BASS BEHIND BARS: Performing Electronic Music in a Prison

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There’s very few things that I have in common with legends like B.B. King, the Sex Pistols and Johnny Cash. But one experience I can proudly say we all have shared, is performing music for inmates inside a prison. In my few years as a performing musician, I’ve had the opportunity and honor to play for a few unique crowds in interesting environments. To name a few: there is the tikibar-dwelling retirees of a Florida fisherman town at the local open mic night, an assortment of nitrous-filled hippies in a basement of a mountain resort rental home, an unreasonably lavish $25K Duke lacrosse-frat party that included a 40-ft speedboat on land, and a bare naked rec room room full of almost 80 incarcerated male inmates in Craggy Prison.

While I will remember all those shows, the prison performance is a special one, It’s an experience that is really hard to describe, even with video and photo. (We were not allowed to take any photo or video during this visit). Unless you’re actually standing inside, it is difficult to grasp the feelings of a prison. First, the physical environment is not familiar to most. Hard cement floors and walls with monotone colors exude a cold sterileness similar to a hospital, but the barbed-wire fences, metal detectors and armed prison guards remind you these residents are here for a different reason other than medical issues. While some have been around this environment, it’s not until you interact with the inmates do you get a sense of what it’s like to be here. I can feel the weight and pain that many of these men are carrying from their past decisions and current situation. I’m not denying the fact that some of these guys did horrible acts that hurt really good people. I’m sure they did and some deserve their consequence. But I still want to acknowledge this population and let them know I care about them.

2.3 million adults are incarcerated in the US, the most of any industrialized nation. A large percentage of those are in for nonviolent offenses, such as drug crimes. That’s a staggering number of our population inside a prison cell. When it comes to volunteer work, the prison population basically goes unnoticed. The idea could be proposed that there are other people in the community who have a greater need for support. In my eyes, this is one the populations in our nation that need the most help. For many, their reasons for crime stem from issues of poverty, addiction, psychological/mental disorders, abuse and other forms of trauma. There are bad people in there, but people have the capability to change. I can’t say that everyone serving a sentence wants to or will become an upstanding citizen. All I know is that music is a universal language and when used correctly, it can be a transcending therapeutic type of medicine.

Back in the winter of 2015, Paul Gaeta and I, held a workshop on the behalf of Moog Music at Craggy prison where we taught the basics of synthesis and performed a brief demo of a Minimoog Voyager and Theremin. After the intro portion, we installed 5 different stations of electronic music devices for the inmates to interact with. During the hands-on portion, one of the inmates asked Paul and I asked us a question that hadn’t crossed our minds:

Are you guys gonna do a show? Ya know, play us the music you make with these things?” 

Before we arrived, our initial thought was the inmates would want to play with these instruments over hearing us play them. When it came to time to leave, the inmates let us know, it was unanimous decision that for our next visit they wanted a full on performance!

Fast forward to the night of February 25th, 2016. Flurries of tiny snow flakes mixed with the orangish purple hue of the sky to provide a serene atmosphere to the refreshingly cool Thursday evening. Paul Gaeta and I, were traveling thru the dense mountains of Woodfin, North Carolina in a white commercial van with good friend and the best soundman I’ve ever met, Lou Rawls. When we found out the prison’s sound system was had a sole guitar amp from the 1970’s, we called upon Lou for his expertise. Lou brought his “small” rig which had enough sound to rock a legit club, let alone a room with a capacity of 100. It was pretty humorous watching the guards going through all of our gear and have Lou explain each piece and its function. After making it through security, we hauled all our gear on a wagon into the stout cement recreational building. It was almost showtime…

With a few shows underneath my belt, the butterflies usually don’t come before hitting the stage. This was not the case for the prison show. My nerves were pulsing right when we started to set up for soundcheck. This was the first time ever Paul and I were doing this style of electronic music performance in a live setting. It was a 3-part piece; synth drone with improv native american flute, original compositions with improv synth playing, and creating a house track live. Paul and I had been practicing for a bit up to this point because we honestly didn’t know how anyone would react.

My heart began to pump once the men filed in and sat down only 10 feet away from us. It’s not that I feared these men, I was getting stage fright because this was something new, every single person’s attention were on us. At a festival or venue, the crowd has many other distractions; lasers, costumes, psychedelic substances and the list goes on.  For this show, the crowd would be seated for the entire 60 minutes, not even allowed to take a bathroom break. Out in the free world, we have infinite options for entertainment, but inside the prison all of their entertainment is regulated and monitored. Some of these guys have been in so long, that the idea of electronic music and instruments was a new concept. This type of audio stimulation was about to be an experience they have yet to feel.

Paul began with a brief intro and then explained the first portion of the performance would begin with a silent meditation. To achieve tranquility within the space, he asked for everyone to close their eyes, slow the breath, and relax the muscles. After around 3 or 4 minutes, he triggered field recordings of birds chirping to provide a peaceful ambient backdrop. I slowly brought in a deep, brooding modulating Moog bass using 2 pulse width modulating tones. The frequencies were so low, the ventilation system and windows were shaking like a tambourine. Only allowing a single note to drone for a minute, the pulsing of the oscillator waves created the feeling of the ocean churning in the dark of night. After about 3 minutes in, Paul introduced his reverb soaked flute to the mix which created a lush fluttering of notes. At one point, about 10 minutes into the piece, I looked up and noticed a handful of inmates were still in a deep meditative state! This was a special moment because I felt we were achieving our goal of creating a healing environment for these guys. The drone/flute piece continued another 10 minutes and ended quite naturally. The second piece, we introduced collaborations tracks and played some groovy future beats for the inmates. The inmates weren’t allowed to dance, but heads were nodding rocking back and forth. I could tell many were hip hop fans because of their reaction they had to the hard hitting drums. The third and final portion was a live house jam using a Sub 37, Ableton Push, and prearranged loops of percussion, vocal chops and basslines. I left my concerns to side and went for it. Creating a track on the fly and flowing with the results, good and bad, it’s a liberating feeling. A few of the inmates commented this portion brought them back to the days of dancing late into the night inside a dark 90’s Miami club with a head full of ecstasy. Although quite a hilarious sentiment, I felt grateful our music could bring those nostalgic feelings of days past.

Once the 1-hr show drew to conclusion, a flood of applause bounced around the gray cement floors and walls. We definitely brought something that very few, if any, people experienced while incarcerated in a state penitentiary.  While I can’t stake the claim that I started a riot like the Sex Pistols, I will say the prison guards jokingly accused us of trying to cause a prison escape by shaking the foundation of the facility with bass!

After the performance, we answered a few questions from the inmates. They were interested in what we’re doing on stage and how we were using the instruments. A lot these guys hadn’t been been exposed to electronic music and it’s possibilities, so for many this opened up a whole new dimension of sound and music. We concluded with thanking the inmates for allowing us to risk our ego and art in front them. Before they were brought back into lockdown, we were able to meet the inmates individually. The amount of gratitude they had was overwhelming. Out of all the people I have performed for, never had I received a reaction like that. Paul even has become pen pals with one of the guys and they exchange professional, health and life advice with each other via hand-written letter. We had made a connection.

The Craggy Prison performance is an experience I will hold dear to my heart throughout my life. It was challenging, new, unique and oddly fresh to my vision as an artist. I plan to continue working with the prison population using sound as my tool. No matter the past decisions someone made, everyone should have the access to music and it’s healing powers.

– Cpt. HyperDrive

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