(Written by Molly Carr, PMHU Founding Director and Violist of the Solera Quartet, in response to the Solera Quartet's first week-long "Musical Immersion Residency" in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in January 2018. In collaboration with Teaching Artist Daniel Levy, the quartet led residency participants through a week of intensive delving into Beethoven's Op. 95 String Quartet, offering composition and improvisation workshops, lecture/demonstrations, & interactive performances. The participants were encouraged to compose original musical works in response to Beethoven's Op. 95 String Quartet. The Solera Quartet and Daniel Levy return to Danbury FCI for a final day of celebration and music-making on March 6th, 2018.)
The amount of anticipation packed into this moment was surreal. I could feel each of these seconds were laden with the years of struggle and love we each had put into our instruments and art; the months of meetings, clearance paperwork, phone calls, emails, more phone calls, and more paperwork to clear every string, bow hair, pencil, score, and performer past the walls of the facility and into that very room; the days of seemingly incessant fights with the universe as we pushed through delayed international flights, freak floods, history-making arctic blizzards, and finally impossibly persistent fog with all its prison security issues(!)…. but we had made it. We had made it to this moment.
As I put up the viola to my chin, about to play the first notes of the first original composition inspired from this first Musical Immersion Residency at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, I could feel the strangely heavy weight of my arms as my heart bounced around trying to escape from the impossibly conflicted emotions chasing it around in my chest:
Exhaustion - from so many days of stretching my heart to try to fit it around 35 men, wanting so badly to wrap each and every one of them up in our love and care.
Fear - from the unknowns that always lurk behind prison walls.
Insecurity - with rapid-fire thoughts of “What if we didn’t give them enough to work with? What if they have something to express and we can’t figure out how to let them express it? What if all the struggles with fog and clearance made it so they didn’t have enough time to write what they wanted and they’ll leave here let down and frustrated instead of uplifted? What if…???”
Exuberance, fulfillment, JOY! - from feeling like we finally conquered the universe’s obstacles and had made it into that classroom at long last to witness the smiles, comradery, and kindness being passed around the room.
Pure Excitement! – “What did they create? What did they hear this week in Beethoven’s Op. 95 quartet that inspired them??!” We were about to witness works of art coming to life for the first time in history!
The room fell completely silent. We took a single unified breath and began to play…..
I couldn’t believe the sounds flowing out of our instruments. I looked up and around the room and could see the same look on everyone else’s faces, too… the phrasing, the colors, the timbres, the dynamics, the expression… it was all there! Wow. I smiled, my pulse slowed, and I sank deeper into the viola strings, listening, enjoying, singing my heart and soul with the ups and downs of each phrase until the piece’s beautiful conclusion. The room exploded. Everyone was cheering, clapping, congratulating, laughing, hooting and hollering, “Play it again! Play it agaaain!!” We dove in again with gusto, experimenting this time with new colors, new timbres, searching for ways to push the tune to its expressive limits, trying out in-the-moment ideas and inspirations… And again the room exploded into applause and smiles - and as I turned to whoop and cheer for the talented composer, I suddenly wondered… what would Beethoven have thought of all this? What would he say if he knew that his music was changing and inspiring men behind prison walls centuries after his death?? If he could have witnessed this room today…
When the clock struck 2pm, chiming the conclusion of the residency, we got up to pack up our instruments with a new set of conflicting emotions – with heavy hearts at the thought of leaving this new-found musical and creative family, but exuding lightness and fulfillment knowing and feeling beyond a doubt that something special – even if we didn’t know exactly what it was – had transpired here this week. As we shook hands and said our goodbyes, my “rhythm buddy” from all of our workshop activities throughout the week pulled me aside to softly say, “Molly, you will never know. You will never know what you’ve done here this week. I didn’t recognize this place this week. Every time I stepped outside, I came across music; people were singing, composing, collaborating. Thank you so much. You will never know what you’ve done here…”
In the ensuing weeks of standard rehearsing, performing, traveling, etc… my thoughts kept floating back to that classroom, wondering if my rhythm buddy was still witnessing music and song and collaborations. If Beethoven’s use of motif development was still the talk of the town. If Op. 95’s intensity of emotion and Beethoven’s commitment to hope and life was still inspiring new beautiful creations.
THREE WEEKS LATER…
As I put up the viola to my chin, about to play the first notes of the first performance of the Solera Quartet at Lincoln Center, I could feel the strangely heavy weight of my arms as my heart bounced around trying to escape from the impossibly conflicted emotions chasing it around in my chest:
Fear - from the bright lights and stares of the educated audience and all of the unknowns that always seem to lurk behind every turn of a phrase in any performance.
Insecurity - with rapid-fire thoughts of “What if we didn’t give ourselves enough time to learn this piece? What if I miss the cello cue in measure 47? What if our recapitulation chord is not in tune and these people think we’re not good enough to play in Lincoln Center? What if…??”
Exuberance, fulfillment, JOY! – from knowing that I was exactly where I always wanted to be – making music in a string quartet.
Pure Excitement! – “We get to play Beethoven again! We’re about to play one of the greatest works of art ever written in history and we get to perform it in Lincoln Center!”
The room fell completely silent, and as we took a single unified breath to begin to play, I suddenly saw the excited, smiling faces of my rhythm buddy and all our residency composers and participants, heard all those hoots and hollers from just a few weeks before and remembered what it felt like to give every inch, drop, ounce, millimeter of my heart and soul to every note - not so that the audience would judge me as “Lincoln-Center-worthy,” but because it was needed. It was absolutely necessary. Anything less was just…wrong.
I smiled, my pulse slowed, and I sank deep into the viola strings, listening, enjoying, singing my heart and soul with the ups and downs of each phrase until the piece’s conclusion. The room burst into applause and smiles - and as I turned to bow in gratitude, I found myself wondering again… what would Beethoven have thought of all this? What would he say if he knew that his music was changing and inspiring humans beyond prison walls centuries after his death?? If he could have witnessed this today…
Yes, rhythm buddy, YOU TOO, will never know what you’ve done here. Thank you so much. You will never know…