We were walking out of the federal penitentiary when Sam, one of the wealthiest, most powerful, best connected musicians in Atlanta, suddenly decided I was "cool" (i.e. harmless) and confided in me. But to understand how I got to that conversation, I have to start with a horrible TV show.
"Mozart in the Jungle" is to classical musicians what "Law and Order" is to cops: not just dumb but duh-HUMB (if you want a nuanced depiction of orchestra players, check out the Hungarian film "White God"). So I was suprised when my co-worker, a conservatory violinist from New York and ex-child actor to boot, started gushing about his gig with the show.
They hired a real orchestra. They got to play real music as opposed to faking against a click track. And the best thing?
They performed "Quartet for the End of Time" in Ryker's Island.
Quick history lesson: "Quartet for the End of Time" was composed in a Nazi labor camp. The composer Messiaen and a clarinetist hooked up on the train and decided to collaborate on the project as an excuse to maintain sanity during wartime. A sympathetic prison guard slipped Messiaen paper and pencils over the years, assigning him light tasks so he wouldn't be too tired to write music. The completed piece totalled an hour and was performed for the other prisoners, in the rain, on crap instruments, and, unlike other wartime composers such as Shostakovich, it was beautiful and deeply spiritual.
I spooled up the TV episode. It was really, really good. I told my artist friends that we HAD to try and replicate it.
Summer break came and a New York clarinetist I'd worked with before asked if I would help him program a performance of "Quartet for the End of Time", since it was his favorite piece in the whole wide world and it was either that or stay at his mom's house watching re-runs of Golden Girls. The concert went well, and one of the audience members, a punk guitarist/English teacher, approached me, saying another artist had proposed my prison music idea to him and he thought he could sell it to the continuing education charity at the federal pen.
I had come across the teacher's work at an art exhibition years ago, when he had taught a class on Greek tragedies, Kafka, and "Persepolis" at the men's prison and asked them to create book covers for the stories. Having no art supplies, the prisoners had made do with coffee grounds, magic markers, and cotton shirts for canvas, and produced amazing results. They were starving for means of self-expression.
The background checks necessary for getting Messian's quartet (a violin, a 'cello, a clarinet, and a piano) proved too difficult, and eventually the English teacher asked if I could just bring my violin and teach a classical music survey class. Six months later, he met me inside an enormous X-ray room outside the prison, and we walked toward the classrooms.
In prison, you have to create your own distractions. No devices, no personal effects, every wall in every room the same fortune cookie beige, so it was no surprise that men jumped on opportunities to learn computer coding, essay writing, art history, and whatever else the state of Georgia was funding to prevent recidivism. I was led into a room and sat next to a stranger while the other teachers made end of the year announcements.
The man beside me was both better dressed and going out of his way to not draw attention to himself. I made small talk.
Me: "Are you an instructor?"
Sam: "No, I'm one of the board members for the charity that arranges these classes."
Me: "Cool! But why are you sitting in a music history class?"
Sam: "I used to play the Dingle."
Me: "Ooo did you study with the local Principal Dingle player? I went to high school with his kids."
Sam: "Yes I studied with him."
Sam: "Then I went to Eastman" (note: a top 5 American music school) "became General Manager of a top 10 symphony" (which means he's really well connected and good at his job) "but now I'm executive director of The Big Local Music Education Charity." (which means he regularly hangs out with people who own baseball teams)
I think to myself, And now he gets to sit through my Basic Beginner's Music Class. Rock and roll.
The class goes well, the students are great, and I was able to have some really crunchy conversations with convicts (some of whom were ex-marching band kids) about Strauss, instrumentation, John Cage, and creativity in captivity. I hope to get invited back.
On the way to the parking lot, Sam struck up a conversation with me about music, and at some point while walking alone in a darkened parking lot, we both decided that, because we punch in wildly different weight classes and will never be professional colleagues, we can have Real Talk.
Me: Are you a native?
Sam: Yeah my mom taught at (a top-tier public school) and I attended (another top-tier public school)."
Me: "Cool! I went to (a top-tier public school with more Asian kids)."
At this point Sam looks at the ground and says, in the same shameful tone of voice one might use when confessing that their father had been the Uni-Bomber, said, "Yeah I was a public school kid."
I looked around. We had just exited a building full of men who were fucked for life, and he was feeling sorry for himself because, compared to the billionaires he regularly schmoozed with, he was the poor kid in the room. I've been to the kind of demented music parties where men rank your fuckability based on where you went to school, so I was angry but not surprised that he perceived himself as being low-status.
I wanted to shake him, but I also wanted to keep teaching at the pen. We exchanged phone numbers and drove home.
If you decide to listen "Quartet for the End of Time", understand that the first movement is a sound portrait of all the things the composer heard but could not see on the other side of his cell wall: birds, wind, running water. The sounds of Outside.