What’s in a sub-title? What is to be read from “Travels with music – a memoir”? The full title of Emma Ayres’ recent book is equally inscrutable: “Cadence”. Is this a travel book? A book about music? The cover pic suggests something to do with cycling. That too? So it was with some uncertainty that your correspondent, using up a generous ABC Shop Birthday Gift Card, and having placed two Amy Dickson saxophone CDs in his basket, paused in front of the display table where “Cadence” was being promoted. Along with a companion CD.
Had Emma not been a favourite voice on ABC Radio’s Classic FM breakfast show, and a familiar face from various festivals and events, the book may have remained on the shelf. But that morning voice, with its quirky sense of humour, sometimes polarises opinion. And the occasional casual meeting has presented your correspondent with something of an enigma. What is she? Who is she? A musician? A journalist? And what lies beneath the radio presenter’s calm, articulate presentation?
So, with a nagging suspicion that this might be a rather boring traveller’s tale, your correspondent made the purchase; without the companion CD. How wonderful it was, then, to discover that “Cadence” is a most remarkable book. It is all those things mentioned, but then so much more. There are a number of threads running through the book: a personal and family story; a musician’s tale; an obeisance at the temple of cycling; an insightful exploration of musical keys, which might have been a disastrous ploy were it not so skilfully interwoven into the writer’s emotional journey. But above all the book is a paean to that country of contradictions, Pakistan.
In a world of blogs, Facebook and Twitter, where exchange of personal detail seems everyday, it should perhaps come as no surprise when authors give freely about themselves. In “Cadence”, Emma Ayres reveals much about herself in an open, yet intimate portrayal of a tough early family life, the rigours of becoming a professional musician, and, in a sometimes amusing and other times chilling way, the androgynous trials of a lesbian on the sub-continent. Meanwhile the main theme of cycling, alone, from England to Hong Kong. presents a wonderful casserole of adventure, thickened and spiced with history and stories of individual contact with people who, in the main, would help to reawaken a feeling of trust and generosity in the most jaundiced reader’s faith in humanity.
The writing, for a woman of words and music, is clear and easy to absorb. Sure, there are times when an over-emphasis grates, or an amusing aside is overplayed. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK” is one such example. Certainly the circumstances were dire, but the reader already understood this from the narrative. A vigilant editor should have saved Emma from these, admittedly few, discords. On the other side of the literary coin is some delightful writing: “…like a velvet chador”. Could any other simile recreate this word picture?
Some of the incidental stories are incredible gems: who knows of Jiri Dinshaw, her history and lifetime’s work with young musicians of Mumbai? And the reflections on Emma’s own time working with Afgani musicians are, frankly, beautiful. Just read the story of Isaac Stern’s violin bow.
Your correspondent knows Pakistan and Iran, having worked and lived in both countries. Knowledge of Afganistan came only from tales from a father-in-law who travelled there with UNESCO in the late 1940’s. If these insights have underscored appreciation of Emma’s observations, then so be it. But for the general reader this book is a treat in waiting; for the general reader as well as cyclists, lovers of the travel genre, and musicians and music lovers alike. If your musical knowledge is limited you may benefit by purchasing the companion CD. But don’t skip over the story of the keys. To do so would be inimical to total enjoyment of this wonderful work.