Volume 17 Number2
The Power of Music
01 April 2004

English musician Kathleen Johnson Dodds talks to Ann Rignall about song-writing, India and Renewal Arts

Kathleen Johnson Dodds has always loved music. Even as a small girl she used to make up tunes. However, when she came to leave school in Hertfordshire, England, the idea of a musical career had never occurred to her. ‘I was smothered with suggestions from teachers and parents and I felt more and more confused,’ she says. Then somebody asked her, ‘What do you enjoy doing?’

‘She was the first person who used the word “enjoy”. Of course I knew the answer, and along with the decision to go to music college came an amazing peace of mind. I come from a family of preachers, and I was trying to escape from organized religion. However, that sense of inner release felt new to me.’

During her time at the Royal Academy of Music, she was inspired by one of her professors, who had earlier taught in schools. ‘Her enthusiasm was infectious. All her ideas were drawn from real classroom experience and soon the unglamorous prospect of teaching had become fascinating.’

She decided to give teaching a try and says that it ‘mostly’ remained fascinating. ‘What I really enjoyed was working with smaller examination groups, because they had chosen to study music and we got to know each other very well. Piano teaching is also rewarding, because each pupil is a unique character. Teenagers can reach a point when life seems to allow no time for practice. Yet the ones who are truly enjoying it do make time and find it the perfect antidote to pressure.’

After three years teaching in Kent, she moved to a school in Switzerland. It was here, in the holidays, that she began to get involved with the plays and music at Caux, the international centre for MRA/IC.

At that time, around 1960, there was serious violence in Cyprus, involving Greek and Turkish Cypriots and Britain as the colonial power. ‘A Greek and a Turkish girl in my school had attacked each other with razor blades. At Caux, a delegation from Cyprus was presenting a play about what was at stake on the island. It had some haunting music and I was asked to be part of the piano duo that accompanied it.

‘I had accompanied operettas before, but this had a different quality. It was connected with real people from a life-or-death situation. My self-centred mindset had been blown right open into something bigger.’

Two years later she was in London for an interview for a post in a big school. The night before the interview she could not sleep. She felt something telling her this job was not for her. ‘I said “OK God, if this is not it, then what do you want me to do?” Absolutely no answer came back. But next morning I phoned up and cancelled the interview.’

What she didn’t know was that a musical called Space is So Startling was already being written. It set the search for meaning, which characterized the 1960s, against the background of the superpowers’ race for space. When she reached Caux that summer, music was already coming hot off the presses.

Kathleen was invited to travel with the show on a tour of five countries, the last of which was India. Here hundreds of students flocked to meet the cast and to take part in leadership training camps run by MRA.

One morning as the tour ended she woke up with the thought, ‘You must stay on here. You are needed.’ She stayed for four and-a-half-years, living in people’s homes. It was during this period that she began writing songs.

Her first was written on a long train journey from Madras to Pune. The train travelled for hours through bare droughtridden countryside, where the soil had been bleached almost white. The words of Water for a Thirsty Land came from ‘deep within’ her and the rhythm of the train helped to create the music:

There is a stream of water
Which will fill and satisfy
It comes to you as you give it away
And it never, never runs dry.

It was a personal testimony as well as a statement of what she saw around her.

In India there was a constant stimulus to write songs. At one point, Kathleen travelled with a group of young Indians who often gave presentations in schools. The pupils were used to hearing talks about good behaviour, but the idea of changing India by starting with oneself was an angle that caught on, especially if conveyed with humour and music. Creativity flowed from many Indians as well, until eventually the musical revue India Arise came to birth. It toured both India and Europe.

When she returned to Britain, Kathleen collaborated with several writers, resulting in a succession of musicals, some produced at the Westminster Theatre, then owned by MRA. ‘From a composer’s point of view, it is a liberation to tackle a full-length drama. A wide spectrum of moods and emotions is called for. The sound of the human singing voice has been one of my great loves, along with the fascination of combining words and melody.’

In 1985, she married the former Essex cricketer TC ‘Dickie’ Dodds, who was involved with an innovative development programme in Thailand. They spent their honeymoon there, the first of six visits. This led her to learn about and appreciate Buddhism, the country’s main religion. Recently she inherited the diary of her grandmother, whom she never knew, and discovered that she had also studied Buddhism, as well as being a singer.

Dickie shared her love of music and remarked more than once that sport and music between them could change the world. He was supportive, until his death in 2001, as a worldwide network of artists began to evolve, called Renewal Arts. It was formally launched at a conference in Caux in 2000, and will host its third conference there this summer (24–30 July).

‘The seed of Renewal Arts was planted when the first caveman did his first wallpainting,’ says Kathleen. ‘The essence of art’s transforming power comes from the Creator.

‘At the heart of artists’ calling is a mystery which defies logic. Freud is said to have disliked music because he couldn’t analyse what it was doing to him. But I find that it is at this very point, where we don’t know and can’t explain, that the power of music lies. How is it that over and over again, difficult circumstances have enabled composers to produce their most profound and positive work? What can the world learn from this?

‘I have been rediscovering the variety of ways in which listening to music can alter my whole view of life.’ She gives a recent example of returning home tired and putting on a CD of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. ‘In the second movement an overwhelming wave of compassion hit me. It didn’t say I ought to have compassion for others, in fact it released me from the straitjacket of “ought”, and just showed me what it’s like to be on the receiving end. It was as if I’d not grasped the meaning of the word before. I couldn’t keep the tears back.

‘Beethoven knew much pain. He has at last got through to me the unconditional nature of God’s love. It takes the strain out of life, and I’m finding the “fizz” that I thought I’d lost!’

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