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Peter Birkby; A percussionist's perspective.

Seeing Music, Hearing Colour

The compositions, improvisations, recordings, the interactions during workshops with artists and musicians are now completed. The culmination of these creative and collaborative events is now celebrated at The Civic in Barnsley until the 4th June 2022. Don’t forget to take your headphones when you visit. If you are reading this after the event then the website is

Composer, director and project driver Helen Madden asked participants to write a blog with personal thoughts and impressions that have emerged during the experience. I am a regular blogger but this one has been the most difficult one to write to date. I could have written about how covid affected every meeting we had planned or the percussion instruments I used and why but I wanted to say more than that and could not work out why all the writing stopped after a couple of paragraphs.

All became much clearer when I listened to Word of Mouth on BBC Radio4 with presenter Michael Rosen in conversation with linguist Nick Enfield about his recent book Language vs Reality. What can language describe and where does it fail? As the pair talked it became obvious why my blog was difficult to write. Some of Nick Enfield’s conclusions were that there are not enough words in any language to describe the thousands of shades of colours, using words to describe an event or picture (the title) often detracts from the viewing experience and we have imperfect languages but that is what we have got so try and make the best of it, all very pertinent to the project and trying to write a blog about it.

Why Seeing Music, Hearing Colour was such an inclusive and collaborative project was that it did not have to rely on the limitations of words and language. The two art forms inspired each other and the communication between artists, music and visual, was achieved by experimenting with sounds and images, direction from artist to musician in what sound they imagined and/or the ideas that were being represented. In talking with the artists about their processes there was also indirect communication in that the musicians tried to capture the essence of the artists as well as that of the art work.

I don’t hear music when I see different colours and listening to music does not inspire imagery in my mind, my musical brain processes all this information in a different way, but this did not stop me from fully engaging with the project. There was respect, communication and empathy between artists that made for some exciting and sometimes unexpected creativity. I hope you get chance to experience it for yourself to be able to appreciate the achievements of everyone involved.

The final collection of music and art is very diverse, representing the different experiences of the people that took part in the project, yet there are common threads of important stories being told through creativity and collaboration. I hope this is not a one-off project for Barnsley and that communities of artists and musicians throughout the country could get the chance to explore their experiences through projects like this in the future.

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