Archive for the ‘Prisons’ Category

Music in immigration detention, day 4

I’ve now given my fourth and final workshop at the immigration detention centre. John (guitarist and music volunteer) and I returned to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation on Saturday afternoon equipped with a range of  guitar, drums and other percussion, and together with the young men there we worked our way through our repertoire of music from Iran and Afghanistan, with some spontaneous improvisations along the way.

Once again, the workshop set its own pace in a very organic way. It had a sense of ease and familiarity to it, I felt, perhaps as a result of the warm relationships that we’ve been building over these last few weeks. We were greeted by Hussein, the singer, and Arun, the young man who’d started learning some guitar chords in the previous workshop. For the first time, no-one moved to take the drums, or pull percussion out of the crates. Today, the mood was more reflective, and when the music began in its usual emergent, un-led way, it was with everyone playing guitar. We showed Hussein the two chords (E minor and A sus 2) that we’d worked with the previous week, and the four of us strummed in rhythm together, getting a rich full sound from the guitars.

A new person wandered in – Mustafa, another young man from Afghanistan. He left again almost immediately but returned minutes later with his own guitar. It had a broken string but John found a way to fix that, and then got him started on the chords.

I think it was Hussein breaking into song that might have moved us away from the chords and onto some percussion. I think he might have started with a song that we didn’t already know but that invited some energetic drumming. From that first casual improvisation we began to move through the material we already knew from previous weeks.

Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete

Soltane Ghalbhe?” I suggested to Hussein. He looked back at me, and countered with “Saghe”.

Soltane,” I said again, thinking that perhaps my pronunciation was wrong and he hadn’t understood me. “Saghe,” he repeated, with a persuasive smile and perhaps some steely determination. Who was I to argue with such enthusiasm? So we launched into Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete.

We needed to change the key this week – we’d been playing it in the same key as the CD but it was too high for Hussein. Easy for John on guitar to adjust of course! But it moved it into an awkward key signature for me and when we got to the instrumental break I realised that I hadn’t quite assimilated the new key properly. I broke off and Hussein looked at me in bemusement. “What, what?” he asked, gesturing at me and at his friends in mock dismay.

This halt in proceedings meant another song got started, and I worried we wouldn’t get to do Saghe with everyone (I confess, it is a favourite of mine as it took quite a bit of learning). Still, this new song sounded fun. When I sat back down again I asked Hussein, “Can we sing the new song again?”, hoping I could learn it.  He gave me the quizzical look that I now know he always gives me when I suggest doing something again. “What would we want to do that for?” it seems to ask. Every now and then he humours me with these strange requests but that day wasn’t one of those times. Never mind. I tried out the clarinet solo for Saghe in the new key, the new song got discarded, and we were ready to get going.

John started the song with a short rhythmic intro, and then Hussein began singing, with the clarinet also playing the tune. The rest of the guys (including John) joined in on the chorus ‘response’ and we sounded pretty good, pretty tight! It still moves at a fantastic pace and it’s tricky to keep the 6/8 feeling going, but overall we were a much more aware ensemble this week.

Soltane Galbhe

From there, we moved to Soltane Ghalbhe (King of Hearts).

I didn’t really like this song when I first hunted it down on YouTube. On my first couple of listens it sounded like one of the overblown, full-orchestra, grandiose versions of folk songs that were so popular in Bosnia at the time I worked there. However, since we started singing it each week at MITA, I’ve developed a great fondness for it. The melody has a sense of yearning or heartache in its phrases, and it feels like it has a powerful emotional resonance for the guys, who always sing it in full voice. John played the guitar, Arun provided an additional E minor chord drone, and I played the melody on the glockenspiel, accompanying the singers.

There was a point where I think the singers felt the song had ended, but I kept it going on the clarinet, playing the melody once more. As I experienced in my first week at MITA, in very expressive, emotion-filled musical moments such as this, the clarinet has a way of pulling the focus of the group inwards in quite an intense way. The room becomes stiller, and they give their attention to the instrument and the sound.

Soltane Ghalbha has a verse (played 2 times) followed by a chorus, higher in pitch and with a sense of emotion and yearning. The singers joined in again when I reached this point and together we played/sang through to the end of the song. I caught Hussein’s eye at one point, his face was serious as he sang, and it was clear to me that this song, at this moment, had a huge sense of poignancy for them. There was silence after it ended, and then they all breathed out, or slightly nodded or shook their heads, making connection with each other in response to the song, no words exchanged.

