The Body Alone Listens: An exploration of the sounds of Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway through musical composition and literary analysis

Plan Author

  • Helen Pinch, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Studies in Composition: Materials and Design
  • Course: Chamber Music
  • Tutorial: Instrumentation and Arranging
  • Tutorial: Reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in Critical Context

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Andrew Greenwald, Bennington College


This Plan includes a paper exploring Virginia Woolf’s use of sound as a literary device in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway by exploring examples of sound as represented in the text and as embedded in the text through syntax. By engaging with the novel alongside selected essays by Woolf, I examine a potential effect of Woolf’s use of sound: the creation of a distinct experience for the reader which destabilizes narrative certainty and avoids closure. The Plan also includes original compositions to prose taken directly from Mrs. Dalloway, a tape piece composed solely of audio from a BBC recording of Woolf reading a segment of one of her essays, and other compositions, as well as some reflective writing.


What Woolf draws, then, is a new set of sounds, rhythms, and patterns arising from syntax. Drawing attention to the sound of a sentence through the initial evocation of silence, Woolf widens one’s awareness of language to include not only the prescribed meaning of a word or phrase, but also the incalculable effect on the reader (or listener). In doing so, Woolf acknowledges a gap between meaning and effect; she seeks not to bridge that gap definitively (an impossible feat) but instead articulate it, give it space to breathe, expand, and contract, and, in doing so, construct a broadened definition of communication that exists in relation to that gap: within, through, and around it.

Someone once asked me at a party why I would study music. That’s a good question. The answer is not an obvious one, nor one that I can give in as few words as I would like. I could not answer it then, at a party, but I will try again. It has to do with a feeling that is not so much a feeling as a lack of one, a lack of awareness, or perhaps an altered awareness, that occurs between and around players. This thing that happens I can only describe as ‘playing together.’ This playing together, is not a constant state, or a fixed goal, but is rather an always-shifting conglomeration of a few common attributes which tend to appear when musicians are playing in this way.


I will always remember the strong connections made with my faculty member, the sense of working alongside my professors and performers, the amazing thing that was putting together my show in the final weeks of the semester. The inspiration from my Plan drew from my vested interest in types of analysis and critique that offer alterity and multiplicity. I focused on Virginia Woolf in writing and music both because I felt her writing was a clear example of that kind of work.