I donate monthly because I don’t want to lose this precious resource. I want it to continue to grow and benefit the world.”
With deep thanks to Hartley Woolf, Jayaraja and the community at Alfoxton.
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