Delicious descriptions: Emma Ayres on music

If the bicycle trip gives Emma Ayres’ travel memoir Cadence its chronological spine, it is music which provides its skeleton.

However, before I discuss music, I need to respond to those commenters on my review who noted that “cadence” is also a cycling term. As I’d heard the book rather than read it, I couldn’t quite recollect her mentioning this but felt she must have. I have now checked the book itself and indeed she did. For example, near the end of the book is a paragraph which starts:

Cadence on a bicycle is a vitally important thing. Turn your pedals too slowly, with too hard a gear, and you wear out your muscles and your chain. The trick is to have a light, quick cadence, an allegro cadence, not andante, one where your lungs do the heavy work and your muscles hardly have to strain at all …

But, see how even here some musical imagery slips in! Anyhow, she talks about cadence on the bicycle at other times too, such as the “perfect cadence” when riding downhill one day in Pakistan.

It’s all about the keys

The book’s chapters are named for groups of keys starting and ending with C major/minor, the simplest keys. She writes at the beginning of the last chapter:

Here we are, back at the beginning. The flats have gone and the sharps are yet to come. It is a moment of stillness, before the journey begins again.

This is the aspect of the book that was least familiar to me. What playing one key versus another means to a musician, and how playing different keys varies from instrument to instrument, are not things I can experientially relate to.

That didn’t stop me, however, finding many of her descriptions interesting, if not moving at times. Here she is on C sharp major/minor/D flat major/minor:

This is it. It’s the end of the road for the sharp keys. Every single note is a sharp – FCGDAEB … We have travelled all the way from simple open G major, through the brightness of E major to the unearthliness of B major, and we have arrived in a key that stretches and strains on every instrument, even somehow the even-tempered piano. Music written in C sharp major has a wildness to it, a frenzy even. C sharp major is used by a composer who has seen a new super reality from an escarpment. They are looking through a high window. It’s a shocking key at first, but ultimately I find it very spiritual. It is an extremely brave and rare key.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that this is one of the keys she uses for her trip through Pakistan, the country she’d been warned against, and the one she fell in love with. Another key in this chapter, D flat major, is, she writes, great for the piano:

Easy, like breathing out.

I felt like Pakistan was the right key for me. I didn’t want to ever leave Pakistan, or at least lose the feeling Pakistan had given me.

It helped, of course, that much of her time in Pakistan she travelled dressed as, and was in fact believed to be, a man, Emmett. As a woman, she may not have found it quite so easy, as she implies through one of her musical analogies:

Women in Pakistan, though, were like absent notes in the scale. D naturals in a D flat world.

On composers

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Accompanying Ayres on her trip was Aurelia, a 3/4-sized violin, because, she says, “you never feel truly alone, anyway, if you have an instrument with you”. She decided she needed a musical journey to parallel the cycle one. Her choice? To learn Bach’s cello suites, violin sonatas and partitas.

Consequently, throughout the journey she gave little impromptu Bach concerts. It seems Bach is loved the world around. She shares wonderful stories and gives insights into all sorts of composers, not just Bach, but the one I want to share here is Shostakovich. She spends a few pages on his 13th quartet, which was written in B flat minor. She writes, and I’m excerpting furiously:

His thirteenth, though, depicts the horror of life in a way that is unrelenting from beginning to end. In our life, the police often protect us from knowledge of the most horrific crimes, but in this B flat minor work Shostakovich offers us no protection. If you are going to listen to this piece, make sure you have a friend to call afterwards. Seriously.

… This piece is written in one dreadful movement. Listening to and playing this piece dozens of times, I can find no moment of joy, no moment of exhilaration, no relaxation, no optimism.


… it is a hell on earth. It is a hell of small-minded, picky, tight-mouthed people, people who decide matters of life and death and art; a hell of the violins as they pick out mean, starved sounds from their instruments while the others around them mock and sneer; a hell of music for all the ugly-souled, unthinking, self-serving people in the world, of whom many had power over Shostakovich. This hell never ended for him, neither in his life nor in this piece; it just kept on getting worse.

