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Turning Notes into Letters

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By Jamie Stewart

How do you describe music? How do you choose the right words? How do you make connections between two seemingly polar-opposite worlds? Recently, the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) asked postgraduate Creative Writing students from the Manchester Writing School and Goldsmiths University, London, to do just that.

The project, entitled ‘Notes into Letters‘, explored the use of classical music as a source of inspiration and set out to bridge the gap between the worlds of writing and music. It consisted of two different sections: ‘Did I Hear That?’ and ‘The Concert Experience’.

In ‘Did I Hear That?’ each student was provided with an anonymous piece of music and was asked to listen to it weekly for a month. They were then asked to write a response to the music, either in prose or poetry, and to attempt to portray their own thoughts and experiences of using classical music as a source of inspiration for their writing.

Although, for some, listening to classical music without any context may have been a daunting experience, Manager of the Manchester Writing School James Draper remarked upon the incredible amount of support that the students had received from RPS Projects Co-ordinator, Tom Hutchinson. James said, “He gave lots of steer and advice to encourage our students – making sure they had a rewarding experience while taking part in something daunting and challenging.”

Georgi Gill, one of the students who took part in the ‘Did I Hear That?’ project, said of the experience,  “Listening to classical music was an excellent prompt for writing. The structure of ‘Notes into Letters’ presented me with an anonymous piece of music and I had promised not to Shazam to find out what it was or who it was by. That lack of context was really freeing; it helped me to concentrate entirely on the music and its effect rather than on any external information. Also, receiving my piece of music was like getting the best ever Secret-Santa present. I wouldn’t have chosen it but I grew to love it.”

Similarly, Manchester Writing School postgraduate student, Maggie Mackay said: “It was liberating, more especially because the piece was unnamed and we had a month to listen and revisit.”

At the end of the project, in which distance learning students were also invited to take part, Tom revealed the mystery piece of music each student was given. James Draper said, “The students were really excited not only to present their work, but to find out what their inspiration was. ”

Maggie Mackay added, “It was remarkable how the poem reflected the composer’s motifs and themes without being aware of the provenance of the music!”

In ‘The Concert Experience’ section of the project, students were asked to attend classical concerts at the Bridgewater Hall, including performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé and Philharmonia. The students were then asked to write a response to their experiences.

Manchester Writing School postgraduate student Andy Hickmott, who took part in both aspects of ‘Notes into Letters’ said, “As well as attending three performances by the Hallé at Bridgewater Hall, I also wrote poetry inspired by an unidentified piece of music (which turned out to be Unsuk Chin’s cello concerto). I found the immersive nature of the latter most inspiring, while the concert hall experience was interesting for different reasons – I found myself fascinated by the concert-going experience itself.”

The project was a great opportunity for writers to challenge themselves and to apply their creative writing skills in a new way. James Draper said, “Students say that working on the project has stimulated them and given them new ways of finding inspiration.”

Georgi Gill added, “This was a completely immersive process – really rather meditative… since taking part in ‘Notes into Letters’, every so often I like to choose a piece of classical music I don’t know well and write from the mental images the music creates in me.”

All of the writers who spoke to Humanity Hallows about the project were convinced that there are parallels between music and the written word. Andy Hickmott said: “Though there is a distinct difference between a poem and a song, there is an obvious family tie too.”

Georgi Gill also commented on the connection, “The connections between music and poetry run particularly close: both are meant to be heard out loud and both are built of sound, rhythm and pace.”

The ‘Notes into Letters’ project brought together music and words, the writers’ responses to their experience clearly showing the parallels that run through both worlds.

To read each student’s work from the project, please see the Royal Philharmonic Society’s website

Jamie is from Manchester and likes reading, writing, eating and baking. You can find Jamie in a coffee shop or the library.

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

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