Turnage behind bars

Jeremy Pound goes to prison to hear a uniquely created composition

Prison musicScarcely three weeks into 2012, and I’m back in prison again. This time, it’s HMP Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire that is enjoying the dubious pleasure of my company. In years gone by, I’ve also been escorted through the heavy gates of Vinney Green in Bristol, Carlford in Suffolk and HMP Coldingley, Surrey.

Not that I have done anything wrong, may I point out. I’m here at Lowdham Grange to listen to music, just as I was on the other three occasions. The work  that I and my fellow concert-goers are lining up at the prison gate to hear is Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Beyond This, a 12-minute piece that forms part of PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20x12 series commissioned to celebrate the 2012 Olympics. As we wait to sign in and have our fingerprints taken, a notice reminds us of the things that are strictly forbidden from being taken into the prison: fire-arms, drugs, ladders (!), cameras, rope, yeast, blu-tack, mobile phones…

Prison musicAlthough Turnage is billed as the composer of Beyond This, he himself insists that he had only a bit-part in its creation – about 30 per cent is his, by his estimation. The rest, he explains, came about as a result of four days of joint effort among the participating prisoners – 15 of them – in December.

'You don’t know until you get into the prison who or what is going to be there in terms of instrumentation and so on,’ Turnage tells me when I ask how he went about the project. ‘So I didn’t want to do any pre-composition, [but] just to go in, see what we had and work very hard over the week. I wanted it to be a proper collaboration. It was quite intense in that we’d come up with some ideas, throw things out, hone it down and rehearse a lot.’

As an active and enthusiastic patron of the Irene Taylor Trust Music in Prisons scheme since its inauguration in 1995, Turnage had enough experience of working behind bars not to expect to be greeted with a full-scale orchestra when he arrived at Lowdham Grange. ‘People play guitars in prison,’ he says. ‘Occasionally you might get something else – when I worked in Scrubs once, there was somebody who played the clarinet – but it’s usually guitars and keyboards because they play in bands. And there’s very different skill levels – some will have never played in front of people before – but the whole challenge for us is to meld it into something that sounds good.’

Not just any prisoner can pitch up and play or sing, explains HMP Lowdham Grange’s director, Gareth Sands. ‘This is a long-term prison, where people serve an average of around 12 years,’ he says. ‘So we know our people. We have a band and performing arts, so knowing individuals who are involved in that we’d make an approach to them, as anyone would. But we also advertise to people who we don’t know about, who might be new to us or have not expressed an interest in the past. From there, people apply, then we interview, do a risk assessment concerning working in small groups, and we also operate incentives and earned privileges – you have to earn the right to access certain things.’

Prison musicCome the performance, those who have earned their privilege certainly don’t squander it. The audience of about 40 is treated to two versions of Beyond This. One is live on stage, the other pre-recorded on film and accompanied by stunning photos by Lizzie Coombes that put the spoken and sung words – about restriction and deprivation – into stark visual perspective.

Divided into four short movements, Beyond This features an introduction, a rap section, an introspective instrumental section (the one part of the work that Turnage claims sole ownership of) and finally a burst of reggae that is catchiness itself. Despite obvious nerves from one or two, it’s a polished, professional and above all enthusiastically performed affair, the prisoners themselves joined on stage by Turnage and a couple of other professional musicians and, in their dark-blue uniform, three prison officers on vocals, guitar and bass.

In a question and answer session afterwards, the prisoners themselves say what they’ve got out of it. One explains that, once he’s out of prison, he wants to get in touch with Turnage and continue to learn more; another says he’s planning to take up the keyboard; and another reflects that getting involved in prison music gives him something to share with his 13-year-old son, who has started to learn music at home; several express their enjoyment at creating something from scratch as a team.

Should long-term prisoners really be enjoying such opportunities? I would say yes, on the basis of both what I have seen and heard in very well expressed thoughts from Turnage and Sands among others – but I shall leave that debate for another occasion. What is for sure is that the 20x12 scheme has got off to an inspiring start… and I wouldn’t mind HMP Lowdham Grange’s ban on mobile phones being replicated at a few concert halls round the country.

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine