Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

Emma Ayres, CadenceAlthough Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence had been passed around my reading group with much enthusiasm over the last year or so, I wasn’t intending to read it – not because I wasn’t interested, but because there were other books I wanted to read more. However, when I found the audiobook at my aunt’s house while we were clearing it out, Mr Gums and I decided to listen to it on our trips to and from Sydney. It proved to be a great car book. However, a warning: we listened to it intermittently over two months, so this will be more a post of reflections than a coherent review.

Emma Ayres is probably known to most Australian readers of my blog, but perhaps not to others so let’s start with a potted bio. Born in England in 1967, Ayres is a professional musician – a viola player in fact – who has also worked as a radio presenter. She lived in Hong Kong for eight years, playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but in 2000 she rode a bicycle, fundraising for charity, from Shropshire, England, through the Middle East and central Asia, to Hong Kong. She moved to Australia in 2003, and worked as an ABC Classical Music radio presenter for eight years, from 2008 to 2014.

Now to the memoir. Cadence is ostensibly a travel memoir, but it covers a lot of ground within its seemingly narrow construct of chronicling her year-long bicycle journey. The ground it covers, besides the story of her travel, which is exciting enough given the regions she rode though, includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, and her analyses of classical music. Some of her technical descriptions went over my head, but I found her discussions of composers to be not only accessible and eye-opening, but deeply interesting. And it’s all told with a thoughtful philosophical underpinning.

Cadence is an excellent title for a musician’s memoir, and she plays with its meanings throughout, referring, for example, to a “perfect cadence”, or a “slow cadence”, or more frequently to  “interrupted cadences … moments when the direction is changed”. Indeed, the memoir could be seen as comprising almost continuous interrupted cadences because, although the bicycle trip provides her memoir’s chronological backbone, she skips around frequently, going backwards to her childhood and early years as a musician and forwards to her life after the trip when she briefly toyed with being a cellist. It can take a little concentration to keep track of exactly which part of her life she is writing about at any one time, but it’s not too hard. After all …

Cadences are waypoints in the music, places where you can take a breather, readjust your instrument and hurtle on to the next bit of the adventure.

I greatly enjoyed Ayres’ reflections on life and travel. The book is full of her insights, many learnt on the road. For example, regarding the challenge of deciding whether to do the trip she says:

If you are not sure whether or not you should do something, ask your ninety-year-old self.

At another point she discusses how much she loved Pakistan despite all the nay-saying she had received when she was planning her trip. She was treated, she writes, almost without exception, with kindness and generosity everywhere she went. “Do we make our own welcome?” she wonders, and goes on to suggest that before we criticise another country, we should perhaps look at ourselves first.

Being a woman cycling alone is risky business, particularly in some of those male-dominated countries through which she travelled. She frequently took advantage of her androgynous look, helping it along by keeping her hair very short and wearing non-feminine clothes (where she could). Consequently, she was regularly taken for a man. She discusses gender often, commenting on how we are ruled by it and its associated expectations. She sees herself as “a border dweller in the world of gender”, writing:

I do admire people who are by birth penumbral but have the courage and desire to be firmly one or the other and go through a sex change, but I like the fluidity of being able to float around the middle. I really to think that the basic this or that of male and female is shallow and limiting. How simplistic to think, with all those opposing hormones flowing in each of our bodies, that we are one and therefore not the other. And how much better in countries like India and Thailand that they recognise more than two sexes. More variations in the octave, more variations in gender.

Another theme that runs through the book is the idea of being in the moment. She tells the story of being taken to task for reading Anna Karenina when on a bus in Pakistan. Her young seat-mate is mystified by her passionate rendering to him of the story, saying to her “but you are here!” She genuinely sees his point, and puts the book down. Later in the trip, she regrets not spending more time with a fellow-traveller who crosses her path because “I was too focused on destination and again forgot the importance of the here and now”.

