Stringing Words Together
Arts and heritage / Music / Training
Playing a piece of music is like telling a story. A good storyteller knows how to capture an audience’s attention, vary the pace, add in the detail that hooks the imagination, and carry listeners along, ensuring they’re eager to hear the end of the story.
It’s the same when I play the harp. I want to tell a story through the music by encouraging people to listen to everything that’s going on. So I’ll change the pace and dynamics to maintain interest, and maybe add a pause so they’ll notice a certain melody, a particularly gorgeous chord progression, or the way a harmonic hangs in the air before a big bass note rings out. I might even look up and make eye contact with the audience, as if to say, “Come on, you don’t want to miss this bit.”
A day of inspirational wordstorming
I had a chance to explore this crossover between words and music at Wordstock, a festival of ‘inspirational wordstorming’ run by 26, the writers’ collective. Held at the Free Word centre in London on 8 October, it attracted a host of free-spirited wordsmiths who were keen to sharpen up their writing skills in a variety of ways.
Intrepid wordstormers launched themselves into activities including scrawling in fluorescent pen on festival-style tents, looking for ‘throwaway lines’ on litter in the streets and dancing like lovelorn penguins in a workshop on the language of seduction.
Taking a creative sidestep with live harp music
My contribution was ‘Stringing words together’, a 45 minute creative writing workshop that encouraged people to take a creative sidestep and explore where the sounds of live harp music could take their writing.
I’ve worked as a professional business writer for umpteen years, but have played the harp since I was nine. I played with a youth orchestra throughout my teenage years, which included a trip to Australia where we performed in the Sydney Opera House, and carried on studying the harp during my French degree. Since then, I’ve played the harp most days, and regularly perform with chamber musicians and amateur choral societies.
So this seemed like a great opportunity to combine my passions for words and music. To be honest, I had no idea how – or whether – it would work. But Tom Lynham, the man who dreamed up the festival, was prepared to let me have a go.
At 11am on that Saturday morning, a group of around 15 writers gathered in the central hall, forming a semi-circle around the harp. Although we were indoors, there were full-size trees in giant pots behind us and crisp autumn leaves scattered on the ground, so the hall was transformed into a slightly surreal woodland scene. I played barefoot, and enjoyed the sensation of the leaves brushing against my feet on the wooden floor.
Silence vs sound
Most participants were either musicians themselves or music-lovers, and all approached the workshop with admirably open minds.
Vicki Jung, a film script editor, said: “I chose to attend the Stringing Words Together session because I love music and writing and was intrigued to explore whether music could be a good source of creative inspiration for writing. I often find music too distracting and usually when I write I prefer silence in the background so that I can concentrate. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to try something different.”
I encouraged everyone to relax, enjoy the music and see where it took them. The idea was for me to play five pieces each lasting around five minutes, and for people to write in a freeform stream-of-consciousness while I played. This technique is sometimes called ‘automatic writing’. I was also inspired by Natalie Goldberg, a best-selling American author who has created a form of writing practice that draws on Zen meditation techniques. Essentially, the rules are: “Keep your hand moving, don’t censor yourself and don’t edit as you go”.
Go with the flow
We all know how good it feels when you’re really in the moment and going with the flow. You feel at one with whatever it is you’re doing and every action naturally leads to the next. It’s a gift if this happens when you’re writing. You start with momentum and passion, spurred on by the initial thought or phrase that comes to mind, and you just ride that wave – words spilling effortlessly out onto the paper, one after the other.
For me, it happens when I’m running, when I forget about the hill or the pothole or the shoelace done up a little too tight, and just get into my stride and seem to fly. It also happens when I’m playing the harp, usually after I’ve been playing for around an hour. I feel at one with my instrument and the music, and even notice a difference in the quality of my breathing. I breathe more deeply, am more relaxed and for some reason imagine I can smell the spruce of the soundboard as it reverberates with the final notes.
I started with ‘La Source’ by Alphonse Hasselmans, who was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century. This piece conjures up the sound of water as it tumbles from the source, and epitomises a sense of fluidity. I gave people a prompt, the first two words – ‘I remember’. Afterwards, everyone chose a sentence from the words they’d produced, and wrote it down on a piece of manuscript paper. Freelance copywriter Chris Bird wrote: “And as I ran, seed pods spiralled in the pinking air and a shaft of sunlight pierced the trees as I passed beneath them; and I was golden.”
Driven by rhythm
Rhythm is fundamental for writing. Juxtaposing short sentences with long ones. Alternating flow and staccato. Reading your words out loud to decide where you need to add or subtract a syllable.
