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Working with John Berger: Testimonies

Inside The Message: Writing Songs After John Berger

Inside the message : écrire des chansons après John Berger
Flora Hibberd


Cet article prend pour point de départ les écrits de John Berger sur le langage et sa vision d’un monde s’exprimant « textuellement », parallèlement à ses réflexions sur la musique et la chanson. Il est d’abord question de la caractérisation du langage propre à Berger, et de « l’espace » qu’ouvrent selon lui les chansons en tant qu’organismes en mutation, puis d’une mise en parallèle de ces remarques avec celles de Bertrand Belin, qui envisage la chanson comme un « biotope » au sein duquel les mots, considérés comme vivants, interagissent avec la musique. Enfin, ces idées sont appliquées au processus d’écriture lui-même. Il est ainsi question de leur potentielle mise en pratique, lorsqu’il s’agit de composer intuitivement les différentes composantes d’une chanson, de les corriger en chemin, et d’observer leur manière de dialoguer entre elles afin de créer un monde identifiable.

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‘But when we write a song or a poem, we can use the occasion to see what the language has to tell us outside of its regular field’ Bertrand Belin (Anezin)

‘After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. . . . I listen to their confabulation’ John Berger (Berger 2016, 7)

1I was sixteen when I was first handed a copy of Ways of Seeing, John Berger’s influential rendering in seven essays of his 1972 television series. Reading it would, at first, ignite in me a desire to study art history, but after dropping out of university and turning to songwriting, its effects would linger, and prove lasting. To write a song is to grapple with different languages, and to strive for harmony between them. Among the many recurring themes that weave through Berger’s works, written and otherwise, language, languages, and the transmission of meaning are fundamental.

2Berger recognises the limits of verbal language as a way of communicating the realities of lived experience. Three of Ways of Seeing’s seven essays are visual, and in its first text he writes of ‘this seeing which comes before words, and can never be quite covered by them’ (Berger 2008, 1). Much later, in Confabulations, he would write of how ‘true’ meaning lies behind or beyond our attempts to relate it:

True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the ‘thing’ that is waiting to be articulated. (Berger 2016, 7)

3The ‘host language’ here appears organic, even animal: it is the ‘creature’ of the Berger quotation that opens this essay, with all the mutability and imperfection that the metaphor implies. This language has autonomy, though it may be persuaded. Certainly, it does not appear that Berger considers himself to be its master; rather, the act of writing is an ‘act of approaching’ the fragile ‘vision or experience . . . quivering’ behind it.

4Berger’s surrender to language’s will invites playfulness and experimentation, alongside a certain ambivalence towards any final ‘pinning down’ of meaning: language is simply a tool with which to explore experience. The words ‘are questioning the roles I allotted them. So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins’ (Berger 2016, 7).

5A song is organic: in constant motion, it never achieves a final, stable form, though a celebrated recorded version may exist. The folk song is perhaps a good example of this, for as it drifts around in time and space it is allowed to transform, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes utterly, depending on the concerns of its singers, the place in which it is sung, the people whom it is sung to. Evoking the Cape Verdean singer-songwriter Cesária Évora, Berger writes ‘she sang black West African Portuguese songs in a language and with an accent that was incomprehensible to most people who were not from Cape Verde’ (Berger 2016, 86). Everywhere subjectivity—on the side of the artist and her interpretation, not to mention that of the other musicians, but also on the side of the listeners, depending on their lives, the language they speak.

6Of course, art is appreciated subjectively, but Berger’s descriptions of its many and varied voices allow them a strange and almost radical fluidity, a fluency that bends to the ear of the listener. He writes, ‘the essence of songs is neither vocal nor cerebral but organic. We follow them in order to be enclosed. We find ourselves inside a message. The unsung impersonal world remains outside’ (Berger 2016, 85). The song is not a lyrics sheet nor a chord chart nor an audio recording but a personal yet shared space, inside which occurs ‘a closeness . . . , an agreement about life . . . spontaneously shared between the untold stories gathered around the song’ (Berger 2016, 107). Berger’s description powerfully reveals the intertwined personal and political nature of songs: their performance may be both social-political moment and an intensely personal individual world.

7Still inchoate, the song is unstable, and we can only hope that this world under construction will have what it takes to survive. Its parts must come together and coexist. Singer-songwriter Bertrand Belin conjures a ‘biotope’:

the music is the biotope of the words in the song. It’s in this biotope that the words interact and are alive, like fish in an aquarium. They are able to thrive in the song. If I take them out and put them on a page, they will die. I leave them in the song. And in this music, in its harmonic folds, their possible polysemy, what they mask, also comes to life, in the free spaces left by the music. (Turin)

8The work is delicate, words must be used freely, but with care. The biotope depends on so much, both in and out of our control. Belin courts the same ambiguity as Berger, invites multiple readings, and the song’s capacity for ‘polysemy’ comes not only from the words but from the music itself, its folds and spaces. He describes ‘what I love about writing: watching words react, produce meaning, new meanings, alternative meanings, double meanings’ (Anezin). Just like Berger, Belin describes a hidden meaning behind the words that may be reached through the other parts of the song.

