Distant Voices

Iain Campbell shares his experience of Distant Voices, a unique concert held by Vox Liminis, a new charity bringing the arts into Scottish prisons.

People in prison, while removed from society, are fathers, sons, mothers – people like us.

It is rare to go to a gig where most of the audience end up in tears, many with streaks of mascara running down their faces. The music featured in Distant Voices was powerful and emotive, connecting with the crowd in a way I have never seen at a concert. The impressive lineup of musicians included Louis Abbott (Admiral Fallow), Kim Edgar (The Burns Unit), Lucy Cathcart Froden (Tall Tales), Andrew Howie (Calamateur), Yvonne Lyon, and Rachel Sermanni.

Distant Voices was not just a stand-alone evening gig. Five songwriters involved in prisons work through Vox Liminis were each teamed up with someone experienced in criminal justice – from personal, practice or academic experience – and commissioned to write a song, exploring the impact and outworking of crime from the perspectives of victims, perpetrators, and family members. That afternoon in The Briggait a Conversation Through Song was facilitated; each song was played, and invited participants had the opportunity to express a response to the music through group work in advance of the evening. One participant summing up the day said, "Today has been a challenge to my brain, a testing of my beliefs, stretching of my heart, and a feast for my soul."

The Distant Voices event is part of a much larger project. Over the previous 9 months, artists, criminologists and people with convictions have come together to explore the role of the arts in public understandings of crime and punishment. The hope has been to dream a little bit more publicly about what a just Scotland looks like. The project was run by Vox Liminis and was funded through the Glasgow University Knowledge Exchange Programme.

Vox Liminis is the brainchild of the unstoppable Alison Urie, who also founded the ground-breaking Hot Chocolate Trust in Dundee. Vox was set up to create arts-based work to help offenders and their families develop new ways to think differently about themselves, their relationships with others and their future place in society.

“Vox Liminis has spent the last year developing music projects in prisons and the public facing work of Distant Voices. Distant Voices is a core part of these developments. The event in June gave pointers to some of the things that seem important in that – musicians sharing songs written by prisoners brought an emotional connection to the human stories that connect us all. People in prison, while removed from society, are fathers, sons, mothers – people like us.” said Alison.

“The response to Distant Voices surprised us. Not only were people able to consider matters of crime and punishment in new ways, but many were moved to action, wanting to play their part in things being different. This gives us significant learning to develop the vision of the next steps for Vox. We are now growing more sustained work in a few prisons, which connects individuals, families and the wider public through the arts.”

Yvonne Lyon, fresh from her tour with Eddi Reader, was teamed with Susan Gallagher, Deputy Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland to create the song Pocket Full of Storms.

"I loved the process that we used in creating this music. The rehearsals were amazing; we started by sharing the songs with one another. All the songwriters had really nailed it, everyone was in tears hearing the songs for the first time, there was a real, very visceral, emotional connection.” said Yvonne.

“The rehearsals became a real collaboration, with all the musicians joining in to play on each other's songs. There was such a lovely flow to it, and a real reverence to how one another songs were treated, there were no divas at all! It was a process that really challenged my preconceptions about crime and justice, such a privilege to be involved in and have our songs as little containers for all the thoughts and emotions that we poured out."

Bringing all these songwriters together to collaborate could be seen as a high risk strategy, but Yvonne had confidence in those who were holding it all together.

"Alison has real skill in this kind of relational work, making connections between people and putting her trust in them. That trust was reciprocated by everyone involved!”

The music was raw with emotion, expertly crafted, and gave everyone involved, both artists and audience alike, other perspectives from which to see the world. This, for me, was the most significant cultural event I had the privilege of being at so far in 2014.

You can find out more about Vox Liminis as well as opportunities for supporting them or getting involved in their work on their website. Distant Voices was held on Friday 13th June 2014 at The Briggait in Glasgow.