In March 2018 Britten Sinfonia, one of the UK's leading musical ensembles, played a concert at the Apex, Bury St Edmunds, directed by acclaimed concert pianist Jeremy Denk which included George Gershwin's famous composition, Rhapsody in Blue, with all its soaring joy and impassioned yearning and its jazz and classical references and inflections. In June 2018 a film of this concert was shown to prisoners at HMP Whitemoor, one of the most secure prisons in the UK where many of the 400 men resident there are serving sentences of 20 years or more. HMP Whitemoor has an enlightened Governor, imaginative leaders, committed staff ready to solve problems and make good things happen, and, not surprisingly given all that, a good reputation with prison inspectors and others.
Showing this film of the concert to the men came out of discussions that had started in 2015 between Orchestras Live, a creative producer which works to ensure that communities all over the country have access to world class orchestral experiences, and Lemos&Crane, which has a long history of supporting and promoting innovative work in prisons, particularly long-term prisons. Our shared goal, with the determined, well-connected and knowledgeable Jan Ford of Orchestras Live, was to encourage large and well-established orchestras and ensembles to become involved in projects in prisons. There had been one or two projects involving orchestras including the Halle and the Royal Philharmonic, but broadly speaking the involvement of orchestras in the vast majority of prisons has been minimal or non-existent.
There are plenty of small scale musical projects in prison, but there are special benefits of working with orchestras. Prisoners experience the classical repertoire. They will also hear the music of, and perhaps play with, world class musicians. Orchestral music also requires collaboration and working together in a highly structured and disciplined way. All that put together, we believed, could have a transformational impact on the lives of a long-term prisoner otherwise susceptible to boredom, alienation, demotivation and depression, particularly if, as a result, of working and playing with an orchestra, they might feel enthused to learn a musical instrument themselves, bringing the benefits of application, practice, discipline, creativity and achievement. Our ambitions did not end with bringing music to the centre of prisoners' lives. We also wanted the residents of the prison to enjoy the tension, excitement and rewards of live performance. An additional important objective was we hoped to involve prison staff fully in the project, including as musicians.
We were delighted when Craig Nethercott, Phil Bramham, Jeannette Bramham and the Governor of HMP Whitemoor, Will Styles, committed to working with us and Britten Sinfonia, their 'local' orchestra. Both the orchestra and the prison are in the east of England near Cambridge. We knew that the high security aspects of HMP Whitemoor would create logistical and security difficulties, imagine bringing a double bass through prison security! But we felt strongly that the benefits of working with the orchestra would be most powerfully felt by prisoners on long sentences who may very well feel demotivated and depressed, but who could also commit for a long period to bringing music into their lives in a deeper and richer way, which would hopefully be more rewarding.
So the project was conceived with a strong sense of structure and purpose and some clear desired outcomes, which in the context of a high security establishment were bound to be complex and challenging to achieve, but nothing venture, nothing win. In essence, we wanted the project to have a profound beneficial effect on prisoners' wellbeing and we hoped to inculcate a love of listening and playing all kinds of music, especially orchestral music.
The project was led and facilitated by Jason Rowland, a multi-talented music leader and composer and an inspiration and motivator to others. Additionally, there were six Britten Sinfonia musicians working with the men, in smaller groups and for the performance.
Paul Archibald - trumpet
John K Miles - saxophone
Alan Gibson - electric bass
Dawn Hardwick - piano
Oliver Pashley - clarinet
Matthew Gunner - French horn
Following the showing of the film the men were asked by the dynamic and energetic Britten Sinfonia team, Sarah Rennix and Megan de Garis, whether they would be interested in becoming involved in an ongoing music project culminating in a performance for their mates in the prison and some invited guests in three weeks' time. Thirty men expressed an interest and committed to getting involved. As it was a large group, for the purposes of the six music workshops, they worked in two groups with three musicians in each group. In the workshop, taking Rhapsody in Blue as inspiration, they composed a piece of music through improvisation and workshop-ing which was notated at the end of session. There were only three dropouts, two for reasons of ill health and one because of behavioural issues.
So finally the day for the performance arrived, 25 or so external visitors arrived on a warm June afternoon and, having got through security, came into one of the prison's large workshops where the orchestra were set up at one end, complete with lights, amplifiers, mikes, speakers and recording equipment (safely delivered through the complexities of a high security prison) and about 80 seats had been put out for the audience. The men and the staff who were rehearsing with the Britten Sinfonia musicians during the morning all took their places, perhaps nervous and apprehensive about live performance as anyone would be, and the atmosphere grew that there was a full orchestra on stage. Refreshments were served by the prison's peer supporters, a very friendly and helpful lot in distinctive tee shirts and the other prisoners started to arrive. Eventually about 60 prisoners were in the audience and milling about with refreshments and visitors. One of the musicians commented he looked out from behind his instrument and saw a scene of an expectant audience chatting and laughing before the musical proceedings began, like any other concert hall in the world.
Then the band struck up! First, Britten Sinfonia musicians played a lively, loud rendition of I Got Rhythm, then the rest of the band, the prisoners and the staff, joined them on stage. The four pieces they had composed in the workshops were strung together by Jason in 40 minutes of utterly compelling, original music, a fusion of jazz, reggae, rap and classical music. The performance was recorded and will be available on podcast and will also be played at a Britten Sinfonia concert in the future, fulfilling our goal to musically connect these long term prisoners in a high security prison, possibly destined to stay in prison for decades with the general public who know nothing of them, but will experience a little of their musical life and hear something of their musical achievement.
The world premiere performance of these new compositions brought the house down that day in HMP Whitemoor. The men in the audience loved it, cheering and whooping, especially when prisoners and staff played and sang alongside one another in duets. The visitors were moved, surprised and delighted about witnessing such musical joy in the potentially austere setting of a high security jail. The atmosphere was electric and the room full of goodwill and enthusiastic support for the commitment and achievement of prisoners, staff and musicians.
More refreshments afterwards and many expressions of regret from other men that they too had not participated. The Governor, who had played in the band for the entire concert, commented to me immediately, "We must do this again."
“That was an absolutely fantastic afternoon. The atmosphere in the hall was pure, living and breathing Rehabilitative Culture. Everywhere I have been today prisoners (even some of our more difficult to engage men) have been asking me when we are going to do it again, and whether or not we can start our own orchestra, band, rap crew and singing groups. It’s all had an utterly brilliant impact around the site. It is one of those rare awesome days I will always remember.” Will Styles, Governor, HMP Whitemoor