Cadence is a generous, warm-hearted book which abounds with travel anecdotes to delight any lover of travel literature. There are scary moments, and funny ones, and others that are just plain interesting. It also contains intelligent, considered insights into music, some of which I plan to share in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll conclude with a comment she makes early in the book:  “Travel”, she says, “goes inwards as much as outwards”. That is exactly what she demonstrates with this book. I can see why all those in my reading group who read the book urged it onto the next person.


Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir
Sydney: ABC Books (by HarperCollins), 2014
ISBN: 9780733331893

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir (audio)
(read by Emma Ayres)
ABC Commercial, 2014
8 hours (approx) running time (on 7 CDs)

20 thoughts on “Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

  1. Hopefully this will eventually make it to the US so I can read it! Cadence is a cycling term too. Does she mention that? So it makes the title doubling perfect. She sounds like a fascinating woman.

    • Good question, Stefanie. I think she did, surely she did, but I can’t quite remember that. I plan to flick through my mother’s copy for my next post so may catch it then. However you will laugh when I tell you that as we settled into the car to listen to the last instalment after a gap of 3 weeks, I got a jolt when she started talking about Vita. I was expecting to hear about about Astrid! And then I realised I had the wrong bike!

  2. Thank-you WG: I had put this book aside so long ago I had forgotten it. Deeply buried (iBooks, mind) as I purchased book after book to catch up on my reading following my many years in Japan. I’ve just gone back to it and read Emma’s arrival in and crossing of Delhi. I hear her beautiful spoken voice – her own cadences – with every word – description of music – the Brandenburg Concertos – of instruments – of her travels and the people filling those vistas – as I read! I so relished her morning radio program – an easing back into life in Australia from 2009 onwards.

  3. A friend pressed this one on to me too, when it first came out. Very enjoyable. Does the audio version feature Emma reading it aloud? Her voice is so beautiful.

    • Ah, thanks Ian, as Stefanie also said. She probably mentioned it but it’s hard to remember and catch everything in audio format. Given you’ve travelled some of those areas or near them yourself, you’d probably find the book interesting.

      • It sounds like a really interesting book. I don’t think that there is a travel book quite like it – there is an interesting way to write about music through the travel experience. Must try to look this up.

        • I’ve not read a lot of travel literature, Ian, but I have read a bit and you’re right, I’ve not come across one quite like it. I heard someone say it was a bit like several different styles – the lone woman adventurer, the cyclist, the androgynous woman traveller. It’s a bit of all of these. I’d love to hear what you think. Given she’s English born and started her trip in England, hopefully it’s available in Great Britain. I’ll post again on it next week.

  4. I’ve been meaning to get hold of this one ever since it came out, and your review has made me all the more keen. Do you, or any of your readers, happen to know why Emma Ayres left ABC Classic FM?

    • Thanks Dorothy. If you like Ayres in particular, then you are sure to love this. No, I don’t know if it was anything more than being ready for a change. I notice that she worked for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for 8 years, and the ABC for nearly 8 years. So I think it was new challenges – in the book she talks about teaching music in Kabul after leaving the ABC.

  5. I really liked the sound of this book, but then I heard a couple of less than positive comments, but now you’ve changed my mind again.
    Thanks for such a thoughtful tempting review 🙂

      • One very well read regular felt it was too lightly written for her tastes (ie not literary enough to hold her interest). Another struggled with the gender stuff I think. And another wanted more music less bike. Nothing particularly to put me off really, it’s just that we have soooooo many books to get through at work, it doesn’t take much for one to slip down the ranks. Or off the radar.

        Your review has brought Cadence back into my sphere:-)

        • Thanks very much Brona. They all make sense, though I think there are arguments against the first one. As far as memoirs go, I think this does have a literary element: the structure by the keys, the musical metaphors, the way she handles the chronology weaving her whole life to date into that 12 month journey all indicate a nuanced mind thinking about what she was doing. And that gave it literary interest for me. BUT I know all about so-o-o many books, which is why I hadn’t planned to read it.

  6. Thank you Emma for a great and formative experience in the journey through your book, Within shouting distance of ninety myself, I will take your advice, and also with greater appreciation to my husband as he plays classical piano. But there is so very much more to treasure and ponder over on long solo campervan trips

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