The chorus leader of our social programme ‘A bridge between two worlds’ has devoted ten long years to sparking and escalating an enthusiasm for singing in inmates in several Belgian prisons. A conversation with a musical fire accelerant.
“Why do I go into the dark cells, into the minds of criminals? I find there a divine spark. You cannot wipe away their crimes from their brow, but equally you cannot extinguish that divine spark!” If there is anyone today who can claim Janáček’s motto for From the House of the Dead for his own work, then it is Stefano Poletto. The chorus leader of our social programme ‘A bridge between two worlds’ has devoted ten long years to sparking and escalating an enthusiasm for singing in inmates in several Belgian prisons. And the need is real.
How does a young musician react when La Monnaie asks him to work in prisons?
I must admit that I did think twice about it. Up until then I had followed a classic path, studying first the Oboe at the conservatory and after that Conducting, before going on to work for two years as chorus leader with the other choral singing workshops run by ‘A bridge between two worlds’. For me a prison was terra incognita and I had no idea how to set about the task from a pedagogical standpoint. I had to find it all out gradually along the way. My first, technical approach lasted approximately five minutes, until a great big fellow straightened himself up and declared: ‘Nous, on veut chanter!’ – ‘We want to sing!’ So away went the board with a theoretical explanation about breathing and the way the diaphragm works (laughs).
So how do you work?
It varies from group to group. I go to three very different institutions: a men’s prison with a psychiatric department in Sint-Gillis, Berkendael prison for women and a detention centre for young offenders in Kasteelbrakel. Because they are so different, it’s impossible to swear by a single methodology. It’s a question of handing the participants keys so that they can unlock the pleasure of performing a number in the shortest possible time. One thing is a constant: we always start from specific pieces of music. So it is important that the music and the words resonate with everyone. Every participant can make suggestions and all styles and languages are welcome: we sing pop songs, traditional folk songs, classical, reggae… You name it! I only make an exception for rap music, because in that genre they are walking encyclopaedias. In can’t teach them anything they don’t already know.
What sort of numbers come up most often?
Broadly speaking, two sorts: firstly, music the participants identify with because it arouses strong emotions or because the lyrics are meaningful to them, and secondly, numbers they like listening to, but don’t know how to tackle. So that gives us a project, an objective. I help them along with my piano and guitar. Lots of aspects have to be taken into account. We work on the lyrics and learn them by heart. We search for the meaning of the music, the essence of a certain style of music. Why does reggae play on the offbeat of the rhythm? Why was that particular instrument chosen for this sort of lyric? We learn rhythms, the structural composition of a song in stanzas and refrain. But above all, we rehearse and go on rehearsing. Until we own the music.
So a long-term project.
We work in seasons. In October we begin to follow the curve of an arch which has to end with a cracker of a concert in June in the presence of fellow prisoners and external visitors. That pre-established goal really motivates them, but the fact that the participants are constantly changing doesn’t make it easy. That applies mainly to the institutions where lots of people are remanded in custody, and to Kasteelbrakel, where the youngsters don’t usually stay for more than a year - fortunately, I should add. I sometimes have nine-year olds in my group and that is painful to see.
I know from the reactions from the outside world that my work is still not self-evident.
Even more important than the end result is the fact that we sow a seed in every participant, even if he only comes once. That seed is the realization that there is a boundless musical world just around the corner waiting to be discovered. The vast majority of prisoners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have never had the chance to discover music. For some, music was actually banned. In the singing workshops I try to remove those various obstructions and frustrations. The main thing is that they dare to give it a go. If we can get them to try singing, we have already achieved a lot, broken a spiral of negativity. Sometimes you have to combat prejudice, particularly with the men, but that applies equally outside the prison. I have to constantly go and beg for tenors and basses for my own chorus. (laughs)
How difficult is it for you to approach these people impartially?
For me it is exactly the same as outside the prison walls: someone comes to me wanting to take part in a workshop and we throw ourselves into the music. What’s different is the environment. It helps of course that the only thing I know about these prisoners is their name. I make a point of not knowing anything about their background and criminal record. That wouldn’t help anyone move forward and I also do it to protect myself. Once, quite by chance, I came across someone’s crime on the internet and it totally threw me.
It is also a form of therapy.
I know from the reactions from the outside world that my work is still not self-evident. We all have such a caricaturish, almost abstract image of prisoners and what goes on in prisons that everyone who has contact with that world – whether it’s a warder or the leader of a choral workshop – acquires a sort of special status. So the first reaction I often get is an amazed ‘wow’, but after a few words of explanation that always turns into enthusiasm: ‘How wonderful that this is being done!’
So in your view what exactly is the importance of these choral workshops? In the second act of From the House of the Dead the prisoners give vent to their feelings, desires and frustrations by means of a stage play. A lot of pent-up emotion is released. Is culture first and foremost a form of therapy?
It is also a form of therapy. When people think of a prisoner, most instinctively think of a burly, tattooed lout, who has deliberately turned his back on society. What significance could choral singing possibly have for him? Those sorts certainly exist, but the majority are in a totally different, much more vulnerable position. They are people who were overcome by the wrong feelings at the wrong moment and are now paying the price. People looking for meaning like you and I, but with a much heavier emotional baggage. I see what music brings out in them. I see how men break into tears because Francis Cabrel’s Petite Marie reminds them of their little daughter who they no longer see, who is growing up outside without them.
There’s also the reverse of course: being able to put all the problems out of your mind for two whole hours while you immerse yourself in music. Plunging into a completely different world, one that doesn’t enclose them, but allows them to explore, to have agency. There’s a huge difference between the faces that come into the rehearsal space and the faces that go back out two hours later. The physical aspect of singing is partly responsible for that. Many prisoners move very little and their posture is introverted and tense. So we always begin with breathing exercises and relaxing the muscles. On rigole beaucoup – ‘We laugh a lot’ - because that relaxes the diaphragm and gets it moving, opens up the lungs and stimulates the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Pure detention detox!
Are there aspects of your work which you would like to change, dream projects which you hope to see realized one day?
Sometimes I would like to tighten the bond between the correctional setting and the outside world. In the past synergetic projects have produced fantastic results. I am thinking, for example, of the compositions of several prisoners from Sint-Gillis, which were sung at La Monnaie by the other choruses participating in ‘A bridge’. We then played a recording of that concert in the prison. It would be great if we could do something like that more often. I am just thinking out loud: a singer from La Monnaie who goes to the prison and sets up a project which allows the prisoners to show the outside world what they are capable of. Moments of osmosis, when music makes the physical and mental walls momentarily permeable.