A personal book review by Julia Maurus.

In her memoir, Cadence, Emma Ayres observes that when she plays music people often say, ‘I wish I could play that. I wish I could play the cello. I wish I hadn’t given up when I was twelve/thirteen/hormonal crisis age…’

‘Isn’t it curious,’ Ayres reflects, ‘that people never say: “I am so glad I gave up the [insert instrument here]. My life is so much better for not playing it.” Funny, that.’

For Ayres, who suffered as the youngest child of a broken marriage, the violin provided ‘a way of releasing all that melancholy that [her] mind absorbed through the day.’ Although she was denied the instrument she dreamed of playing (the cello), she nevertheless recognised that this new thing in her life could transform her and could be her best friend:

An instrument in a child’s life, anybody’s life, is an avatar of hope, of change and improvement, of communication with others, but perhaps most importantly with your self. So even though I didn’t want to play the violin, after my first lesson I knew I had found a way out of my horrible life.

Aside from that, as an eight-year-old in a household of five she now had a reason to be alone, because ‘[w]ho would willingly be in the same room as a beginner violinist?’

After years of studying music, Ayres played professionally with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for almost eight years. She then fulfilled her vision of cycling from England to China, her violin ‘Aurelia’ in a cardboard case on her back. She expected that ‘playing along the way would [provide] a new perspective on the possibilities of music’. Aurelia proved to be ‘[a] kilogram of joy and a giver of hundreds of evenings of entertainment, endless companionship and not a bad topic for discussion.’

Years ago, when I travelled around Europe for two months, there was no question that my violin would go with me. I happily played for friends I visited, I played when I was bored at a ferry station in Ireland, I asked permission to play my violin to experience the acoustics in the Liverpool Cathedral, and I serenaded a father and son in a long-distance train to Berlin (a performance which turned out to be a job interview).

Music is a beautiful way to pass the time. Carrying an instrument raises people’s curiosity; like Ayres, time and time again I have experienced the way that just the sight of the instrument case breaks down barriers between strangers.

After her sixteen-thousand-kilometre cycling trip, Ayres worked at Radio Television Hong Kong before immigrating to Australia in 2003 and joining ABC Classic FM. Cadence is Ayres’ debut book, but her flair for language and story-telling (and her delight in music) is evident on her breakfast radio show on ABC Classic FM. Her writing sings with the same playful and witty tone with which her listeners are familiar.

Cadence is arranged into eight chapters, founded on the eight sets of musical keys, and is described as a ‘memoir, intercontinental cycling adventure, and music guide.’ The laugh-out-loud exposition is followed by tales of her musical life and her travels, and the intersections of these in her personal development. These include presenting herself as a man to avoid the restrictions placed on women in religiously conservative countries, playing her violin ‘for permission to advance to the next country’ and becoming very familiar with the international gesture for ‘Play me something!’

A notable aspect of Cadence is that Ayres has compiled a CD of works available for purchase as a companion album, so that the reader can experience, both textually and aurally, ‘a vivid journey through the keys and share the music which has accompanied Emma on her travels’. (The book is ABC Books–branded but published by HarperCollinsPublishers Australia.)

Ayres explores music as she explores her identity as she explores the world. Books, travel and music all take us on personal and emotional journeys. Certain music can define moments in our lives, and when we hear those harmonies and melodies again the emotional memories are summoned up. The effect can be powerful: a single melody can recall to us a whole episode in our lives and bring with it the raw emotions of that time.

Ayres ‘realised how unfathomably deep music goes’ when she witnessed its power to bring people to tears. She believes that ‘[m]usic, in its invisibility, is the greatest force in the world’, that it nurses people’s souls and has the power to bring us all together in ‘[t]he deepest communication of all’.


The original version of this article was published in The Australian Writer issue 386 (December 2014–February 2014).

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