c/o Jason Torello

c/o Jason Torello

If you saw “Echoes of Attica,” a play about the 1971 prison uprising put on by the Center for the Arts earlier this semester, the music probably stood out to you. From rap to gospel, lyric and melody filled the courtyard of the CFA, bringing colorful sounds to the gray stone of the brutalist scene.

The sound design was done by Jason Torello, a Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BLS) student majoring in music. A formerly incarcerated person, Torello was first introduced to Wesleyan through the Center for Prison Education (CPE) program at Cheshire Correctional Institution. Torello shared his experience with the program. 

“Education is interesting in prison because it’s not like it’s not going on without prison programs,” Torello said. “Some people do it on their own, some people do it in a lot of different ways […] The biggest part of it is [that] you’re living two completely separate [lives]. Like on your way to the classroom it’s a completely different thing than when you’re in the classroom.”

After earning an associate’s degree from Middlesex College and his release from prison, Torello, who had always planned on finishing his bachelor’s, enrolled in the BLS program at the University.

 “[The BLS Program] was more of an opportunity to, number one, finish something that I really love,” Torello said. “I’ve been a musician for many years, and I took a long time off because of the trajectory that I took, and so [the program] is a perfect opportunity for me to explore music in a different way. It’s not the same kind of thing. I’m not in clubs, I’m doing it for a different reason. I’m doing it for more of an academic reason.”

Torello has always had a passion for music, an art form that he considers essential to his life.

“Music is pretty much just something that I need to do,” Torello said. “It’s the same way [when] sometimes you’re thirsty and you have to drink water. For me, there’s certain emotional and physical things that I have [and] I get that kind of quenching from playing music.”

Like many musicians, he caught the bug early. And it stuck.

“I’ve been playing music since I was really really young,” Torello said. “I played in a lot of bands, … studio time, I used to do recording gigs and stuff like that. I was always involved in music and always loved it and it’s always just been a part of who I am.”

When he was in prison, Torello was cut off from music-making.

“[In prison], you really understand how much you need things that you didn’t think that you needed and one of the interesting things [is] they pretty much cut you off from music in prison,” Torello said. “Not so much listening to it, which is even hard because it’s very expensive and radio stations aren’t very good and they don’t have much of a selection, but as far as performing or playing music it’s almost nonexistent.” 

Although he was eventually able to start a music program with fellow incarcerated individuals, Torello had trouble getting it off the ground and lacked support from the prison administration.

“I was able to work with some other guys and get a music program going by the last year or so that I was in there, but it never really took like it was supposed to,” Torello said. “It’s mostly because they just don’t see the importance of it, they don’t see the importance of how it directs peoples’ attitudes and how it directs peoples’ energies and the things that they can do.”

However, music was always on his mind when he was incarcerated. Torello said that his passion for the art form just took shape in a different way.

“I spent a lot of time reading about music and thinking about what I wanted to do and the thinking, it was really just as valuable as the playing time,” Torello said. “But now that that’s the case, I do play quite a bit to make up for it. It [certainly gives me] a sense of centeredness that is good for this process of assimilating back into life because, you know, it’s not easy.”

His primary instrument is the bass, although he dabbles in others. Torello explained his approach to music, highlighting the importance of expressing his individuality.

“I am more of an instrumentalist,” Torello said. “And I look at music in terms of melodic themes that work in and out of my repertoire of things that I’m into. I have a certain set of themes that I’ve been using for a long time that are very interchangeable and they lend well to being able to be used in different kinds of music in order to put my personality in there. […] My compositional goal is to add my personality into pieces of music.”

On-campus, Torello has worked on many theater projects, most recently the production of “Echoes of Attica.” He began working with theater specifically through the CPE program.

“I was in the 2013 cohort, or that’s when I got in, and one of the first semesters I had I worked with Professor [of Theater Ronald] Jenkins on a theater class doing Shakespeare, performing Shakespeare,” Torello said.

Jason was also part of a conversation surrounding the upcoming play Oedipus El Rey. The conversation, entitled “Talk It Out: Oedipus El Rey – Self-Determination Versus the Weavers of Fate,” took place on October 28th. The play centers around the theme of justice, which is present in Jason’s work.

“Now I would say that, if I was to think about more broad themes, it would certainly be about themes of justice because of a lot of things that I’ve been through,” Torello said. “Some of the themes that I do tend to choose would be themes of justice and autonomy and being able to use music as empowerment.”

While justice is present in Torello’s music due to his experiences, he believes that justice must be important to all people regardless of what they’ve been through, and something that should stay on our minds.

“Whether we’re doing theater or music or… thinking about philosophy or natural science or whatever, we’re thinking about these issues,” Torello said. “It would be important to keep in your mind. Everybody should think about this once a semester and be like: ‘Well, how does this stuff relate to justice?’ Cause justice, now that we see, it doesn’t have to do with just [being] in prison, it has to do with how people are treated by police, in prisons, by the government. There’s a lot of problems with justice, obviously, right now.”

He also pointed to Connecticut’s large incarcerated population, and the reminder that issues of justice in fact exist all around us, all of the time. As of May of 2021, just under 9,000 people are currently incarcerated in the state.

“Connecticut, in particular, is such a small state with [such a] large number of incarcerated people,” Torello said. “It’s an issue that you would not think lends itself to the Nutmeg State because it’s such a beautiful place to live. Everybody should know that in this beautiful state that’s there’s thousands and thousands of people incarcerated, which is a debatable thing on its own, but it’s something that people should at least confront [and] be aware of.”

Torello presents many powerful themes within his own work and encourages others to include important and educational topics in their own artistic projects.

“There’s no better way to get people thinking about issues than artistically,” Torello said. “It’s much easier than a bludgeon. It’s much easier to convince people that there might be something interesting to think about when you have a good play or a good song or a good movie or a good documentary or a good poem.”

To make a donation to the Center for Prison Education’s Re-Entry Fund, visit https://www.givecampus.com/campaigns/18024/donations/new

Liz Pace can be reached at lpace@wesleyan.edu.

Sophie Griffin can be reached at sgriffin@wesleyan.edu.

Comments are closed