Bia ke borem ba Mazar

The remainder of the workshop was focused on Bia ke borem ba Mazar, that I now know is about a well-known pilgrimage city in Afghanistan, home to a very beautiful mosque.You can see it in this video:

With four guitars at our disposal (two of John’s, one of mine, and one belonging to Mustafa) we decided to teach the guys how to play the chords for this song.

We taught the chords one at a time, and labelled each as ‘chord 1’, ‘chord 2’, ‘chord 3, and ‘chord 4’. Arun was a quick learner, as was Hussein. They got used to watching our fingers to check the chord shape, and then checking in on each other’s fingers in order to stay together. They picked up on the way I was numbering the strings of the guitar as a way of explaining each of the chords (eg. A minor, our ‘chord 1’, uses strings 2, 4 and 3) and began to repeat these strings of numbers to themselves as a way of remembering the different fingerings. One of the MITA staff members lent us a marker and we drew up some big chord diagrams and labelled these too.

Meanwhile, Mustafa was keen to learn the glockenspiel part. We worked through the first three phrases (which are a melodic sequence) slowly. Once he’d got these memorised we added the fourth phrase. This took more than an hour of work on his part, I’d say, and it was extraordinary to see how focused he was. He gave himself barely a break, and played it over and over again, phrase by phrase.

Once the guitarists had the four chords ready, we started to put the two lines together. We would pause on the penultimate note of each phrase to give the guitarists time to change to the next chord, and gradually these pauses became shorter until the chord changes were happening more or less in time.

I played the clarinet along with Mustafa, providing a guide. By now too, we’d been joined by a number of other guys (the ones we usually see towards the end of the session – I think of them as the ‘late-risers’), and they were happy to sing along. Our group garnered quite a bit of attention from people wandering through the building, including interpreters and other MITA staff – I think we sounded pretty impressive by that stage.

Numbers began to dwindle in the last half-hour. Hussein and Arun stood up, shook our hands and wandered off – they had computer time booked, I think, and didn’t want to lose it. Some more guys came to join us.

One was the authoritative young man who’d informed us of the price of keyboards in Pakistani marketplaces, back in week 2. He is an interesting person, with such a hunger for intellectual stimulation, I think. He picked up the descant recorder that I’d brought along (hoping to see Javid, the recorder player from the previous week) and began to play. He clearly had experience with wind instruments as he played with a strong tone, and moved his fingers in intricate repetitive patterns, sliding his fingers to create quarter-tones and fluttering them on and off the holes to create a kind of vibrato effect. I improvised along with him for a while, mimicking his phrases, and adding echo-lines.

After a while, he stopped, took the recorder from his mouth and said sadly, “But, this instrument is no good. It’s not a good sound.” I agreed with him – this was a plastic recorder, and definitely had its limitations! Still, he did more with it than many. I could imagine him playing a wooden instrument.

Later he went to the kitchen to make tea – “Pakistani-style tea!” he told me proudly. I watched as he filled two cups 2/3 full of milk, and put it in the microwave to boil, then put three tea-bags in a third cup, filled it with boiling water in the urn and added this to the microwave too. When everything was boiled and brewing, he poured the tea into the cups of milk, which was now frothy and thoroughly boiled, added sugar, gave one to me and carried the second one out to give to John.

Our session ended on time today, because everyone left! As I said, it had its own organic shape to it, from start to finish. We never suggested doing the concert in the Visitor Centre. There was no activity officer working with us today to facilitate it, but in any case, it didn’t feel necessary. I loved the focused, studious learning energy that we tapped into in this session. The frantic, almost competitive noise and energy of earlier sessions was transformed into something calmer, more focused and collaborative.

This was the last of my booked workshops at MITA. Hopefully they will decide to continue them – it feels to me like it is too early to stop. The guys are only just getting used to the fact that we come along every Saturday afternoon, and what they can expect from, and ask of, the workshops. Maybe in time, the range of what we do will broaden, to include more improvisation, perhaps some songwriting, as well as the performances of music from their countries. I think it has been a good experience for everyone so far. It certainly has been for me and John.

Making human connections through music – day 3 at the refugee centre

My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!

We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.

As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.

However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.

Continue reading

Music in immigration detention, part 2

I made my second visit out to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] recently, leading music workshops with the young men there. Once again it was a session with lots of music and energy, that demonstrated  the way that music offers these young men a way to explore their skills and their sense of identity through music. It also generated some interesting questions about ways of working with structure and form (in terms of music, and in terms of workshop content) in this challenging environment.

