Perceptions – Castalian Quartet at Warren Hill Prison

Daniel Roberts from the Castalian Quartet reflects on their time in Aldeburgh and a very different experience at Warren Hill Prison:

Have you ever been to prison?

A two-week residency in nigh-on-mythical Aldeburgh is about as liberating as it gets for a young string quartet. It’s Hollywood for classical musicians there, where legends are forged and second violinists get recognised in restaurants. Forget the Circle line, we were chauffeured up to our Snape studio. ‘No human being….was ever so free as a fish.’ Well, Mr Ruskin, we were definitely more so than the unfortunate old cods and their like who ended up swimming no more in Chris’s classic hollandaise (he has a way with the bass, our cellist-cum-chef). Speaking of Fins, Sini too flipped into her element, casting competition aside as Boggle champion in 5 languages. As for Chaz? Our Alpine Butterfly (Google it, I did) routinely tied herself into yogic knots more complex than any local shipman could fathom. (My non-rehearsal times, for the record, revolved around devouring fish, losing at word games and cursing my inability to even touch my toes.)

Have you ever been embarrassed by your own privilege?

On the penultimate day of this bliss, as London loomed, we were taken to Her Majesty’s Prison Warren Hill. The Chef, Yogi and Boggler already knew this was going to be a meaningful, memorable and positive experience for all involved. I must admit that I was not sure at all.

In fact, I was anxious. I’d never visited a prison, nor knowingly met a criminal, let alone a ‘lifer’. Was entertaining and creatively engaging with men who had been found guilty of serious crimes the worthiest of activities? Were there not purer sufferers more deserving of introduction to the uplifting powers of chamber music making?

Safety surely wouldn’t be an issue? But then, the voluntary prison choir we were to visit had been decimated by transgressions and there would be no guards in the room with us. Even Aldeburgh Music staff had the keys to the place.

I was not definite in my feelings about any of the above, but such questions were summoned by lingering doubts.

Overwhelming sadness greeted me for the first thirty minutes of our two hours at the prison. As the inmates introduced themselves, I couldn’t help feeling sick for them – incarcerated, unfree, forever. Victims, whoever they were, shared my thoughts too. What if my life had been upturned by one of these men? How would those suffering terrible loss at the hands I was now shaking feel about us being there? I was desperate not to cry.

What did they think of me? I couldn’t speak for fear of broadcasting privilege. And when I did, I made some joke – my typical reaction to feeling uncomfortable – about conductors being the scum of the earth. ‘What do you think of me then?’, responded one of the choir. ‘You should meet a conductor’, I choked, wishing to be anywhere else. I didn’t believe in anything I was saying. The conductor barb had been intended as a lighthearted reaction to a prisoner asking ‘so what’s the point of the man who waves his arms around’, following our claim that musicians can play ‘together’ without visual contact. Instead, I’d blurted out nonsense in a vain effort to get over myself.

It then dawned on me, as I’m sure it already has you, that I was being pathetic. I was the one feeling upset? I’d be walking out of there in a couple of hours or so.

We performed Schubert’s ‘Quartettsatz’. The beauty of live performance is, of course, that each rendition is different, affected by unique circumstance and our reaction as an ensemble to the collective energy of an audience. This being the antithesis of your average music society crowd, our ‘Quartettsatz’ felt quite radically different, each contrasting gesture and dynamic supercharged, as if we too were hearing a string quartet for the first time. Something of it remained in our performance at the more traditional setting of Jubilee Hall the next day, where Britten premiered his operas. For enhanced drama and an instinctively emotional response, he should have chosen Warren Hill.

In return, the Warren Hill Boys sang us one of their compositions, the brilliantly catchy ‘Seventh Avenue’. Their remarkable musical director Yvette (‘Miss’) soon geed her musicians – shy at first – into three part harmonies, with solo rap sections that were, without exaggeration, heartbreaking.

One attendee, who’d arrived partway through and was built like a prizewinning Aberdeen Angus, had to leave early for an exam (many inside were pursuing qualifications). Before departing he announced that he’d only bothered turning up to mock the others (he put it a little more strongly) for training up their larynxes instead of their lats. He’d been converted: ‘same time next week lads?’. This choir gives performances to the rest of the prison population; they demand respect.

Yvette had also expertly arranged some string parts for ‘Seventh Avenue’, and after a bit of rehearsal, we recorded it with the singers forming a semi-circle around us and the mic. It was impossible to keep the neck hairs down. This was gut-wrenching chamber music that we’ll never forget.

Following our Schubert, and with barely a word having yet been spoken by any of us, a particularly boisterous Welsh prisoner piped up with a description of each Castalian:

Chris – ‘well posh, like.’
Charlotte – ‘absolutely crazy.’
Me – ‘not as posh as him, but pretty posh.’
Sini – ‘it looked like you wanted to eat your violin!’

We should have it as our biography!

‘Hey Posho’, he beckoned me in a Valleys lilt just before we left, ‘you’re a cross between Justin Bieber and Harry Potter, isnnit?’ (I fancy he was alluding more to my new geek chic specs and need of a haircut than any heartthrob wizardry). He guessed I was from Oxford (‘definitely Oxford’) and when I informed him I was actually a Welshman, he was stunned. Wales (‘We’) were playing France at rugby the next evening – conversation sparked, human contact in full swing, connection cemented, boundaries tackled. Music had rendered our perceptions imperceptible.

Have you ever been to prison?

We have, and we’ll be back.