9From this perspective, the less noticeable mechanisms of a song become just as important as its lyrical content or its minor or major mood. The rhythm with which a phrase unfolds or the harshness and softness of its consonants, all may be tweaked and played with, and from this new combination of words with surprising connotations are allowed to flourish. The polyphony of the song—its many languages—is a mirror that reflects its multiplicities of meaning.

10So, when you do sit down to write it, how does this polyphony come into existence? A theme Berger returns to often is that of the happy accident and the unexpected juxtaposition. He advocates the pursuit of the twist of fate, trusts in the subconscious wanderings of the mind’s eye, this as one way the world communicates with us, one way to communicate back its incomprehensibility. Looking at an image of a flamenco dancer by Spanish photographer Tato Olivas, an ink drawing of an iris rises from the archive of Berger’s memory: he places the two images together to form a diptych, which he sends to Olivas.

11Berger believes that these moments reveal something, so he follows their thread, staying attuned to the unexpected relations between things. In a chapel in Mexico he notes ‘A side-door has been left ajar; there is a draught of air which makes the candle flames quiver and lean sideways. The rhythm of the voices and the rhythm of the flickering candle flames’ (Berger 2016, 115). Songwriting is often a question of pulling at that thread: it pays to remain curious about the alignment and potential misalignment of images and words, open to randomness and attentive to what ‘springs to mind.’ What is more, following an idea with curiosity may be revealing, for the world is mysterious and telling us things.

We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centres of circles. The circles surround us with testaments addressed to us by our predecessors since the Stone Age, and by texts which are not addressed to us but which can be witnessed by us. Texts from nature, from the universe (Berger 2016, 141)

12It is not easy to explain how songwriting happens, not because it is particularly difficult or mysterious, but because its stages are nebulous, and can be intuitive. You need a certain amount of trust and confidence to let the song lead you somewhere. Berger describes drawing in one interview as ‘a constant correction of errors’ (Berger 2011) and this is what most of the ‘work’ of songwriting is, too. The song unfolds, and you follow it, correcting. Little by little, an approach. In Belin’s words, ‘the songs evolve themselves, in their nature, in their writing, in what they carry, in what they reach towards’ (Turin 125).

13In a practical sense, you can catalyse this process by reading a book, watching a film, looking at an image. You can generate strange new juxtapositions from the image before you and the images in your mind’s eye, and investigate what they might mean. You can direct your gaze actively, but you cannot unsee what you have seen, or un-experience what you have experienced, and so, like dreams, your songs will carry the trace of whatever is on your mind. As you write, or perhaps much later, you will notice what pieces of experience have left their mark on your inner life. This in itself is a discovery. With your inner and outer life in constant dialogue, the song is bearing witness to the conversation.

14As the words unfold and make a story, so too may melody or rhythm be constructed through experimentation and steady correction. Advances are made, seen to work or not work, seen to fit together with one another or sound out of place, maybe their sounding out of place is fruitful, maybe not. The making of these decisions shapes the song’s identity, as they are made instinctively and are therefore personal. In Berger’s words, taken from the final lines of the final episode of Ways of Seeing, ‘What I’ve shown, and what I’ve said, must be judged against your own experience’ (Berger, Dibb).

15Songs contain languages, and remaining attentive and curious as to how they interact in the moment of the song is crucial. Like this, the song may be allowed to conjure worlds for its writers and listeners. The song’s unique biotope is in constant flux as it is formed, transmitted, received, interpreted and reinterpreted, an ‘organic’ moment, ‘we follow them in order to be enclosed’ (Berger 2016, 85). Inside the message, the boundary between our outer and inner lives is lifted, things collide, and there may be much to discover.

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Anezin, Marie, ‘L’Interview | Bertrand Belin’, Ventilo 424 (February 2021), last accessed at on August 22, 2023.

Berger, John and Mike Dibb, Ways of Seeing [Television series]. United Kingdom: BBC; 1972.

Berger, John, ‘John Berger on Ways of Seeing, being an artist, and Marxism’, Newsnight. United Kingdom: BBC, 2011.

Berger, John, Confabulations, London: Penguin Books, 2016.

Berger, John, Pig Earth, London: Vintage, 1992.

Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Turin, Gaspard, ‘Bertrand Belin, “Les chansons sont un biotope pour les mots”’, Genesis 52 (2021): 125–130, last accessed at on August 22, 2023.

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Flora Hibberd, « Inside The Message: Writing Songs After John Berger »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Flora Hibberd

Flora Hibberd is an indie-folk musician from London, now living in Paris. After spending her early twenties busking around Europe and playing in folk groups, her first two EPs were followed by the seven-song ‘Hold’ in 2021, which led to a live session hosted by Cerys Matthews on BBC6 Music, as well as a host of Parisian shows. In 2022 she was signed by the New York label 22Twenty, and in Summer 2023 travelled to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to record her first full-length album with producer Shane Leonard (JE Sunde, Anna Tivel). The songs represent an investigation into language, images and objects, sometimes mystical, but anchored in the day to day. The album is due to be released in Spring 2024.

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