At the heart of Britten Pears Arts’ criminal justice programme is our longstanding partnership with HMP Warren Hill. Each year, we deliver two intensive week-long projects delivered by a team of professional artists and musicians. During the week they record and perform original music made with the residents equipped with a full recording studio, provided by Synergy Audio. Here, guitarist and trainee music leader Charlie Law reflects on the most recent project in February 2023. We also hear from one of the men in HMP Warren Hill who took part.

I have done projects previously with Britten Pears Arts since I came to Warren Hill, and they have changed my life...

BPA’s founders Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears performed in a prison as far back as 1952, when they gave a recital in Hollesley Bay Prison to raise money for a new gymnasium. Originally part of Hollesley Bay, HMP Warren Hill is a category C male prison supporting long-term or complex prisoners towards progression into open conditions or for release into the community.

Listen to all the tracks

Led by professional musicians, BPA’s music programme creates a community environment, encouraging participants to interact with each other on a different level than they would during normal prison life. Music is a leveller, and the programme finds a way for all participants to be involved and engaged, no matter their musical experience. We see some picking up a guitar or singing for the first time. And others who have been writing and performing their own music for years.

The project begins with weekly afternoon sessions where BPA’s team, comprising of a music producer and drummer, singer/songwriter, two guitarists, and lead artist Yvette Riby-Williams, collaborated with prisoners to begin exploring and workshopping their own songs.

We wrote music and poetry with the help of Britten Pears Arts staff. We also made songs with the help of a producer.... they even provided the vocals and played instruments if you needed them to

A large mixing desk is set up in the multi-faith centre to record songs with a full band, whilst a smaller studio hub is set up for music production, beat-making, and songs created mostly using a computer, keyboard and voice. The team are also joined for one day by a professional cellist, who offers a whole new texture for the song writing and recording process. The men sing or hum the kind of thing they’d imagine him playing on their tracks, and he plays their parts with precision and emotion. In a circle with all the participants, he plays us a piece of Bach before a short Q&A, and the group has endless questions for him about his life and music, including playing at the Bafta ceremony the evening before.

This project meant a lot to me because I’ve loved music since I was a child, so actually having an opportunity to record my own songs was amazing

Whether the group are working on a pensive folk song or an upbeat reggae tune, the men follow along with each track’s journey. Even if there is nothing for them to directly contribute, they are always engaged with the process, sharing their ideas or just actively listening. Each person has their moment in the spotlight when it is their turn to step up and record. Together they perform backing vocals, cheers and clapping on several of the tracks. BPA encourage the participants to play to their strengths, as well as to step out of their comfort zones. The culture of a supportive musical community is so clear in these moments. Songs are celebrated by elated cheers from the whole room.

Without this project I would be on the wings or education but I definitely prefer to be making music. This project will ensure that I continue to make music upon release and actually chase my dream of being a musician

In total, 15 tracks were recorded, the majority of which were entered for a 2023 Koestler Award. Five tracks received an award, which were announced at the end of August. They are

  • Left Side – Gold Award, Hip Hop, Rap and Grime
  • An Elephant Called Credit – Silver Award, Spoken Word
  • Love The Way – Outstanding Debut Award, Hip Hop, Rap and Grime
  • Shining – Highly Commended Award, Hip Hop, Rap and Grime
  • I Like That – Commended Award, Singer-Songwriter-Original

Britten Pears Arts’ next project in Warren Hill will take place at the end of October.

Main image album artwork by Warren Hill’s Artist In Residence

Our work in prisons is generously supported by Clive and Eileen Schlee, the Britten Pears Arts Criminal Justice Circle, The Unruly Pig, the Nichol Young Foundation, and The Austin and Hope Pilkington Trust.