My first visit was 3 weeks ago, with the following two sessions postponed due to illness (mine) and a lock-down (at MITA, due to a public protest). I was joined for this second visit by a volunteer, John. John is a guitarist and mandolin player (though an economist by trade). The MITA Activities Officer also took part in the session.

During the week I’d been thinking about establishing a bit more structure in the workshops. Would the group benefit from, and respond well to, a warm-up activity of some kind? I planned a simple task that would teach us all each other’s names and kept this in mind as a starting point. However, the first guys to arrive began playing instruments as soon as they entered the space and once they’d started, it wasn’t easy to stop them. The level of English is generally very low, and without an interpreter, it is more effective to go with the flow of their energy than to try and impose a different activity to what they have started themselves.

Continue reading

Afghani songs (or maybe Iranian)

I’ve been hunting down songs this evening, following the titles, lyrics and artist names that the guys in the detention centre wrote down for me last week. Here are a couple that they sang to me, and wrote the lyrics down for:

Sound quality is a bit dodge, but the songs are great. And I love the nonchalant way the guy in the first film clip clicks his fingers during the instrumental breaks.

Music in immigration detention

Yesterday I led my first workshop with the young men at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation [MITA] – a secure facility for people being held in immigration detention. The Melbourne site is accommodating a large number of young men only, many of them unaccompanied minors. They are in their mid- to late teens, I would say.

I’ve been invited to lead a series of 4 workshops with them. For this first session, I kept things pretty open. I knew very little about the group, or about the space, so wanted to be able to respond as we went along, rather than have a firm and highly structured plan. I also didn’t know what to expect from the cohort. The little I have read about MITA describes a highly stressful place, with young men who are potentially depressed, highly anxious, disengaged, maybe angry…. so I was working with a lot of unknowns.

MITA is situated in an outer suburb – about 45 minutes drive from my home. It is in an Army Barracks – a huge site with lots of different buildings and lots of cyclone fencing. You can drive straight into the site, but need to park and sign in at reception when you get to the Immigration Accommodation centre. After signing in, I was directed to drive further into the site, so that I could unload all my instruments as close to the workshop venue as possible.

I brought a big range of instruments with me – a djembe, a darabukkah, a conga, a big tub of mixed percussion, a glockenspiel, an autoharp, some temple blocks – probably three trips to and from the car! We worked in the Recreation Room, a large, carpeted space with table–tennis tables at one end. Young guys were hanging around, and as we brought instruments in, one or two began to play, tapping randomly.

The Activities Program officer (who’d set up the music workshops) brought some chairs into the space and we arranged these in a semi-circle, facing the collection of instruments and with our backs to the table-tennis tables. About eight guys wandered over to take part.

At first I took my lead from them. They picked up different instruments, tried them out, swapped with another person, watched my demonstrations, pulled more instruments out of the tub, and generally explored. One guy picked up the guitar, and focused hard on his fingers on the strings, as if trying to remember patterns learned long ago.

From these very loose beginnings, some structure emerged. One guy began to play a rhythm and I played along with him, copying his rhythm. Others joined in, playing drums and other instruments, and we were jamming. I tried a few cues – “One, two, three, four, STOP!” – and we’d all stop, and then on the next cue – “One, two, three, GO” – we’d start up again. A Vietnamese man on the glockenspiel was picking out melodies, using the rhythm from the drums but creating sequences. During the next STOP I introduced the idea of a SOLO to them. When we stopped, I’d point to one person to play a solo. The glockenspiel player did the first of these solos, but many others took their moment in the spotlight too.

I noticed the guitarist picking out a meek little riff in A minor. “Play it again!” I urged him. I don’t think he understood what I was saying. “Repeat!” I tried. “Again!” “Yes!” “More!”. The other guys understood and soon the guitarist did too. I wanted to see if we could start to add some melodic riffs to our playing.

Then the man on maracas started to sing along with the guitar. I turned my attention to him. “A song! Sing! Is it a Vietnamese song?”

He laughed. “Yes, yes, Vietnamese song!” and began singing again. However, he only seemed to sing a fragment of a phrase, and then stopped.

I got my clarinet out. For me, the fastest way to learn a melody is to figure it out on the clarinet. They all watched as I took the instrument out. I found the starting pitch of the song. “Sing it again,” I urged him. He sang, and I followed, and then I realised why they were laughing. Vietnamese song indeed! This was Lambada!