And she says more – about Shostakovich’s life and this piece. I loved reading these sorts of insights from a practising musician. I also enjoyed her explanations of the modern composers many love to hate, Webern and Schoenberg. She talks of Schoenberg using music’s power to unsettle, and Webern distilling emotion (even if reading a Webern score is “like poring over an ordnance survey”!)

Viola to Violin to Cello to …

The other musical thread I wanted to mention is her discussion of her musical career. The book starts with her mother asking her “the most important question of my life”. What was it? It was to ask her what instrument she wanted to play! She chose cello, but got a violin! Paralleling the story of her cycle journey is the story of her musical life: how she started with violin, then moved to viola – her professional instrument at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – but always hankering for the cello. She returned to the violin for the trip, after which she eventually got to play cello. I won’t tell you where, after all that, she has ended up …

I will tell you, though, that for Ayres music saves people’s souls, and it saved her. As a musician, she says, you take people into your care. You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that “to share the value of music is the resolve of my life”.

Ayres is warm, yet fearless, a woman who marries action with reflection, all of which make Cadence the excellent read my friends told me it was.

16 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Emma Ayres on music

  1. I’m a classical music lover, and one of the five (according to my husband) listeners of Classic FM. I loved Emma on breakfast, and miss her from the airwaves. Her book is sitting on my bedside table, on loan from one of my kids’ music teachers, and you’ve prompted me to start reading it. So thank you very much for this review!

    • Oh, if you like her, and like classical music Louise, this is a shoe-in for you. BTW Tell your husband he’s wrong about the five! I know many who listen to it, though I’m not one of them I admit. I love classical music but my radio time is always Radio National. I go to concerts and listen to my own music but almost never listen to it on the radio.

  2. I thought I was the only one who had emotional reactions (not the same as Ayres though…..) to absolute tones. I am partial to F# (G flat) for some odd reason. Sounds like a fascinating read.

  3. Ah, thanks for going back and finding what she says about cadence! That magical cadence she talks about is really hard to find, at least it is for me! Sometimes I stumble onto it for a little while and I feel superhuman but then I start up a hill and it all goes to pieces.

    Loved the excerpts. I enjoy listening to music but I have no idea what I am listening to so it is really interesting reading what she says about keys and entire pieces.

  4. The more I read about this book the more interesting it becomes! The connection she makes with music is so interesting even to somebody like me who knows nothing about the technicalities of it. Got to search this one out because I like travel books but don’t know one that has an angle like this.

    • That’s me too, Ian. I’m not at all knowledgeable about musical theory, but I know many people like me who still enjoyed this book. She doesn’t dumb it down at all and yet it’s still interesting – and, as you say, a musical travel book is unique in my experience. If you do track it down let me know – or if you need help getting it, let me know.

  5. Thanks Sue, a great read. I wouldn’t know one musical chord from another, but I do enjoy classical music. I loved Emma’s descriptions, and especially ones about her bike “Vita”. “She is a contralto, not a soprano.” It was wonderful how she gelled her passion for classical music and cycling together. A beautiful cadence.

    • Haha, Meg, “a beautiful cadence”. Love it. I know a little more than you perhaps, having sat in on my kids piano and clarinet lessons, but not much! Like you though I love classical music and just loved hearing a musician’s perspective. It’s a very thoughtful work isn’t it.

  6. I went to the ABC shop today hoping to buy the book because I enjoyed it so much. A thoughtful book as you say, and a strong one. The one I read belongs to the library. The shop didn’t have it, but they did have the audio 3MP. I don’t have a 3MP player. I will just have to listen to more classical music, and seek out the book in other book shops.

    • What a shame, Meg. I was thinking it might start appearing in second-hand shops too. I was glad to find my aunt’s copy of the book having heard her audiobook, and to be able to savour the words. I’m going to lend it to my daughter now.

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