The singing roadie

This afternoon we concluded our prison workshop project – the workshop side of things, that is. We finished the project with two consecutive workshop days, so saw lots of the same guys again today as we saw yesterday.

At the start of the session I wrote up the list that D (sound designer) and I had compiled of all the things we still needed – musically, and recording-wise – on the white board. As we worked out way through the session, completing things, I crossed off the tasks. There was a pleasing moment of ceremony when the time came to cross off the last item. ‘It’s a rap!” someone called. “It’s in the can.”

Today’s session started with a surprise. The prison’s program staff had managed to persuade another unit – possibly in the relevant government department, I’m not sure – to let them buy a didgeridoo in time for today’s session. I wouldn’t have thought it were possible to do it so quickly, but somehow the didg was bought – a beautiful, honey-coloured, warm, throaty didgeridoo – and was there at the start of our workshop.

One of the guys knew how to play it and started straight away. Another guy – Joe (not his real name), the one person who has been in all of our sessions and wrote the poem that has been quite a focal point for compositions – picked up one of the Japanese temple bowls and got it started with a low harmonic hum. R, our cellist, also started to play. We found ourselves in the middle of a mesmerising, free improvisation without even realising it.

From there, we moved onto our first song. We had asked two of the guys the day before to see if they could come up with some chords or a melody for the poem that one of them had written and recorded for us back in the first session. Meanwhile, D and I had a fall-back plan – chords and a melody of our own, inspired by the enigmatic guitar riff at the start of our ‘metallic’ improvisation from Week 1.

As it turned out, the two guys hadn’t come up with anything, so Plan B it was. This was really carried by R – our roadie, but also a fine singer and mighty generous soul. He is the roadie and production crew, but he has also been part of all the workshop sessions in the prison. And in his spare time, he’s a singer, with an intense dark, powerful voice.

R sang the melody he had created the night before sitting around D’s kitchen table with a beer (where we held our mini-debrief). I taught the guys a backing vocal riff. Then we set up the instrumental accompaniments (drums, vibraphone, cello, violin, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, guitars). We put the whole lot together and cycled it round for awhile, then broke off into sections to record each part separately. No click tracks – we just gathered round the microphone in a huddle.

‘What do you think, Joe?” I asked the guy who had written the poem. He just smiled. He seemed pretty happy with the result I think.

Another guy – Bill (not his real name either) – had arrived at the session with a clutch of poems and stories he had written. I only had time to glance over them. He’d written something the day before too, which I was keen for us to work with in some way today. In the end we had more material than we could work with on the day, but I shall hang on to Bill’s writing as I think it may have a presence in the recording stage of the project.

Next on the To Do list was to record the guys’ responses to some questions. This was a way of generating possible text and words to include in the final recorded piece. Inspired by Bill’s first poem, we had hit upon the idea of ‘windows’ as a loose theme or narrative for the final composition. We would create a series of movements, each of which would be a different ‘window’ onto a scene, or a point of view, or imagined view. The windows could be real-life scenarios, or memories, or invented, or metaphoric. (“The window into your mind,” one guy offered. Exactly.)

To get them thinking I asked R to play a couple of solo pieces. When any of the Orchestra players have played in sessions, it holds everyone spellbound. In that listening space that is created, people also start to create images in their minds. R started with an excerpt from the Dvorak Cello Concerto (“A piece that he wrote when he had moved away from his home country, when he was in love with his sister-in-law, and he knew that she was dying. He was never going to see her again”) and then a movement of solo Bach. After each piece I asked the guys what images had come to mind. After the Bach one guy said,

“Surfing. It makes me think of surfing, and the waves… coming in and going out, round and around…”

“Interesting,” said R, violinist. “Beacesue last time we played Bach someone else had a similar image – of standing on the top of a cliff looking at the waves below…”

“It’s like he’s arguing with himself,” said Bill. “He’s having this conversation, but he just ends up where he started, because the music ends the way it began.”

“Yeah,” joins in R. “But he’s gone somewhere, in the meantime…” And the two of them continued a while longer to debate the narrative of the Bach solo piece.

At this point we took a break, but J (percussionist) and D took the guys one by one outside into the garden to record their responses to our questions about windows. (What can you see out your window? What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen? What can you see in your fantasy window?” – apparently these responses are pretty … well, fantasy-based, let’s say! – Your vision of a perfect world?). While they did this the rest of us had a cup of tea and a natter.

After break we came back, did a few quick sound-effect recordings, putting together a ‘snowball effect’ and a ‘ticking time bomb’. These may prove useful as transitions between movements in the final recording.

Lastly we worked with Bill’s poem. We wanted to use the didgeridoo again, which was in C, so S (guitarist and music teacher in the prison) came up with a hooky chord progression based around A minor and got the group of guitarists started on it.

It was very satisfying how quickly this last improvisation came together. People just fell into role. I gave the words to R, and asked if he would improvise another vocal for us, which he did, wonderfully. I conducted people in and out, to give us some variations in texture. Then built it up to a big finish, and we ended with a sudden stop and a loud crash on the tam-tam.

That was where we finished up. I thanked them all for being part of the project and working with us so open-heartedly. Good luck to you all, we wished them. Afterwards, individuals lingered, and came up to each of us one by one to thank us and shake our hand.

It was a very satisfying and memorable session. Not an easy one, but one that yielded a lot of strong responses. I felt that, looking around the group at the end, there was a palpable sense of pride and achievement among the guys. They had got a lot out of this project, and out of the process.

It doesn’t end here. The next thing is for me, and then D, to go through all the recorded material. We have to weed out what we don’t need, and compile all the raw footage that we want to work with into a CD to give to the prison authorities. They have right of approval and veto. Once we have the sign-off from them on the footage we can use, D and I will start to structure and layer all the ideas. At this point the creative process is a little like research process – I’ll be searching through the data for the common themes, looking for ways of linking separate moments and experiences together in meaningful ways.

Once we have our basic structure, we can then ascertain what more we need from the Orchestra musicians. We then will have a couple of days in the studio to put the whole piece together, with the sounds recorded in the prison workshops working as ‘voices’ in the mix. That’s how I imagine it will work, anyway! Does it make sense? In my head it does. D has a pretty good idea of what we’ll do, too. We record at the end of May. Once we have done it, it will be easier to describe!


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