Autumn afternoons, classical music, Dutch, and impromptu trips to Italy

Autumn afternoons, classical music, Dutch, and impromptu trips to Italy

Before you begin reading this (if indeed you begin at all), please do me a favour and humour me with this small little request.

Click the link below, load the video, allow the music to begin to play, and then continue reading this post. This way, you’ll be reading along to the same music that I heard when writing this, and we might be a little closer to being – as it were – on the same page. Worst case scenario, you lose 4MB of bandwidth. Best case scenario, you discover a newfound piece of beautiful music and add a new dimension of depth to your life. What’s the downside?

Here you are:


(For the musos and/or Francophones amongst you, feel free to read the music and/or lyrics before the rest of this post, or just leave it on in the background. Either way, it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of music.)

Listening? Great. Let’s plough on.

As I write this, the only sounds I can hear are Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on” (see above) and a gentle murmur of wind rustling the leaves in the trees outside, with a low-level of distant traffic as a calming white noise in the background. I just returned from a walk outside, where the air is fresh but not yet acerbically sharp, and the last of the autumnal sunshine glows between the golden leaves still clinging to the trees. The Japanese actually have a dedicated word – komorebi, or 木漏れ日 – for this particular phenomenon of the interplay of sunlight through the leaves, and it always makes me think of the more subtle differences between different languages.

It’s this almost enigmatic quality about experiencing different languages that makes the whole damn enterprise so very interesting. It’s very difficult to put your finger on how, exactly, you experience a foreign language – and I do believe that experience is the appropriate term here. I once read that somebody said that you don’t ever learn a foreign language, you merely get used to it. I’m beginning to see where they were coming from.

Case in point: earlier this evening, I went to buy some basic groceries from the local shop. At the checkout, I paid and put the groceries into a bag, and the checkout assistant said something to me as I was leaving.

I did not catch a single word of it.

Suddenly, I got tongue-tied. I stammered out “could you repeat that, please?” (in very uncertain Dutch). I still didn’t fully comprehend the words, but I realised that she was asking me if I was collecting some kind of coupon along with my receipt. I stuttered out a nee (no) and again, in totally awful Dutch, apologised for my Dutch skills being really slecht (bad) when the word I actually wanted was verschrikkelijk (terrible) – and it would have been more accurate at the time, too. I tripped over almost every word and stumbled out of the shop in a cloud of shame. This isn’t even the first time I’ve been asked that very question in the exact same store and – I think – by the exact same person. Why did I mess it up so badly?

Walking home, I berated myself. Why had I “choked” and seemingly forgotten every damn word I knew in the language? Especially over something so simple? I was so deep in thought whilst walking that I looked up to see a smiling elderly couple on bicycles (of course, this is the Netherlands) approaching me to ask a question, and almost before I knew what was happening, I was listening to their polite request to direct them to a particular street nearby, which I did (luckily, I happened to know it) and we had a brief conversation about the 10km evening cycle ride they were about to enjoy. The older gentleman chatted amiably about their late outing:

“Of course, we need to enjoy the last of the evening light before it goes completely, because these things (indicating to the bike lights) just aren’t the same really, are they?”

A few pleasantries later and we calmly wished each other a good evening and continued on our respective ways.

Why did my two vastly different experiences, not even two minutes apart, take such wildly diverging courses with such contrasting results? Why did I completely butcher the first exchange and lumber, embarrassed, out of the store, only to have such a calm and relaxed conversation afterwards, fully comprehending almost everything and blessedly not fumbling for the words I wanted?

I have no idea. I’m not writing a lesson here. I’m just pointing out that these things happen, and today it happened to happen to me.

(Have you finished Dirait-on yet? Here’s another stunningly gorgeous piece of music in a similar vein to keep you going, also by Morten Lauridsen.)



This time of year, it must be said, is one of my absolute favourites – that fleeting period between late September and mid-November when the temperatures drop enough that you wrap up against the cold without it actually crossing the border of being painfully bitter; where the golden leaves adorn the street edges like blazing, fiery trophies and the dusk begins to creep backwards into the evenings and afternoons just a minute or two earlier each passing day. These are moments for contemplation, reflection, solitude, as the winter begins to set in; the cheering aroma of fresh coffee filling your kitchen with enveloping warmth and cosiness in the still-dark mornings. This is the time of year when all you want to do in the evening is curl up in a blanket next to the radiator with a mug of hot soup and a good book and stay there for hours.

It’s hard to put into words the feelings I experience at this time of year, yet I still treasure these desperately fleeting moments as I experience them, and I can still recall some of them as clearly as if they happened yesterday. Here are but two:

IT’S OCTOBER 2008, or thereabouts. It’s late afternoon, perhaps 4pm, and I’m waiting on Platform 8 in Guildford Station for my train back to Cheltenham. It’s a sunny but bitingly cold afternoon, and I have just opened the first pages of my brand-new copy of Stephen King’s book, Salem’s Lot. I’m wearing gloves, and the tactile sensation of cloth against the crisp new pages makes me grin inadvertently. When the train arrives, I sit down, take off my scarf and throw my bag onto the empty seat next to me. Surreptitiously, checking to see that nobody is looking, I lift the volume to my nose and I inhale, smelling the fresh pages of the paperback – that new-book-smell – and I settle down. Over the next few hours, I tear through the story as the sun begins to sink lazily through the sky, and as the receding brilliance of the sharp afternoon sun mirrors the maturing twilight within the narrative itself, I periodically look up from the novel at the fields and forests racing by outside, enshrined in the protective warmth of the train from the developing dusk – and I can’t help but giggle a little bit to myself. It’s like I’ve discovered a secret in life to which nobody else is privy – except, of course, I have done no such thing. Millions of people were here before me, and millions will discover it for themselves long after I’m done. Later that night (journey completed) after everyone else falls asleep, I lie in bed, flying through the rapidly diminishing remaining pages of the novel. There is no heating on in the attic bedroom, and although heat supposedly rises, the room is cold to the point where I’m shivering, even under the covers. I don’t care. The autumnal magic is still working its soothing beauty on me, and I savour every last moment.

This next one happened perhaps one year later – October or November 2009, at a guess. Once again, I am in Guildford, walking along a main road towards my house on what is once again another sunny but bitterly wintry afternoon. I am listening to the music of Eric Whitacre, one of my favourite choral composers, and my iPod and I (back when we used such things regularly, instead of just streaming it all on our phones like we do now) were working through his ethereal Five Hebrew Love Songs, from his fantastic Light and Gold album (named for one of his most famous compositions whose Latin namesake is Lux Aurumque – literally, light and gold).

As I write this now, I am there. I can all but feel the wind whipping my face into a glorious ruddiness, feel the warmth and soft friction of the scarf protecting the vulnerable parts of my neck. As the tracks progressed, the fourth (of the five) Hebrew Love Song came on – Eyze Sheleg!, Hebrew for “What Snow!”

(Before I write more, I must ask you to humour me one last time and give me just two minutes of your time as you read this. Below this paragraph is a direct link to Eyze Sheleg. Just listen to that – if it’s with decent speakers, or with headphones (as opposed to tinny laptop speakers), then so much the better. The other four are also in the video, but I’ve timestamped it so it takes you directly to the track we’re talking about. If you end up liking it, check the others out too. Here you go:)


The track begins, and aleatoric flutters from the choir lay the harmonic foundation of the piece. Over the top, the lead soprano (Whitacre’s Israeli wife, Hila Plitmann) intones softly in Hebrew. The strings play sustained harmonics, lending an abstract surreality to the piece. As the choir leaves the aleatoricism behind, the altos settle into a haunting melody as the strings take over the fluttering accents, and the piece begins to gather momentum and richness. The tenors rise up as a solo soprano suddenly soars over everything else and almost before you know what’s happening, the whole piece crescendos into its climax, reaching a heart-rending, wildly dynamic zenith even as it is already creeping down, its dynamics softening, the tenors smoothly descending their scales as the whole piece decrescendos to the subtle choral flutters from whence it began. The strings alternate evenly between introspective trills and harmonics, and the piece gradually fades out as the whole thing segues neatly into the next and final part of the Five Hebrew Love Songs, Rakut (Tenderness).

If I provided the link for you, why did I just describe the whole damn piece, start to finish? Because even now, years and years after first hearing it, it still makes me want to jump up and down with excitement. It transports me back to the brilliance of that crisp sunlit afternoon and makes me think, unfailingly, of that magical time of year as autumn bleeds into winter. I hear the opening notes of the piece and I am immediately, invariably, transported back to the bewitching, inexplicably surreal hypnosis of that golden autumnal afternoon, where the world literally seemed to shimmer back and forth between palpable tangibility and dreamlike unreality.

(For those beginning to wonder, I’d also like to point out that I’ve never been under the influence of any chemical except, it seems, the dopamine hit of a musical high. Apparently, I can be so moved by music that I don’t even need to waste time, money or health on alcohol or drugs.

I’m great at parties.)

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sinking more and more deeply into classical music, letting it accompany me on autumn walks and foggy afternoons. I have listened to Beethoven’s Emperor concerto over hot cups of morning coffee, and lost myself in Bach preludes during pre-dawn lonely bicycle rides down long, glowing, tree-lined avenues and through winding country lanes in near-total darkness. I have watched Morten Lauridsen, in his excellent DVD “Shining Light”, talk about his compositional process on an old $50 piano in his lonely, isolated wooden house on the remote and heart-rendingly beautiful Pacific Northwestern island of Waldron, and I have listened to John Rutter talk at length about the composition of his Requiem.

Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen’s DVD “Shining Light”

I think I’ve discovered the thread which runs through the pieces of music that really, truly move me, uniting them, and it is this: it’s music which has enough depth that you can sit and listen to that music alone and do nothing else. There’s something in there – compositional layering, lyrical intrigue, whatever magic it might be – that moves you to look deep inside yourself and experience simply the sheer joy of the music without needing to be doing anything else at the same time. I can still hugely enjoy other types of music that aren’t as “serious” (for want of a better term, although that’s not quite what I mean) like synth-filled dance tunes or funky bass grooves, but it will never, ever replace – as my first choice – the music that I will always choose during the major moments of my life.

Great music, I feel, should be an all-inclusive, all-enveloping feast for the senses, and it’s for that reason that I have a faint horror of “background music”. By definition, I find background music to be a bit of an abhorrence. If said music is dull and uninteresting, I’ll automatically try to block it out, but if it’s music that I love, I find myself focusing on it without even realising – with the unfortunate side-effect that I lose concentration and often can’t gather my thoughts sufficiently to absorb what people are saying to me.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not remotely a classical music snob, and it is only one of many genres of music which I enjoy. However, there is – like those crisp autumnal afternoons – something inherently romantic about it, and I raise my hand in a shameless admission of being that faintly embarrassing type of person: a hopeless romantic. I live for those subtle moments of magic where something makes you feel like the colours are just that little bit brighter; the volume just that little bit louder, no matter whether that’s caused by music, a book, a person to whom you feel very close, or simply just the light reflecting at precisely the right time off a glistening, dew-soaked windowpane at dawn. No matter what it is, I recognise them instantly when they arrive and they – for me – are ultimately the moments that make life worth living.

Not that this always happens by chance – sometimes you have to seize the day and just create these moments yourself. Yesterday evening, for me, was a case in point. My girlfriend and I were having dinner at about 8pm, and the conversation went roughly as follows:

Me: “What’s wrong?” (I could see she was a bit down.)

Her: “Well, nothing, really. Just silly things.”

Me: “Hey, come on – it’s not silly. What is it?”

Her: “Well… my sister’s in Rome at the moment, and I was supposed to be meeting her there. We didn’t actually organise anything though, and now it’s too late. Tomorrow morning is the last flight I’d be able to catch, and it leaves at 7am. It’s too late to do anything about it, really, and I’m kicking myself a bit. That’s all.”

Me: “Why is it too late? Why can’t you go tomorrow morning?”

Her: “Well, that’s ridiculous! I can’t just decide to go now and just leave – I’d have to leave here tonight in about an hour, because it goes from Rotterdam at 7am tomorrow and I’d have to leave pretty soon to get the last train!”

Me: “So? Why can’t you do that if you want to do it?”

Her: “You mean book the flight now, leave the house within an hour, spend the night at Rotterdam Airport and just be in Rome by 9am tomorrow?! That’s absolutely crazy!”

Me: “Yeah, it might be a little crazy. But you still haven’t told me why it’s not possible.”

Her: “Well…”

Me: “Do you really, really want to go?”

Her: “Yes!”

Me: “Well then… what exactly is stopping you? You have the money for the plane ticket, you’re free this week, your sister is in Rome, and the problem is – what, exactly…?”

Her: “…”

She booked the flight. She packed a small suitcase and left the house within that hour. And at 9am this morning, she landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci airport, and as I write this, she’s going for dinner with her sister and surprising a friend of theirs who happens to be there, visiting from Argentina, and who has no idea at all that she’s in Rome too. I’m not there with her, unfortunately, but I don’t mind – I’m extremely proud of her.

Take some chances. Live a little. Do the difficult thing and create experiences which you will one day look back on and fondly say “Do you remember that crazy time I went to Rome?” Hell, when I first turned up in the Netherlands, I didn’t realise I wouldn’t actually be going back to England – but when decision-making time came up and I saw that one of my options was to stay here, I took it. I didn’t have a job, I’d never “properly” lived abroad before, and I could count on one hand the amount of people in the entire country whom I actually knew.

Do I regret it? Nope, not a chance. I won’t pretend things are perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I really like it here, and I’m already collecting stories which I’ll be proud to relate later in life. As of right now, I barely know what’s going to happen even a month or two in the future, but in the meantime, I’ll try my very best to take the difficult choices over the hard – to fumble in Dutch instead of “cheating” by using English; to cycle home a different way even though I have no idea where I’m going; to listen to new music and read new books and talk to new people.

Do the same. It’s not easy, but I can tell you – really, it’s worth it.