Archive for the ‘music in prison’ Tag

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.

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.

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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.
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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.

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Lots going on!

These last few weeks have been soooo full. School holidays means school holiday projects with the orchestra. Plus a visit to Brisbane to see family up there. Plus other nice distractions in town… here is a summary:

ArtPlay Ensemble

Last week, in the second week of the holidays, the 2008 ArtPlay Ensemble convened for its first project of the year. We spent two days composing pieces inspired by Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. Here’s some of the compositional starting points we used:

  • I chose two very similar 4-note chords from the Debussy score for Nuages (the first of the three Nocturnes) and asked each child to choose two notes from each chord. They then played an oscillating pattern that moved from one note to the next. This created a similar effect to Debussy’s aural images of clouds floating across the sky.
  • Debussy’s Nuages seems to set up cloud images that are then have a shaft of light superimposed on them (my interpretation) – a musical interjection or motif that contrasts in colour and temperament to the cloud movement. Debussy’s often feature tritones. I divided the Ensemble up into 4 small groups. Each group took 2 tritone intervals and developed 2 possible shards of light that featured one of the tritones.
  • The groups then created their own arrangements of Nuages that used their cloud mode music and their shards of light.
  • Individuals from the Ensemble also improvised solos using the notes of the pentatonic scale featured by Debussy in the B-section of Nuages. For many it was their first experience of improvisation in performance.
  • We moved onto Fetes, the second of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Here the Ensemble created a rocking bass line in 9/8, and a series of vibrant melodies, all using notes from the Mixolydian scale on g. (Fetes often has a mixolydian colour to it). As a B-section, we took inspiration from Debussy’s passing procession and created our own processional music that started off quietly, suggestive of being far away in the distance, and gradually increased in volume, as it got closer.

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