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Since 1962 the Koestler Awards have played a unique, national role in motivating prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. The Koestler Awards are simple and powerful – we reward achievement, build self-confidence and broaden horizons for some of society’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people.

Our work harnesses the uniquely transformative power of the arts to help individuals learn the skills and gain the confidence to live creative, positive and productive lives. Each year we receive more than 7,000 entries from over 3,500 entrants across the UK in 52 categories. More than 2,000 Awards are granted by over 100 esteemed judges, and each year culminates in a curated exhibition at Southbank Centre which showcases the incredible power of the arts to transform lives.

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Water, Roots, Freedom, Chaos

Our workshop sessions in HMP Wormwood Scrubs are now well underway ahead of the EFG London Jazz Festival concert inside the prison chapel. The men will be performing a 20 minute set and, since we last posted, we’re delighted to say that 3 new songs have emerged! Read below to find out how these pieces came to light.

In the first session we invited participants to take away some artwork images from the Koestler Awards to see whether they sparked any lyrics or melodies between the sessions. When we gathered again in the chapel at HMP Wormwood Scrubs for the second time, the results were overwhelming. Some participants had come back with fully formed songs, others with raps and whole spoken-word poems. Most importantly, everyone had given it a go.

An entry from the 2016 Koestler Awards. Are the outstretched hands begging or praying?

It was interesting that, from the visual cues, the group had all been drawn to natural and figurative images: rolling waves, tree branches, open hands, and a figure, all universal forms. But as we shared initial compositions it was also apparent how differently everyone sees things. Is the figure walking away from the darkness or away from the light? Are the outstretched hands begging or praying? Is the wide-open sea about freedom or about slavery? Personal experience plays a big part in perception.

Next, we set about deconstructing and reworking the new material, to turn individual compositions into group pieces. This was an organic process, seeking out similar themes, introducing deliberate contrasts and playing around with accompaniment on piano, drums and electronic beats. We talked about how a degree of non-attachment is required when working collaboratively – not holding onto your own ideas too tightly and instead wearing them lightly. One example of this, we noticed, is the difference between singing alone, where one is able to ad lib quite freely and singing as a group, where the musical line needs to be simpler in order to stay together.

Journey from HM Prison Garth, Bronze Award for Drawing, 2017. Is the figure walking away from the darkness or away from the light?

We also experimented with a completely different method of musical composition. Each participant was given a card with an emerging theme of the songwriting so far: water, roots, freedom, chaos, wind, one day, tomorrow. We stood in a circle and set up a basic beat with our feet moving together. Then, bit by bit, everyone threw something in: singing their word, riffing a phrase around the theme, or making a vocal or percussive noise. Some of us did feel a bit silly at first, but with the help of workshop facilitators Fusion and Sherry, we persisted and our legs kept stomping the beat. A minute or two later, something magical happened – certain samples suddenly clicked together to form a backbone of the piece, with random interjections from others adding colour. It sounded like a real piece of music, with drums, bass and melody. We forgot to record it (always the way!) and we may or may not try to recreate it in the final show. Nevertheless, it was certainly fun and freeing to try!

Now that we’ve created the main musical pieces for the final performance, it’s all about practice, practice, practice! We’ll be continuing over the next sessions to refine the pieces, clarify our different parts, add harmonies and consider our stage presence for the concert. Sherry and Fusion explained how professional musicians may practice one piece 100 times prior to a performance – it’s a matter of creating muscle memory and knowing the piece so well that it feels effortless.

So, there’ll be plenty more practice in the next sessions. But before we get there, here are a few gems from this last week – the time at the end of each workshop when we talk about our highlights so far. For one man it was being accompanied by a real grand piano – a total thrill as he’s used to just singing acapella. For another it was hearing others sing along with a chorus he’d written – again, it had gone from a solitary to a shared experience, something that’s hard to put into words. And for another participant it was about mindset:

People say, “I can’t do this, I can’t do that!” You never know until you try.

Workshop participant

Where next?