Prisoners' chorus a hit for Pentonville

John Tavener's latest work is getting its premiere behind bars. Kate Worsley reports
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The Independent Culture

Being a prison inmate may be the closest thing in this secular world to the monastic experience. So the news that the nation's most overtly religious composer, John Tavener, has been commissioned by HMP Pentonville to write a prisoners' chorus (to be premiered with the London Sinfonietta tomorrow) is not as bizarre as it may sound.

Being a prison inmate may be the closest thing in this secular world to the monastic experience. So the news that the nation's most overtly religious composer, John Tavener, has been commissioned by HMP Pentonville to write a prisoners' chorus (to be premiered with the London Sinfonietta tomorrow) is not as bizarre as it may sound.

Premiering a piece by Tavener, to whose work the South Bank is now devoting a three-week festival, is certainly a coup. After a pilot project with the orchestra last year, when prisoners treated fellow inmates to Brecht and Weill, education manager Jane Broadfoot decided to open this concert to the public.

Tomorrow, therefore, jaded classical music fans will experience the added frisson of being ID-checked, frisked, and escorted through the main hub of the prison. For Tavener, however, whose disdain for the sterile, self-referential world of the concert hall is well known, the setting and participants are the sole reason he accepted the commission. "With the exception of pop music, which I don't think of as particularly enlightening, music has become a completely abstract affair," he explains. "I think music should be about much more than that. I've written for the amphitheatre in Delphi, and for cathedrals, and it's very exciting to be given a space that particularly connects to a subject."

"Immediately a text came to mind, from the service of the 12 gospels in the Byzantine church: 'Oh Lord thou hast been pleased in one single moment to grant paradise unto the well-disposed thief. Do thou by the wood of thy cross also enlighten and save me'."

The result, a 10-minute piece for male unaccompanied voices alternating with string quintet and percussion is, says London Sinfonietta conductor Terry Edwards, "beautiful and thought-provoking."

As well as the orchestral rehearsals, weekly workshops have unleashed a flurry of creative activity among the 20 or so volunteers. The week before the premiÿre, I watched 18 maraca-wielding prisoners belt out a rollicking reggae/salsa Tavener remix. A video version of this will be shown as part of the South Bank festival.

Three prisoners, Wyndham, Raymond and Clive, showed me lyrics and poems inspired by the project. All agree that prison certainly heightens spiritual feelings. "A lot of people become religious inside," explains Clive. "Because you've got so much time."

Clive, a soul and reggae performer, has also been turned onto classical music. "Before, you don't know and you tend to stay away because you don't understand it."

"I was trained as a childhood chorister," explains Wyndham, a Welsh raver, "but I'm rather agnostic. But then you know that sensation when you go to a concert and the hair on the back of your neck stands on end? That's what I got when I heard this music. It's the harmonies."

Yes, the chorus do get called "choir boys" by other inmates, but their stock response is: well, who's taking part in a world premiÿre, then?

'In One Single Moment': HMP Pentonville N1 (020 7928 0828), 2 & 3 October; 'Ikons of Light': South Bank, SE1 (020 7960 4242) to 22 October

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