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David Shea


December 12, 1994
CD, Digital, Streaming

From David Shea:

Twenty years have passed since the release of Prisoner and it is the first of the re-releases on Room 40, appropriately, it was the first of the releases in 1994 on the Belgian Sub Rosa label and my first large ensemble recording. 

The period of 1993 was a special period musically and personally. It was a time dominated by living in New York, improvising, composing, touring and working in John Zorn’s ensembles as a turntable and sampler player. I also had just released my first CD, Shock Corridor on the newly formed Avant (soon to be Tzadik) label run by Zorn. A year earlier I had been a part of Zorn’s epic ‘Elegy’ which contains, I believe, my strongest work for turntables and still one of the most powerful and unique works of his vast output. I had recently worked on Mr Bungle’s first album in San Francisco, meeting that incredible band of musicians and enjoyed an extended period in SF working with John closely on all aspects of Elegy with long days in the studio and long nights sitting by the fire at Larry Oaks and Lyn Hejinian’s beautiful house. It is due to John’s friendship, intense generosity and influence that all aspects of this Prisoner CD were made and the specific influence of works such as ‘Godard’, ‘Elegy”, Spillane, ‘Houdini/De Sade and many other that had a lasting influence on all of my life and works. 

‘Prisoner’ is based on Patrick McGoohans TV series The Prisoner and the title is taken from the graphic ‘Prisoner’ in the last frames of the final episode. I was a long time fan having grown up with the re-runs of the sixties series and still believe that it is one of the most unique and most profound works ever made for television. 17 episodes were produced in the late 60s for ITV following the story of the surreal struggle of an English spy who resigns his job, is kidnapped and taken to an island called the ‘Village’. No names are used, only a number is given. It is never clear who are the prisoners and who are the keepers, who the organization that runs the village are or where the village is. All No 6 knows is that he is not free to leave this strangely pleasant village full of surveillance cameras, odd architecture and mysteriously numbered prisoners/watchers and is told repeatedly that they want information as to why he resigned which he refuses. Each episode is a different and bizarre psychological torture designed to force this information from him. 

The possible multiple interpretations of the series narrative and meanings and the surreal yet very emotionally brutal nature of the torture created a totally unique series engaging the deepest ideas of its time and a credit to the very unique writing, acting and radical spirit of Patrick McGoohan. The scripts, sets, music, sound and visual matches and mismatches create a totally bewildering layering of meanings in which No 6 struggles to retain sanity, individuality and escape from the village and No 1. Although clearly centered around the psychological issues of the Cold War and deeply of its time, its insights into the paradox of individualism, the nature of technological global control, and the search for freedom and sanity are perhaps as, or even more, relevant in the 21st century. 

Originally planned as a follow up to Shock Corridor and to be released on the new Tzadik label by Zorn, it was conceived as a full ensemble work based on each of the 17 episodes. The work became concentrated into 7 sections covering themes from all the episodes and including tributes to many other series, and composers mentioned in the original notes. After a performance of the work for Zorns 40th birthday Phillippe Frank approached me about a new label in Brussels who were interested in releasing Prisoner called Sub Rosa. That began a relationship that lasted for 12 years, many CD releases, a respectful friendship with Fred Walheer and Guy Marc Hinant, who run the amazing label, and helped prompt a move to Brussels in 1999 – 2005. It is this recording and their respect and support from that time, that began the many years of touring with my own ensembles and solo work in Europe which has only recently lessened with my interest in being in Asia and the move to Australia. 

Like many of my works from the late 80’s throughout the 90s, which were composed for combinations of samplers, turntables, and sound collage, acoustic and electric instruments. The musicians were people I had worked with in Zorn’s ensembles and the New York improvisation scene and an incredible collection of players that came together for that CD. Cyro Baptiste, Jim Pugliese, Mark Ribot, Anthony Coleman, Zeena Parkins, Hideki Kato, and Soul Coughing bassist Stebastian Steinberg were good composers and/or improvisers in their own right and incredible musicians and all film fanatics as well, so my approach of improvisation, scene structure and composition made for a fast and one take style recording process that became an energy all the later works strove for. Caroline Marshall contributed a literal invocation of the Girl Who was Death episode of the Prisoner and Lisa Crowder a classical pianist played my piano work based on Schizoid Man. 

As with many of my works of that time Prisoner was based on a pre existing structure of a film, series, novel or a collection of tributes to artists, filmmakers, sound designers and composers. I used the skeletal structures as maps to navigate my collections of references and to create works that were independent of and interdependent on the original source and attempted to create what I would later call ‘cinematic works’ or ‘memory theatres’. I composed with blocks of sound; and genres, samples, references, musical icons, histories and sound qualities were all objects that could be ‘arranged’ and composed, to yield new meanings and to invoke a new dialogue with the original source. Prisoner was my first major work after the small ensemble and turntable work, Shock Corridor based on the Sam Fuller film and began a whole series of works with this focus with the culmination in the works of Hsi Yu Chi and Satyricon.

Sound cinema is perhaps now firmly established as a genre, collage and electronic work given more respect from my perspective and much of the then more obscure music and TV/Cinema work are now available in box sets and on the internet. I felt so much of the work I was paying homage to had been given very little attention at that time and wanted to bring these works, films, composers and ideas into a larger sphere which I believe has now happened through the changes in technology and the many people who re visited and made available this, I felt, under-appreciated work and brought it, at least, into a space where it can be discovered more easily. 

I have taken more space here to write about these ideas that were so vital then because I feel I can reflect now on the earlier days of sampling and sample based composition and feel its time to re release these works. To be listened to as full ensemble works where the issues of its construction and form are less in focus, as they seem to have been then, by myself and audiences, and to continue to look back and forward, inwardly and outwardly simultaneously, to listen with our eyes and see with our ears.