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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Listening to Survive: Classical Music, Conflict, and Identity in the Contemporary Novel

25th September 2019, 17:30 to 18:30, Alington House, 4 North Bailey, Katie Harling-Lee

Since novels are written for the eye not the ear, how can fiction be written about music? Katie Harling-Lee will think about the meaning of music in several recent novels, in this Late Summer Lecture. Free and open to all, from members of the public to schools to academics.

About this Public Lecture

Counter to the cultural and political instability of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in contemporary literature we can find convictions about the powers of Western classical music as a source of hope, survival, and rebellion. When the world around them collapses, characters in contemporary novels thematically concerned with music turn to the ideal that classical music offers a hope for survival and escape. However, musical description in literary narrative lacks sound, which leads to very personal descriptions of the experiences of music listening in the novel, further affected by the characters’ individual experiences of the time and place of the conflict setting in which such music is heard. This raises questions relating to a recurring debate in music studies: can music be expressive of human emotional experience or is music only a structure of forms with no extramusical meaning?

To engage with the debate around the ‘meaning’ of music and how this is impacted by a (fictional) individual’s experience of the time and place of the conflict setting, this lecture will place a selection of literary extracts describing the music-listening experience in dialogue with audio extracts of the pieces of music in question, using examples from Fugitive Pieces (Michaels 1996), The Cellist of Sarajevo (Galloway 2008), Orfeo (Powers 2014), and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Thien 2016). These texts demonstrate that while music itself may exist in sound, the human experience of music-listening cannot exist in a vacuum, as it is tied to a specific time and place for a specific individual. Just as conflict is ‘an assertion of individualism’ (Burton 1991), the novels’ descriptions of music listening assert characters’ individual interpretations of musical pieces, and the assertion of the individual becomes paramount to an understanding of the novels’ use of music, and ultimately of our own music-listening experiences.

About Katie Harling-Lee

Katie Harling-Lee is a first-year PhD student at Durham University, funded by the Wolfson Foundation. Her primary research is in musico-literary studies, focussing on the thematic use of Western classical music in contemporary novels set during twentieth and twenty-first-century conflicts. Her research addresses how these literary texts explore common cultural ideas about music’s transcendental qualities, and how these texts inform understandings of survival in political and armed conflict. She is currently writing an article demonstrating how the literary text can provide insights into attempts at exiting violence, while also revealing the text’s cultural blind spots surrounding the ‘power’ of music.


Is the lecture suitable for me?

Late Summer Lectures is designed to be open to a wide audience, from university or sixth-form students to members of the public. It aims to convey the latest postgraduate and early career research, so lectures will be rooted in academic ideas and principles; however, lecturers should present these in a clear way. There will be an opportunity to ask questions afterwards or to chat further over refreshments. You can get a sense of what to expect by listening to some of our previous lectures (although most live lectures are accompanied by visuals which can help to convey ideas):

Is the venue and lecture accessible?

The Ritson Hall in Alington House is located at the end of a corridor, wide enough for wheelchair access. A lift is available at the end. The organisers or Alington House reception staff will be available to assist. Unfortunately we are not able to provide sign language interpreters for each lecture. If there are any ways in which we could help you to attend the event please contact the organisers at

What are my transport/parking options for getting to and from the event?

Please visit the Alington House website for full details.

Do I have to bring my printed ticket to the event?

If the event reaches its limit, priority will be given to those who have reserved a ticket in advance via Eventbrite. We advise that you bring a copy on your phone just in case.

Contact for more information about this event.

Related Links


Research in English At Durham (READ) blog showcasing the the literary research emerging from the Department of English Studies


We host a large number of conferences, lectures and seminars each year, many of them open to the public. Find out more on our Events page.


Many of our public lectures, seminars and conferences are recorded, and can be listened to as podcasts.

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