I’ve never been to prison before.
It’s a little different than I’d expected. As we pulled into the parking lot, Rihanna was blaring from the loudspeakers. The correction officers guided us easily through rows of hallways and past several unlocked, steel-gated doorways. The guards and I spoke casually as I exchanged my driver’s license for an identification badge, and I didn’t realize until we entered a classroom full of 60 jumpsuited prisoners that we had passed into the secure interior of the LA County Men’s Central Jail.
Suddenly I got a little scared. I realized that I was the only young woman amidst 60 convicted felons, all of whom looked to weigh at least 200 pounds and had short buzz cuts that revealed tattoos up the sides of their necks.
Being the only woman in a room full of convicted thieves and sex-offenders is intimidating. But being the only outsider to witness the intimate, earnest, impassioned musical dialogue between INK Speaker and violinist Robert Gupta, violist Zach Dellinger and 60 incarcerated men trying to fix their lives was, unequivocally, a benediction. On Tuesday I was honored to bear witness to Street Symphony’s plaintive plea to bring beauty and hope to the most forlorn of all places.
How do you connect with somebody who refuses to listen? How do you incite motivation for change in a person whose life needs a resurrection?
Robert Gupta’s answer to that fundamental question is to stop preaching, and start connecting with people–through music, with empathy.
Gupta’s and Dellinger’s artistry was transformative because the musicians engaged with the prisoners as individuals. Man-to-man, as they say. Gupta shared interesting details about the history of Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major to make the music comprehensible to a beginner. His casual exchange offered the prisoners a gratis, no-strings-attached invitation to join him as compatriots of the exclusive “I Understand Mozart Club.” The conversation was genuine. Likewise, Dellinger’s redolent largo from Bach’s 3rd Sonata in C Major for violin (transcribed for viola by Dellinger) was an impassioned affirmation of the existence of emotional veracity in a room where the singular charisma of a human life has been homogenized.
The authenticity of Gupta’s and Dellinger’s presence–just two guys, playing music they love, for an audience they hope to please–engendered listening of such intensity I was afraid to fidget for fear of breaking the spell. Can you imagine? Sixty male prisoners, their faces shining brightly, captivated by classical music. A tear swept discretely away from an eye. A perfectly timed wisecrack to the affably chastised Dellinger–for being too shy to play his own compositions on guitar before an audience. An earnest question about what it takes to learn a musical instrument. This doesn’t sound like prison to me. That’s because this wasn’t about guards and prisoners, or superiors and inferiors. This was about our collective human experience.
Gupta’s Street Symphony is bringing humanity to places humanity has abandoned. The music has an authenticity that cannot be faked, and that engenders everyday interactions that open the door for healing.
To watch Robert Gupta’s INK2011 talk, click here.
To visit the Street Symphony webpage, click here.
by Nina Gannes, INK Program Manager
January 20, 2012