“Okay, great!” I said. “Let’s jam on Lambada!” I played, and the drummers drummed, the man on the maracas sang and the man on the glockenspiel played the melody too. Lambada must surely count as a truly international song these days.

That was our first jam. Next, I led them in a rendition of This Old Hammer, a great bluesy song that can be sung as an echo song and has very few lyrics to learn. Again, my man on the glock had the melody almost immediately. Even when I changed the key so that the autoharp could accompany it.

As time progressed, different people wandered away from the group, and others wandered up to join us. The demographic changed from majority Vietnamese to majority Afghani and Iranian (speaking Farsi). A new guy picked up the guitar and began to play each of the open strings one by one, very slowly. I went to show him a chord but he brushed me away, content to continue as he was.

There was a poignancy to the notes as he played them. I joined in on the clarinet, matching each of the pitches but holding the notes longer, and tapering the sound away at the end of each. I felt the energy in the room drop, as people began to stop what they were doing and listen to our improvised duet. Sometimes I matched the guitarist’s notes, other times I harmonised them. All the while, it remained a quiet, spacious, intimate improvisation. Watching the guitarist, I couldn’t tell if he had registered my involvement or not. He didn’t look up at me, or respond in any particular way to what I was doing, but he continued to play, up until the moment that he looked up, smiled and laughed at nothing in particular, moved onto something else and released his music (and listeners) into the air.

These guys knew each other’s language and knew many of the same songs. They sang in full voices, sometimes playing random accompaniments on the different instruments, but often content to just sing. I also played for them. “Your instrument is a sad instrument,” one solemn-faced young man told me. “It gives us a sad feeling.” I thought I knew what he meant. “I think the clarinet has a sound of remembering,” I told him. It was my way of saying nostalgic. He nodded. “Yes, it reminds us.” I played them Krunk, the song from Armenia about a bird being sent out into the world to call all the Armenians of the diaspora to return to their homeland. It’s a song about the pain of displacement. They fell quiet as they listened.

At the end of the song, the solemn-faced boy said, “It is like a song we have, a song from Iran.” He began to sing in an expressive, soulful voice, and the melodic phrases did indeed bear many similarities to Krunk.

I asked them to teach me some of the songs. One man was appointed scribe and wrote the words out, using English letters but Farsi sounds. I proposed an idea for the following week:

“Let’s choose 2 or 3 songs to work on – maybe songs from your country, songs from Australia” (“Yes, yes, songs from Australia,” they all agreed), “and we can present them to people in the Visitor Centre on my last day, in 4 weeks time.”

They liked this idea very much, so we now have a plan. I will bring my portable recorder next week (I’ll need to get special authorisation for this, but hopefully that will be granted) and record them singing their songs. Then I can learn them properly at home. (They tend to interrupt themselves and each other too frequently for me to be able to learn the songs properly during the workshops). My scribe also wrote down the names and artists of two songs, so that I can try and find them on the internet. I haven’t done this yet – it is a task for this week.

As for the Australian song, “Something about the Aboriginal people,” was the request from the group. I’ll have a think about what that could be during the week too.

It was a lovely afternoon. It followed a very organic pattern of playing, then chatting, then playing or singing some more. At one point, around 4pm, I asked if they were tired. “No!” they said, but one added, “Are you tired?”

“A little bit,” I admitted. So he made me a cup of tea, taking care to ask what kind of tea I would like, and if I wanted milk or sugar. So I felt welcomed in many ways that afternoon, and hope that the opportunity to play music together and sing was something that gave them lots of pleasure and comfort too. Music lets us connect to the whole parts of ourselves – not the outsider, not the refugee, not person waiting to find out his fate, not the teacher, not the student… just to whoever it is we are at our core. When life is filled with uncertainty, stress and fear, this is an important connection to maintain.

 

Prison recordings, Uni students, career pondering

It is one of those weeks where there seems to be so much going on, I can’t get my thoughts straight enough to write a new blog post. It is all good stuff though – I feel like I am about to emerge from the wilderness of Too Much Work, in Too Little Time, into a period of comparable calm.

This week marks the final week of the Prison Project. We are at the recording stage and the musicians, DF Sound Designer and I spend Monday in the studio. Tomorrow (Friday) we will be joined by Mr B, the guitarist and music teacher based in the prison. All the prisoners and children we have worked with are preserved in the project via the recordings we made in the workshops.

Monday’s in-studio time was great. We listened to some of the tracks that DF and I have put together, interweaving voices with music from our many improvisations, and added some further solos, riffs and  vocals. Altogether we will have about ten tracks. Tomorrow we will get the guitar tracks down, record another solo Bach piece, and when we’re all done go for celebratory lunch, as it has been quite a bonding journey for us all.