One piece that uses rhythm in subtle and seductive ways is the ‘Oriental Dance’ by Enrique Granados (link to Granados playing the piano version). It’s a dance in three/four time, yet almost has the feeling of having one beat in the bar, rather than three. In the middle section, the left hand picks out the off-beat, emphasising the Spanish origins of the piece and somehow managing to make the harp sound more like a guitar.
One participant echoed something of the breathless, insistent nature of the rhythm: “This isn’t what I expected enchanted arrows uncertain terse and tearful tell us what it was like I never can.”
Two against three
Benjamin Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols as he returned from American to Britain on a five week sea voyage in 1942. The whole work is infused with the struggle between war and peace, dark and light, good and evil. Apparently he drew on the Mediaeval musical theory that triplets are perfect, as they represent the Holy Trinity, whereas time measured in beats of two is imperfect, as it represents man, with his two arms, two legs, two eyes and ears. In this work, double and triple time are frequently set against each other, battling it out.
The Interlude at the centre of the work is a harp solo – a translucently beautiful piece. Delicate harmonics frame the beginning and end of this movement, while the louder, more discordant notes of the central section provide contrast and drama – two elements that reliably add spice to written work.
The prompt was ‘Dark angels’. Brian Jenner, a speechwriter, wrote: “To be somewhere else where the wind blows without responsibility and the goings on are beyond my control.”
Three is a magic number
Still exploring the rhythmical landscape, we moved onto the power of threes in writing. Speechwriters love threes as a rhetorical device, from Julius Caesar saying “I came, I saw, I conquered” to Tony Blair promising “education, education, education”. Three is a very satisfying format for both writing and music. In writing, it delivers a beginning, a middle and an end. In music, it often delivers a theme, a diversion, and a return to the original theme.
I played the Première Arabesque by Debussy which is a forest of triplets and also features the classic theme – diversion – theme format. The prompt was ‘Three is a magic number’. One person wrote: “It’s a magic time for trees and leaves and you and me and ribbons of things like playground cartwheels.”
The power of contrast
The final piece was ‘Chanson dans la Nuit’ by Carlos Salzedo. Written in 1927, this work uses a variety of techniques that were unusual at the time, including playing with the nails rather than with the tips of the fingers and tapping with the fingers on the soundboard. In both music and writing, if we hope to move forward, we must constantly embrace new approaches and new techniques.
This music inspired a range of responses. Roshni Goyate from The Writer wrote these words: “The middle ground was at best, silence, at worst, a jumble of wonderful syllables.” Tim Rich, a founder of 26 and one half of 66,000mph, picked out this sentence from his writing: “Our words fall away to earth, back to where we came from, while we keep looking forward, like animals.” Meanwhile, Vicki Jung wrote: “Letters pegged to a washing line, the words fly off and reassemble themselves then turn into origami paper birds that fly off into the sky.”
Tapping into the unconscious
So how did people find the experience of writing along to the harp? Brian Jenner said: “It was an excellent exercise because we didn’t need to prepare and there was no pressure to produce anything but gibberish. And yet it produced some curious results for me. I felt I could ‘let go’ and write words that didn’t exist along with the jumble in my consciousness to keep the pen rolling. There was a fear that there would be nothing I could share, but in each case there was a serendipitous arrangement of words that was worth holding onto – for curiosity value. Nothing was like what I would normally write, but rather surreal – like an LSD trip perhaps!”
Vicki Jung had a similar impression: “I found initially that I did just want to listen to the music and not write at the same time, and the writing felt a bit forced. I also found it difficult to construct sentences, but discovered it was a good source of inspiration for conjuring up a flow of evocative visual images and feelings. However, as the exercise developed, I found it quite a liberating process that seemed to help me get away from thinking too much and tap more directly into the unconscious. It was interesting to see how different the pieces of writing were in response to the different moods or atmospheres created by the different pieces of music.”
If I held the workshop again, I’d want to allow more time so people could listen to each other’s writing and share experiences and impressions as they went along. But personally, I really enjoyed this experiment. It was great to hear the writing that the music inspired, and to witness how people felt liberated by the music to write in a new – and perhaps unexpected – way.
I’d love to hear what you think. What are your experiences of the crossover between words and music? What types of exercise would you like to try in a workshop like this? And have I missed any crucial elements? Please get in touch and let me know.
Fiona is a freelance writer and a board member of 26. Recent work includes writing brand stories for a Somerset cider producer, an investors’ brochure for a company in Hull that has produced a 100% compostable and biodegradable plastic, web content for a fostering agency and a series of case studies for Deloitte. She also runs workshops in marketing communications.
This piece originally appeared on the 66,000mph website.