Harriet Cunningham is a writer. If you knew her, you would realize she is a natural writer. She is the sort of person who, as a child, you would suspect might have disappeared for an hour and come back having written a short novel about animals in her notebook. She is a copywriter and music critic.

Cunningham is extremely proficient in taking the thoughts of a director and turning them into 25 words summing up a new opera production. As a critic, she can communicate a concert – the quality of the music and the performance and the experience of the event – in 200 words, to a tight deadline.

When we met at the V&A, she was struggling with the prospect of a Doctoral thesis. Her research topic is the Dartington International Summer School, an influential festival that, for more than 60 years, has hosted many of the leading figures in modern classical music. She was in London to look at archives, interview people and gather data.

As we walked, she grappled with the idea of producing 50,000 words.

“So, how are you starting?” I asked.

“I’ve sent them a plan – it follows the chronology of the festivals, maybe with interviews in between, every 10 years or so.”

“And how is that for you?”

“I’m not used to so many words. It’s such a huge subject. The plan does not say what I want it to. It does the job for the university but it doesn’t do it for me.”

“OK. Well let’s just walk and see what we notice.”

“That’s interesting,” she said, pointing to a vase.

Vase. Coper, Hans, born 1920 – died 1981. Photograph copyright V&A Museum

“What is it about the vase that you are noticing?”

“It doesn’t look like a vase. It’s not supposed to look that way.”

“But that one…,” she tailed off, indicating a vase of a very different shape.

Bottle. Coper, Hans, born 1920 – died 1981. Photograph V&A Museum

“Looks like a vase?” I prompted.

“No. It looks like the shape inside a vase.”

I paused and then said: “Let me summarize. The first vase doesn’t look like a vase should look. And the second vase looks how the space inside a vase should look. So, there’s something about space and shape. Can you tell me a bit more?”

She smiled: “It suddenly reminds me of a fantastic concert I saw at Dartington. It was a performance by one of the composition students. He did two pieces. One was The Note between the Spaces and the other, The Space between the Notes.

“The first piece was really sparse,” she explained, miming a finger playing a note on a piano. She paused and waited, then mimed a different note being played. “The Spaces between the Notes was a really heavy piece, like musical concrete.” She mimed banging both her arms on a keyboards, paused, then banged again. ”It was brilliant!” She was animated now, remembering, her hands and body replaying the piece silently, but communicating volumes.

“So can you make that connection between the music and the two vases you just noticed?” I asked.

“It’s something about space. But I can’t get my head around all those words I have to write.”

“OK, let’s reflect a bit. You’ve written a plan for your thesis and it doesn’t seem to ‘fit’. It’s like the shovel vase – it is a vase, but it doesn’t ‘feel’ right. What does have more resonance for you is the other vase which looks like the space inside a vase. The two pieces of music are a perfect illustration of this relationship – the space and the notes inside and around each other. The thesis structure you have doesn’t match the space inside.

“So, what if you try to craft that space rather than the structure? Start from a moment or an artefact – perhaps an object, maybe a piece of music, or a performance – and tell its story. And see how it starts to fill the space in between your thesis plan. What space will you be left with? Think of another artefact and tell that story. And another, and another. And now how will your plan look? What shape will it be? Will it fit? Will it look right? What will have changed for you?”

We paused and let these new thoughts settle. In the gardens at Dartington, carved into a piece of stone set into a low wall, is a quote from William Blake:

“To see a world in a grain of sand And Heaven in wild Flower.

Hold infinity in the palms of your hand And eternity in an hour.

The act of creation – finding the notes between the moments of silence, or shaping clay to hold a vase-shaped space – is a paradoxical activity. Writing about them can be just as tricky – an act of creation in itself, one that must hold gently the space the music or the vase has made in our lives.

This piece first appeared in Dialogue magazine, March 2015