Also this week, my 9am class at the University performed their end-of-term compositions. These are first-year Bachelor of Education students, completing a Primary Classroom music unit over 9 weeks, and they have to create an original composition, inspired by a chosen stimulus, working in small groups. I was thoroughly impressed with their work. Their pieces had structure and clarity, were very well-rehearsed, took risks with the new music skills they have been learning, were bold and innovative…. it was fabulous to see the performances one after the other. I don’t think I have ever had all the groups in a class score so highly.

Today I met with SY, the drama and story artist I collaborated with for a Professional Development day for teachers earlier this year. We met up to talk through the various pitfalls of freelance work as an artist working in schools and with teachers, designing and teaching content. I wanted to pick her brains about conference work, and how she sets about generating new work. She had lots of useful things to share with me, but even more importantly, it was so valuable to be able to sit down together and talk through the work, and various issues that arise with different employers. We talked a lot about money – setting fees, negotiating and communicating these agreements without putting people’s noses out of joint who think you should be cheaper.

I have been doing a bit of reading about Teaching Artist issues lately (as I ponder my future existence and if I want to stay in this line of work for much longer) and want to share a couple of interesting articles. The first (here) is a very comprehensive set of ground rules for artist-school partnerships; the second (here) a ‘wish-list’ for Teaching Artists. Both come from the United States, where issues seem similar to here, but where perhaps dialogue is more established.

I am thinking a lot at the moment about a career change. I am good at what I do – really good – and dedicated, with a growing profile, but the money is so poor! As life gets more and more expensive I have to consider how sustainable the work I have chosen to pursue actually is. A few years doing something less artistic could be a good way to go. I don’t know though. I would miss it. And I have worked so hard to build what I have. No decisions yet – and no rush! My main priority in 2008 is to finish my Masters. But after that….who knows?  I am thinking about that time, at the moment.

Recordings from the prison

I spent the day at DF’s studio (he being the sound designer on the prison project I have written about recently). We had the task today of going through all the recorded footage from our workshops in the prison, and with the children and families of prisoners, and selecting the excerpts we know we want to work with in our recording sessions with the orchestral musicians.

It was a big task, as we recorded everything that took place in our workshop sessions! But I am writing this at 6pm and we are ready for our next studio day. We have a project title, and subtitles for four sections. We have started to plot where the musical and spoken excerpts fit in each section. We are also gathering short excerpts that could work well as transition music/sounds.

Here is how it maps out:

The other side of the window (our title, taken from a line in a poem by one of the guys)

Section 1 – What do you see when you look out a light window?

Section 2 – What do you see when you look out a dark window?

Section 3 – What do you hope to see through your window?

Section 4 – What is the most special or beautiful thing you have ever seen through a window?

We have two songs, with words drawn from poems written by two of the guys (and sung by our multi-talented roadie). One of the songs is linked to a much longer instrumental piece. We also have a number of guitar loops, that were the starting points for long improvisations in our workshops.

When we meet again next week, DF and I will first pull out all the short excerpts we want to use, and place them in the most appropriate section. We didn’t have these titles already in mind when we conducted most of the workshops – the idea only came about in our final workshop in the prison. However, lots of the material we have fits under one of these subtitles or themes.

We are working in ProTools.

I’ve been feeling worried about the enormity of this aspect of the prison project – recording work can be so time-consuming, and it is hard to predict how long it will take. Our timeline, however, is completely set and inflexible. Our studio time is already booked (from about 12 months ago). We need to get approval from the Prison Management on the raw footage we want to work with, before we can start moving it around and putting effects on it, or processing it and arranging it in other ways. I have CDs to send them first thing next week.

But it feels good to have met with DF today, and to start going through all that we have. Now I can at least be starting to shape it in my head a bit more.

I’m still feeling a bit weak and weary with life in general. Here is a ‘clear water’ image from Blagaj, Bosnia-Hercegovina – a place where I used to love to sit and just be still and calm and empty of all thoughts.

Project status report – forums, PD, research, writing…

This was a good work for finishing off a couple of one-off projects. It was a busy week – but it was also a shorter one with the public holiday for Anzac Day yesterday. Here’s a bit of a status report on the various projects swimming around in my head, or just completed.

