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The Poetry of Music, the Music of Poetry

The Poetry of Music, the Music of Poetry

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." —Thelonious Monk

We at the Witness Project have been invited to share our words on the Minnesota Orchestra’s January 29 concert theme of Heart and Hope. We’re happy to take up the challenge of talking about music and, more importantly, poeting about heart and hope and music.

The home of the Witness Project is the Robert J. Jones Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), located in Minneapolis’s Northside neighborhood. Witness is a community-based initiative to foster creative literary work in a multitude of voices. Those taking part in the program look for ways to begin difficult conversations and work to create an environment where people feel safe to unlock experience and share. A core belief is that while writing is in many ways a solitary endeavor, the building of community is essential to meaningful artistic practice. We think there is value not only in developing an audience for literary work, but in interacting with and getting feedback from that audience. We regularly engage in cross-genre artistic practice and we value collaborations with our friends and colleagues in the fields of dance, drama, visual arts, culinary arts, fabric arts and music. For the third straight year, we’re honored to work “in concert” with the Minnesota Orchestra to create a synthesis of poetry and music.

We’ve tasked ourselves with bearing witness to this moment in history, looking at the world through a musical lens. Anyone who caught the performance of Amanda Gorman, youth poet laureate, at the Inauguration of Joe Biden, may understand the significance of poetry as witness and the power of poetry to heal. Channeling unheard voices, confronting unspoken truths, using well-chosen words to bridge differences and to reach for universal humanity—all this is possible with poetry. Our writers have met this challenge:

by reflecting on the power of music:

Untitled, by Debra Stone

Rhythm is all that matters

 bass guitar summons

 freeing me from the inside

voice penetrating the body

my heart vibrates to the beat

ancient rhythms

trilling of the tongue

calling me

 i try to sing my answer

but my tongue is english

not wolof

my body moves


Rhythm is all that matters.

by capturing the heart of music:

Music is Love and Life, by Emilié Koritz Elshall

Here on stage once the curtains part

First, silence and thrill of the unknown.

A surprise will be arriving, the audience gently intuits, as do the musicians

As we warm up, here is how it sounds to we playing gracefully-and we listening attentively-

The people singing, breathing the vital breath of Music.

Music on our pink minds, on our blue and red Hearts, on our bodies, on our old and new souls, on our free and unbound spirits

Music wafting through the air, speaking through the soil beneath the edifice where the performance is, 

Music like a candle, playful like water.

Beautiful Music-Otherwise known as Love and Life. 

Subsequently after the pause, then-it commences

A single, solitary, interesting sound

Then, slowly…many.

E or G, La, Mi, a scale native or different from a far away land, with beating drums, with delicate strings, with easy woodwinds, with strong brass.

All of a melody’s romantic notes

Colorful, vibrant, exquisitely written letters of passion moving 

Sanctifying space resplendent and Earth too

Making voices of galaxies harmonize

The Milky Way and her acquaintances

In time with the rhythm of a baby’s heartbeat 

being born

In the audience.

And with the tune arrives the passing away of all pain and hurt, every sorrow and suffering.

The voice of Love, personified, with kisses and embraces and band-aids. 

by allowing ourselves to be transformed:

what if  i were to tell you i was a bird?  by Hawona Sullivan Janzen 

we flapped-drove to the city, then flew-stood 

in line until we almost could

not remember why we were there, but

then she squeezed my hand and i remembered


it had been a tough year. Between

puberty and physics

and not making first chair

between a newly diagnosed 

chocolate allergy, my viola teacher relocating, and

being stood up for the Sadie Hawkins Dance

there was a cello-playing boy who asked me for my best friend’s

number when i hoped he was going to ask for mine.  There were a 

few caws and fighting over the crumbs of bread a tourist dropped. And just like that 

my best friend was gone.


We’d been planning the trip for weeks. Mom,

i said, i can’t go to the concert now--not with Jesse

But my mother was adamant. Beak folded beneath my wing

i stood there in line at 14

with my mother waiting...

to see Yo-Yo Ma. 


When we got to our seats there was Jesse with her dad. 

i wish i could tell you that we said we were sorry, but we were birds. 

We squawked a bit; cooed,  then swayed to the music until the night was done. 

by bearing witness to the present:                 

Music in the Time of Quarantine, Part I, by Nancy Cook

Toward evening

the people come out

on their balconies

one by one or two by two,

like nestlings cracking

out of eggshells.

A handsome youth

picks up his violin;

his father, shirtless

in the spring sun,

intones Puccini’s

Nessun Dorma aria.


Mother and sisters

are in shadows behind,

swooning, Magdelenas

at the crucifixion. Then

across the neighborhood

of open windows, decks,

and rooftops, listen:

a harmonica, a whistle,

soon a clarinet, drumbeats;

soon, a soprano voice

with wings of an angel,

soon a chorus of voices,

and soon, soon, the music

shall defeat the menace

that confines them.

by remembering the power of music:

Sommerfest, 1989, by Joan Thompson

Emerging from air-conditioned

chill of Orchestra Hall seats,

we're wrapped in perfect

warmth of a July night

calling us to stay outdoors

and giving heart for winter.

Twinkle lights line tiny trees

and stands sell late-night treats.

The drained fountain, a dance floor,

fills with concert goers still floating

to the strains of Strauss.

Summer casual rules the night--

twirling sundresses partner with

short-sleeved shirts and khakis.

As "The Danube Waltz" arches

toward WCCO and IDS,

two couples' perfect steps

stand out--the women

dipping in flowing dresses,

the men in tuxedo jackets and

cummerbunds, formal perfection

above bermuda shorts and tennies--

signs that magic can happen

on music-filled summer nights.

 by tapping into its healing power:     

Untitled, by Gene Olson

As hard as hope.
Worn to a shine
Weathered to a nub
There is yet this sleeping bit
Huddled shivering in anticipation of mornings promise.

by being empowered:            

A Brass Heart, by Tanya Anderson

I am the peacemaker




Sympathetic vibrations of air

With the breath of humanity

A sound

Bright and melodic

Each breath a reminder

That we can all play

With diligence and hope

I urge you to play me

Become resilient

Play me

Become exuberant

Play me with all your heart

Because we are an assembly

Whether you march

Or play solo

When you breathe

Into the soul

Of the brass trumpets

Passed down by generations

We all become energized

Notes of hope

 and by offering hope:

Music in the Time of Quarantine, Part II, by Nancy Cook

by day birds rhapsodize

from hidden perches

I dance with shadows on the wall

dance to the sweep of the broom

to the rhythms of a lonely heart


at night wind chimes

enter my dreams

rock me with their easy sway

cast tiny glints of hope

kindled by the ascendant moon

Learn more about these Witness writers and the work the Witness Project inspires at, or contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



  • This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
    This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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    Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra