One of the disarming effects of modern travel is the ease with which you can travel from place to place, without realising that you’ve actually gone anywhere. Sleep, read, watch a film, and suddenly you’re in a different place and you don’t really have any choice about it. You, the past you, have booked and paid, so you go. And then there you are.
This has happened to me several times this summer. I finished conducting evensong in the gloomy chapel of St. John’s, Cambridge, and found myself one sleep later in a school minibus flying across all of the lanes of the highway to Shanghai city centre. Shanghai felt liquid and close, the air so heavy that breathing felt difficult. Electric bikes without sound or light dribble along pavements; every step into a street increases your heart rate. Roads take precedence, walking has no air-conditioning and feels antiquated and unhealthy. Vast, marble facades denote new shopping centres that sprout out of almost every block, their lights alluring but harsh. The french quarter is calmer, closer, smaller, where trees dominate alongside mosquitos. The food became similar after a few days, but we remained polite. Pedestrians flow along the bund that reflects the river alongside. Murky, shallow freight ships creep along as if they have something to hide. There is light everywhere above.
We were teaching the Fauré requiem to a group of local children. The children were fantastic and keen to try anything, no matter what. Even playing me at badminton. Moaning and tiredness to a minimum, in spite of the 10 hour days. Embarrassingly, it was the staff who started to yawn first. Music was a beautifully uniting force, forming lasting bonds that managed to surpass our stark lack of linguistic capability.
One sleep after the last day of the course, and I’m with my lovely fiancée in a turf-covered cottage on the Isle of Lismore, struggling to understand the rain and the breeze. We have to light the fire. We discovered the phrase ‘The Lismore Effect’. Cloud, drizzle, sudden rays of sunshine, monastery, church with carpet, viking ruins, haunted, volcanic, desolate, peaceful, remote. Don’t go to the post office on a Wednesday afternoon. And bring lots of cash to the cafe. If you go walking along the coast, be prepared to climb. Volcanic rock sticks out everywhere, and it’s sharp. Next time I’m bringing a boat.
The Lismore Effect. We encountered someone holding some music on a path, called Bruce. One brief conversation, and we’re invited to dinner – a delicious potato salad despite their fishless sailing outing. Bruce plays the piano, and he loves Lieder. So we went to the local farmhouse, ascend to the attic, open the windows, and perform Dichterliebe to the crowd. We’ll remember that evening for years. Lismore: it’s very wet, but I’m sure we’ll be back.
Subsequently, I’ve been to Eastbourne to sing for a week, then onto Bruges, Antwerp and Utrecht. Everyone says it, it’s very in vogue, but it’s heartwarming to spend a summer singing with people in four different countries, some prearranged, some organised on a path in the Hebrides, and witness the life-affirming power of music: its unique ability to pull us out of there here and now and experience such depths of emotion that are hard to find in a world of free WiFi. You can wake up and take stock, realise where you are, access your emotions and begin to work out where you fit in the world, and what you can do to change it.