Teacher and Artist Forum – collaborative partnerships

This was a Professional Development day for both teachers and artists presented by ArtPlay and funded by Arts Victoria. I was one of three artists invited to facilitate some of the sessions – a wonderful teacher was also part of the facilitator team, along with ArtPlay’s Creative Producer, and a Lead facilitator from the University of Melbourne. It proved to be a very interesting day – valuable and inspiring. I presented two workshops – my brief was to run an activity that teachers and artists could take part in together, and in which they might have very different perspectives about how it could be used in a school context. I taught them Read the Circle, and we then built up some compositions around it using voice and body percussion.

The most interesting parts of the day were the discussions about what works well in partnerships, and where the stumbling blocks can be. There was an overall aim to gather as many thoughts together as possible and to end the day with the creation of a kind of template for artists and schools to use when planning a collaborative project. I spoke for 30 minutes on two projects – I talked about one that had worked amazingly, serendipitously well, and considered what was in place to generate this success; and about one that had proved to be quite challenging, all the way through, despite a lot of planning, experience and good will. The teacher was the last of the facilitators to speak, and she just was perfect. So succinct and clear, in mapping out the roles and responsibilities in an artist-in-school residency.

I think an important thing to learn as an artist going into a school for a residency is to have the confidence (and trust) to say what you need, and what you think will work best. For me, this means longer classes (an hour at least) and small group sizes (around 22 if we are doing whole-ensemble work with body percussion or voice; about half that if we are doing instrumental composition). I feel filled with a ind of horror when I hear about young artists going into schools where they are timetabled to work with every class in the school, with short lesson times in order to fit them all in. Of course it is important, and ideal, that ‘everyone have a turn’. But it is, I think, more important that the quality of the experience for the students be the best if can possibly be. This means proper funding, and settings as close to ideal as possible. If it means you only work with three classes, for 90 minutes each, then that is perfect. Those three classes will have an extraordinary experience. Put together a longer-term plan that sees each class having this kind of experience, three classes at a time, across 2 terms, so six classes participating in a year. The next year, the next 6 classes can be the participants, and so on until the whole school has taken part. At which point, ideally, the artist starts again.

Continue reading

Prisons, ethics, and conferences

It has been quite an up-and-down week. Started in the prison. I have written about those last two sessions. The prison project has been one of the most interesting of all my projects. Here are some of the aspects of it that make it so interesting:

  • It is the first project that other musicians in the orchestra have really engaged with. In fact, other musicians and other management staff members. I would have thought lots of our projects in the past could have warranted similar interest, but no. It is the prison project that they all ask about. There have been lots of questions. The three musicians presented a report on the project (after the first two sessions) at a Full Company Meeting a few weeks ago, and got great feedback and buzz.
  • The creative team. This has been a truly delightful team of creative minds, from the singing roadie, to the sound designer, to the three musicians from the Orchestra, to the music teacher who works in the prison. Also including the researcher, who has been present in every session and building her own relationship with the prisoners, and with the project material. I have felt more supported as a project director in this particular project, than I have in many other, less challenging projects.
  • Restrictions. We are constantly negotiating all sorts of restrictions, and have been, right from the start. It was the restrictions of the prison, and its transient population, that led to the complex structure of the project. Lately, it is one of censorship and what the final recorded product should sound like. We get very mixed messages from the prison authorities about what they want the final recorded product to sound like. On the one hand, they came close to pulling the project completely last year, due to concerns about being ‘soft’ on prisoners. This year, they are refusing to let us record any sounds of the prison world (keys, doors closing). the prisoners want us to include this stuff, but the prison management are adamant that the recording should not include any sounds, in any context that might allude to the “harshness of prison life”. Hmmm. Ultimately, we need to work with all of their restrictions, and still come up with a product that meets our own artistic expectations and demands. That’s our challenge.

Now that all the workshops are completed my attention as the Project Director turns to all that recorded material. D, sound designer, is going to put all the Pro-Tools sessions onto an external hard drive for me to listen through, at my leisure. We are talking hours of footage here! I will identify all the sections, and moments, that I think we will use, and log these in detail, including the characteristics about each that I think will link thematically. After this, we give a CD (or set of CDs) of all this raw material to the Prison staff, and they need to approve, or veto, each track.

Once that has happened, D and I can start working through whatever we are left with, processing sounds, layering, building up compositions and movements, and identifying where the gaps are that will be filled by the musicians in the studio. We go into the studio at the end of March. I plan to choose raw footage as judiciously as possible, in the hope that little, if any, will get vetoed. However, given the apparent changeability of concerns for the prison management, the preferred emphasis feels somewhat less than predictable.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading