Suspended cymbal?

“Who wants a suspended cymbal?” asks percussionist J, ready to hand a cymbal on a stand over to one of the group.

“I’d rather have a suspended sentence,” was the bone-dry, rapid-fire response from one guy, and we all roared with laughter.

The Orchestra’s project in the prison started today. Me and three musicians from the orchestra, along with our fantastic sound designer D, and the music teacher from the prison S, had our first music workshop with nine guys from the prison. It’s a project idea that I have been nurturing and progressing at the Orchestra for several years now – so this day is particularly satisfying.

This has been one of those projects with a lot of unknowns that were never going to be answered before today. Things like:

  • How would the prisoners respond, and what would they be into?
  • How structured could the session be?
  • Would we be able to move away from simply jamming on songs they knew, towards freer, possibly more esoteric, improvisations and pieces?
  • Would the microphones distract or inhibit people’s responses?

This is a complex project, and its many elements came into being as a response to the characteristics of the environment. We are in a transitional prison, so we wanted to make sure that everyone who took part – even if they would only be around for one session – could somehow contribute to the final piece; we wouldn’t be able to do a final performance, not even in the prison, as many of our participants might not still be there by that date, therefore we needed a project design that didn’t lead to a performance outcome.

To get around all of these issues we have a sound designer involved. I’ve worked with David on different projects since 2000 – he is an amazing collaborator, very generous, very open to experiments, completely skilled and expert in his craft, and wonderful at translating the esoteric wordy descriptions of classical musicians looking for a particular sound into… exactly the sound they are looking for.

David comes to every session. He is recording all the conversations, all the improvisations, catching sound bites wherever he hears them, able to process in an instant a grab of sound, to make a cool rhythmic loop over which more improvisations can happen.

After the workshops in the prison are finished (and the workshops with families – we have two workshops for parents and/or children of people in prison) the musician team will gather together for a further three sessions, in which we will devise a performance piece, or suite of pieces, using the material from all the workshop sessions, and record it.

The CD of this recording will then be sent out to all of the participants, wherever they are. That will be in May.

Today was about finding out about the group. We did some great improvisations – using a chord progression to get us started, a riff that D had made from samples of some of the percussion instruments, a Spanish riff that one of the guys was twiddling with during a break that R, our cellist, picked up on, and an atmospheric wonderland using only metal instruments and started with the drone harmonics from Japanese temple bowls. There were also moments of the sublime, such as the intense focussed listening to R’s performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major. You could have heard a pin drop.

“Top that,” one of the guys said to R, our violinist. A hard act to follow, but R did, playing a jazz violin solo on “Just the Two of Us”, accompanied by S on the guitar and J on the kit.

So many memorable moments, but here are a few:

  • One guy saying, after R played her solo, “I makes me think about all the bad things I’ve done, and how I need to sort myself out.” Another guy described it like standing on the edge of a cliff, and watching the waves crash against the rocks then roll back out to see again … in and out, in and out, constant motion. He shrugged as he described it. “That’s just what I see.”
  • Two of the guys listening to a playback of one of our improvisations, and on hearing a sound they didn’t recognise, looked quizzically at each other, and then one remembered which instrument it was, and pointed to it. Really focused, detailed listening.
  • Feedback from the prison staff, talking to the guys after the session had ended, telling us about people who hadn’t been feeling well, but had felt better after getting involved in the session, and reported feeling, “really glad they had come down.”
  • Hearing people singing, very very quietly, the chorus of Just the two of us while R was playing his solo. It takes a lot of trust to sing together. This was a really exciting moment for me, as it suggested where we might be able to take this group.

During our orientation, the Prison’s General Manager came to meet us, and said emphatically that he was delighted this project was finally going ahead, after so much time and planning, and that if it helped “just one guy then it was worth it. Any more than one guy is an absolute bonus.”

At the end of today, M, the person who has been the main person to drive this project at the prison and see it come to fruition, told us that one guy had said to her, “It just reminds me that I shouldn’t be in here, that there are other things I should be doing with my life.” It’s important, she said, for us to remember this. “That kind of response is going to come – and this is on the first day. So you need to be aware of the impact you are going to be having.”

Very humbling.

My main intention and hope for this workshop was that it flow, that it have the freedom to respond to anything that came up from the group. This is pretty much what happened, I am happy and relieved to say. In between the improvisations, however, there was time for discussion, and ideas for starting points for songs and pieces of music. “It doesn’t need to be autobiographical,” I assured them. We talked briefly about the word ‘maps’ as a starting point. They didn’t like it. One said, “it’s more of a circle, than a map”, referring to the way many of them spend a lot of their lives going in and out of prison.

I’d had a fall-back plan, to brainstorm starting points and words together, but we didn’t end up needing this. It felt like the end of the session came of its own accord, when people were tired and happy.

So now I am building plans for the next session, taking place in two weeks time.

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