Watch: Incarcerated composers react from prison as a string quartet brings their songs to life

An emotional inmate at Sonoma County jail covers his face and wipes tears as he listens to a classical quartet playing the composition he wrote.

Life goes on, even in prison. And for 11 men in Sonoma County Jail, a new music program proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. 

For nine weeks, they attended a class on the work of Ludwig van Beethoven and learned how to write their own original compositions in coordination with the Edith String Quartet — a group of four Julliard-trained musicians. 

The students came from a variety of backgrounds; one had never attended a live concert before. That same student took to the class quickly, and could soon name chords by ear as they were plucked and played by the quartet.

“It's a challenging concept even for trained musicians and he just got it immediately,” Edith String violinist Gabrielle Despres told The Press Democrat. “I think it was just really beautiful.”

The program came together through a collaboration between Five Keys — a nonprofit charter school that offers high school and higher learning classes in prisons — and the nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us

After two months, the class came to a fitting end as the Edith String Quartet brought the students’ compositions to life in a concert attended by the students and a small crowd of family and friends. The concert was broadcast live over Zoom to the 60 residents at the Santa Rosa jail.

The students watched intently, some with tears in their eyes, as they heard their end-of-semester creations played back to them for the first time. 

“Hey, let this guy out of jail!” One student called out after one of his classmate’s compositions came to a close. The composer of that particular piece had started the class with no previous knowledge of writing or reading music. 

“I hope to continue with this myself,” another student said. “Maybe I’m the next Hans Zimmer, who knows?”

@pressdemo The hums and harmonies from the string quartet flowed up and down, and the picks and plucks sharply exited the speakers into a classroom at the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility. Eight incarcerated men and a small crowd listened March 25 as a quartet — Juilliard School students on two violins, a cello and a viola — performed eight pieces, each composed by one of the inmates. Fluttery movements and fluid melodies dissipated wanting, dissonant chords and bled into sharp and distinct dynamics. The composers had written some comments, including “cartoony” and “life is risky but never boring,” in their sheet music that dictated the vibe and emotions to be expressed in the music. The performance in New York City was broadcast live to the Santa Rosa jail via Zoom. Read more at the link in our bio. #MusicfortheFuture #sonomacountyjail #projectmusichealsus #edithstringquartet #classicalmusic ♬ original sound - The Press Democrat

Since 2014, Project: Music Heals Us has held free workshops and performed concerts for hospice care patients, refugees, retirement home residents, incarcerated men and women, and people experiencing homelessness. 

Specifically, PMHU’s Music for the Future prison program has offered digital music courses, held over 100 in-person prison engagements, and taught over 2,000 participants how to read, write, and compose music. 

This year, PMHU began offering in-unit courses and interactive programs on Rikers Island and Vernon C. Bain jail barge teaching music classes, lyric workshops, and even improv jam sessions. 

PMHU’s website is brimming with hand-written testimonies from grateful students who were touched by the concerts that brought their work to life. 

“I sat in a crowd made up of men who society considers to be the least and lowly things of the earth, and was brought along on a journey of tragedy, self-discovery, and eventually triumph,” one student wrote

“You played that day for men who have been pushed and pulled apart by a life that seems to ignore their wants with silence. You brought a gift.” 

A female violinst with brown hair tunes her instrument
A string quartet performs songs written by students in the Music For the Future program in the documentary "The Sound of Us." / Courtesy of "The Sound of Us"

In the documentary “The Sound of Us,” director of arts education for the NYC Department of Correction Tommy Demenkoff said the Music For the Future programs are meant to combat the “dark” and “punitive” nature of mass incarceration with respect and dignity. 

“While there is a social justice movement in this country — and laws are changing, things are evolving — right now there are people that are incarcerated,” Demenkoff said. 

“My role in being here is to help right now, and that’s what I do with teams of artists and musicians who come to our facilities to perform and run workshops,” Demenkoff continued. “Offering that is important in this moment.”

Header image screenshot via @pressdemo on TikTok

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