Prison project – planning the last 2 sessions

Tomorrow and the next day I go back into the prison for the final two music workshops with the inmates. This evening I have been listening to some of the material we have created so far in our improvisations. I don’t have recordings of everything – this is a very prolific project, with a lot of material created. Our sound designer burns me grabs when he can but things get hectic in our workshops, especially at the end when we have to pack up and re-account for all the gear, so I only have about 40 minutes of material to listen to so far.

Even so, it is pretty interesting. I thought I’d write this post to record what my thoughts are at this midpoint. Given that every workshop plan I have made so far in this project has not been followed at all (due to the momentum in the workshops always taking us in new, unexpected directions), it could be interesting to look back at the end and see how much things did or didn’t change.

One thing that we haven’t really been able to develop so far is stories, or writing, or words of any kind. It is a tricky thing to broach. I sense the guys are wary of the starting points I suggest – wary of being expected to reveal or disclose personal things, or highlight the life experiences that have brought them here. I try to suggest quite neutral starting points – but in their neutrality they raise suspicions. For example, in the first week I suggested a project focus might be musical maps – of any kind – imaginary or otherwise. But the immediate reaction was quite negative and frowning.

I think that any writing work we do, or development of any words specifically for the piece, needs to focus on the things we all share, rather than the notion of things that separate us.

One guy has shared with us a poem he wrote. It is quite beautiful, a love poem, with a hint of darkness at the end. So I want to use that. In the second week, we spent some time exploring ways of accompanying a reading of the poem musically, but didn’t come up with anything conclusive.

I feel like the project, and the musical material we have made so far, could really benefit from some kind of over-arching narrative or theme to connect it all.

Musically, we have recorded:

  • A couple of improvisations based around guitar chord progressions. These were in the first week, and the rhythm sections we devised were quite simple.
  • A shiny, gleaming, quite spooky piece that uses all the metallic instruments, and opens with a very dark guitar solo.
  • A Spanish-inspired piece, a completely unplanned, off-the-cuff improvisation that grew from the guitar-picking twiddles of one of the guys and got picked up by our cellist. It starts very freely, with lots of melismatic , intertwined solos, then settles into quite an intense, rhythmic piece.
  • A piece involving only drums, and a syncopated rhythm.
  • A piece involving interlocking rhythmic parts, that we built up in layers, and also de-constructed in layers. I think this one had a violin solo. It provoked an intense, sweating, determined effort from the guys, who were rewarded, they later said, by finding it so challenging but sticking with it until they could do it.
  • A piece based around a guitar chord progression that, in its first guise in the prison, drew forth a Celtic-style electric violin solo from our violinist. We revisited the music in our family workshops last week, and developed it further, adding more parts. It has a very nostalgic, sweet feeling to me.
  • Lots in D major. This is probably largely because the Japanese temple bowls, which we have used in every session, and which everyone loves, are pitched roughly in D. From a compositional point of view, it is useful to have a kind of ‘home key’.

Is there a story or theme or narrative that could somehow connect each of these pieces of music, and give them a natural order?

Could the poem from the first session be set just partly to music? Or should we set the whole thing? It isn’t very long. Earlier we only tried to create a musical accompaniment for it. Could one of the guys work on a way to set it to music? There is one guy who writes a lot of his own songs. Perhaps we could give the words to him and ask him to come up with something.

It would also be interesting to record the process of setting the words of the poem to music.

The participants in the family workshops all recorded three spoken ideas – their names, one thing they liked, and one special memory. Could we do a similar exercise with the guys, as a way of generating more words?

Other ideas I have for generating more words (written or spoken):

  • Letters (we talked in the last session about how they communicate with their loved ones outside. Some seemed a little irritated by this line of questioning, but it got them talking and revealed some interesting stories)
  • People. Perhaps we could ask them to each describe a person (real or imagined), telling us first something about their physical appearance, and then a further detail about being in their presence. For example, “He was the tallest man I’d ever seen, and his hands shook when we spoke”, or “She was round and smiley like an apple, and her perfume made my head spin”. That kind of format. We could take it in turns to invent a description and then choose a few to invent more about as a group. Could this be a way for the guys to offer a description of someone special to them, someone who they might later play the final composition recording to?

Our ‘people’ descriptions could lead to a few of them being explored as music too.

Song-writing – we haven’t really explored this much at all. What would we/could we write a song about? Is there a shared topic?

Perhaps asking the guys who they would like to play the final recording to, might be a way to decide what should be on it. Whether it should be memories, or true stories, or imagined… or just music, with no connecting threads.

As ever, it is all in the questions. The right questions for this group, on this day, will yield fruits of unimagined richness. So I will put this post out there, and maybe others will have some more ideas or questions.


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