Notes into Letters – Writers Find Inspiration Visiting The Hallé at The Bridgewater Hall

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The Hallé performing. Photo by Russell Hart

The Hallé. Photo courtesy of Russell Hart and The Hallé.

Students from the MMU’s Creative Writing MA have been adding scribbling sounds to the music of The Hallé at The Bridgewater Hall.

In an exciting collaboration between the Manchester Writing School and The Royal Philharmonic Society, myself and nine other master’s degree students were invited to hear the Hallé perform three times in successive weeks, as part of the Notes into Letters project. The idea behind it seemed like a combination of encouraging people to experience classical music, and encounter it in a live environment like going to the cinema instead of watching a DVD at home. But for some of the students (including me), it wasn’t just the first time we had experienced a live classical music concert; it was the first time we’d listened to more than 10 minutes of classical music.

The concerts were not just for pleasure but to also encourage us to write. The audience at The Bridgewater had hushed when the music started, not like a cinema at all where the sound of people greedily opening bags of popcorn and other really loud food choices echoes throughout. Just good old fashioned silence. When the music started, it didn’t take long for inspiration to follow. We had each brought our notebooks and pens, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one looking sheepish at the sound our note taking was making in comparison with the delicate chords of the orchestra during quieter periods of the concert. Sometimes it only took a few elegant musical notes to create a thought that could be translated onto the page, and then the continuation of the music guided the thought onwards. 

Watching the musicians was fascinating too. Their love and passion for music was clear in the way they patiently awaited their turn, following the music and direction of the conductor and section leader. It raised the anticipation of a change in the music when the percussionist rose or when the tuba poked it’s shiny mouth towards the hall’s ceiling. When returning from a break, a new instrument had arrived on stage, such as a piano or harp, raising genuine excitement. I had imagined the experience of attending a concert instead of simply listening to a recording, would lie in the captivity and the group activity, like the difference between attending a football match and watching it on the TV, but it made me realise that it’s more than that. The feeling of watching all these top musicians, each with their own expressions and movements (some I should describe as ‘quirky’ to be polite), over a thousand people watching and listening to their every movements and breaths, made it an experience quite unlike I’ve ever had before.

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Unedited live recording of the Hallé at The Bridgewater Hall on 28 September 2006.

On one of our visits, a full choir sang the poem ‘Nänie‘, by Friedrich Schiller, put to music by Brahms, and the forlorn sound of the German gave me an appreciation of how beautiful poetry can be even when in a foreign language, when it is written with musical sounds in the word formations. Something all poets can aspire to.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s experience was as pleasant as mine. Student poet Valerie Bence was also making notes but at the interval was tapped on the shoulder. Turning around she saw a bald man wearing a cravat who “said loudly that he expected me to ‘desist’ whatever it was that I was doing”. Asked if he was serious, he said “what I was doing… was ‘spoiling his and his wife’s concentration and immersion in the piece'” Bence was so embarrassed she moved to another seat, but Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D didn’t sooth her. Instead she “got crosser and crosser… for not doing what I’ve always taught my now adult children to do and stand up for myself. After 2 movements of what sounded like just noise I was so livid with not fighting my corner that I left, spoke to a manager, who I think thought me somewhat deranged, got soaked in the rain and an earlier train all the way back home. It still makes me cross to think of it now.” However, since then, the experience has brought about what the collaboration has hoped for. Bence says that she will be “writing a longer piece based on the experience, which will be called ‘The 11th Commandment’, which will end with ‘Thou shalt not write'”.

The experience of student Rebecca Smith was much more positive. On being asked about what inspiration she’s been able to get out of the experience, she said her writing “reached grander themes”, usually choosing to place her work  “in a domestic subdued context.” She said “It dared me to write in a way that referenced older writers, other’s myths, it made me a braver writer as I had to match the soaring nature of the music. It made me write in unexpected ways, reaching for truths in my own life that I wouldn’t usually handle. It surprised me how inspiring it was to write about the people who attended the concerts, how human the whole experience became. The more often I went to hear the Hallé, the more I identified with the music and concert goers. I began to realise what is moving about the music in a way that goes beyond what words can do.” On being asked whether she would repeat the experience, Smith said “I think this kind of music is an excellent source of inspiration, although it requires investigation in a way you might not be used to and comfortable with, I think this is a good situation for a writer to be in.” 

Halle Orchestra with the Halle Choir at The Bridgewater Hall

Halle Orchestra with the Halle Choir at The Bridgewater Hall

Children’s writer Marie Basting said “There’s been bits of it that I’ve absolutely loved, like today [‘Nänie’, Op82] it moved me to tears.” Basting, like me had never been to a classical music concert. “I wasn’t sure what to expect and it’s been a learning experience. I would definitely recommend it as a source of inspiration. I’ve got several ideas in my notebook I will build on and expand. It’s took me down different avenues. In the first concert I reverted to type and wrote something in my normal young adult voice and today I started on a poem- and I haven’t written a poem since I was about 15.”

It seems each of the writers that attended are now producing all kinds of new and exciting inspiration for stories or poetry following their first time encounter with a real life orchestra, whether it be from a positive or negative source. Tickets to see concerts at the The Bridgewater Hall start at £10 (plus £2 booking fee) and the fact that they also have a range of performers and orchestras throughout the year, I would definitely consider going again. With these fantastic prices, in combination with the remarkable atmosphere, The Bridgewater Hall is an excellent choice for both inspiration and for any other classical music amateurs out there, that simply wish to experience something new.

Look out for the student’s final pieces on the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Notes into Letters website.

 Justine Chamberlain is a Creative Writing Master’s degree student in the Manchester Writing School, specialising in poetry. Her blog can be found here and you can follow her on Twitter @justineswriting.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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