A tale of sand, magic and city streets

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In the most ordinary of places, extraordinary moments can occur

Like many people, I am guilty of not taking time out from being obsessed about time. Sure, as a writer and sometimes artist, I feel absolutely no guilt in those moments that I am absorbed in creating, or thinking about creating. However, moving from the professional world of the day job to the creative realms after hours on a daily basis, means that I am often rushing, trying to squeeze in too much and not taking time to just be in the moment.

What do I miss by not living in the moment? What do I miss by focusing on the sand that falls through the hour-glass, rather than seeing the beauty of each grain of sand? I waste opportunities: to absorb nature, build a real connection to others, to practice self-reflection, or glimpse the whole tapestry of life.

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.”  George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, 1819 – 1880), quote from Janet’s Repentance

The day job involves interstate travel, which sometimes occurs in frequent blocks. After weeks of spending time in various cities around Australia, from the east to the west coasts, this week I had the chance to see my own capital city from a different perspective. Playing hostess to guests from all states and territories, I stayed in the east end of Adelaide city for a couple of nights. I can’t remember the last time I saw Adelaide by night, so it was fun to join with the visitors for evening walks, discovering interesting places to dine.

One night, after sharing a few hours of conversation over a meal, everyone wandered back towards the motel, some with the intent to purchase desert on the way. Standing outside the restaurant, waiting for everyone to pay and leave, I heard the faint sounds of music competing with the city noises. As the guests walked past, I suggested to a few that they should cross the road and pass by the busker I had spied. Soon it was my turn to leave, so I dragged the person I was with across the street, called by the sounds of a violin. In transit, my walking companion dropped a few coins in the hat, and turned to leave, as most people do.

I stopped, realising that I didn’t have any coins to give. Normally I would have just walked on, but this time I dropped in what money I did have; a note. The musician thanked me with a merry change of tune; I laughed, and moved on. Down the street, I bumped in to the others, who had purchased take-away deserts and were making their ways back to their motel rooms. Almost to the motel, I didn’t feel like going back to my room yet. Despite a chill in the air, and fighting the wind, with a chai latte for warmth I walked back up the street. Making myself comfortable on a bench, I settled in to hear more of the music; determined to just be in the moment.

Slowing down the sands, to see golden moments
Being in the moment is not easy, especially on a windy city street, with the distracting sounds of cars, patrons of the hotel across the road, people walking in groups along the street, people spilling out of restaurants. However, stilling my cluttered mind, looking up at the darkened sky, and really giving in to the music, I had fleeting success of just being.

And then I watched; it felt as if I was seeing the city through different eyes, with a beautiful soundtrack in the background. I then noticed that the busker also appeared to be people-watching, for his music frequently changed to match those walking by; some of which tossed money into his hat on passing. Not many spoke or made eye contact with the violinist, but there was often something in their bodies to show that they had heard; a slight shift that indicated the music had connected with them.  Earlier, I had a feeling that this busker was different, and my intuition was confirmed: not only was he a talented violinist, but he could speak through his music.

Finding a glimmer of magic on the streets
Loosing the being-in-the-moment vibe for just a moment, I couldn’t help myself; I approached the violinist in between tunes. And, as is often the case, I had a mad woman moment, and said something unnecessary. As I recall, it was something about me not really being a weird stalker, but that I was taking time to just watch people; you know, the thing that us writer-types frequently do.

He politely smiled, and asked me what I write. And……I fell all over my tongue…..as usual. Its silly, I know, but I just haven’t got the hang of being able to succinctly say what I write or what my novels-in-waiting are about. I need to get better at this if I want to successfully promote my first novel, which will be released in December. I need to have an Elevator Pitch ready.

When I mumbled that some of my work is in the style of magic realism, he asked ‘Like Harry Potter?’ This is a common reply, and at this point I always struggle to find a way to describe my favourite genre in a way that doesn’t make me sound too much like a deranged wannabe-writer and, at the same time, properly target my response to the person’s understanding of literature (without assuming too much).

In this instance, I rattled off some magic realism authors that I felt he may know of; the likes of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The musician nodded, and returned his violin to its well-worn position under his chin, while I walked back to the bench. His hand, holding the bow, poised above the violin, as he said, ‘I thought that was what I do; magic realism.’

And you know what: it is. His music, on a windy city street, is magic realism. In that ordinary setting (a city at night), with people walking along the street, on their way to/from ordinary moments, they pause for just one moment. As the extraordinary sound of a well-played violin reaches out to them, they stop; they connect to the music, they feel, they may even connect with the violinist, and then they walk on. That moment of connection to music is the magic. And this particular musician is a creator of magic realism.

Leaving the streets behind
Too soon, the wind got to me, making me feel uncomfortable. And my fingers started to itch, wanting to know what was happening elsewhere; slave to constantly checking my android phone. I collected my belongings, and got up to leave. First I stopped to thank the violinist for sharing his music, and asked for his name. And I left.

And I must confess, I left feeling a little bit smug. Although I have trapped my ego in a thick-walled cage, it’s still a wild beast and is a long way from being domesticated enough to be of service. So, my ego and me walked down the street, feeling smug about being one of the few who took the time to sit and listen to the music. Feeling smug that I had just acted like a ‘real’ writer (i.e. people watched); when in reality, I haven’t yet published a novel. And my smugness kept me warm on that cold street; at least for a few steps.

I soon came across another hat on the side-walk, containing not many coins. The hat belonged to an elderly man, who looked as if a warm bed did not await him on this cold night. It was the same person I had walked past earlier, on my way to dinner, not giving him a second thought, let alone a coin. Feeling ashamed, I put my ego back in its cage, looked him in the eyes and smiled. Then I dropped some money in his hat. I told him that I hoped that the cold night would not be too unkind to him. He smiled, and said that he would be alright.

When I got back to my cosy warm motel room, I reflected on how nice it was to have heard a story through music; not feeling a need to hear a verbal telling of the musician’s story. Well, I soon discovered: yes and no.

I ‘googled’ the musician, and within a few clicks, I discovered that there was much more to his story than the music he had shared with me. I soon discovered that I had just been in the presence of an angel, come to visit (as George Eliot so eloquently said); and I had been too focused on the sands to realise.

Melvyn Cann, performing in Rundle Street Adelaide, 23 Oct 2013

Melvyn Cann
performing in Rundle Street Adelaide
23 Oct 2013

The man behind the music
The street violinist that I had stopped to listen to was Melvyn Cann, who is a classically trained violinist; in addition to being a talented Australian composer and conductor. Melvyn Cann’s musical talents had been identified at a young age, being selected to study at the Adelaide  Elder Conservatorium at the age of 13; three years after he contracted polio (see this newspaper article from 1954). Melvyn was then accepted to play with the South Australian Symphony Orchestra at 16 years of age, going on to perform with other esteemed orchestras; including holding the title of Concert Master for the Victoria State Opera.

Melvyn was granted a scholarship to attend Oxford University, where he studied philosophy. He then spent another 27 years in university, as a lecturer. He is also a known poet and artist (see some of his paintings, and a biography, here), and father of five.

In addition to a life of opportunities and rich experiences, Melvyn has had more than his fair share of challenges. It is both these challenges and opportunities that has led him to the streets of Adelaide and Melbourne, to become a street performer (read more about Melvyn here).

In his biography, Melvyn has written: “In the classical tradition, the composer creates a notation that is a key to realisation of the work. The score leads the performer to find the work to present it to the listener. But the work itself is entirely ethereal: it exists only in the consciousness of the creator, the performer and the listener. The score may be a bit of material hardware: it can be bought and sold. But the music itself cannot be so bought: or, at least, this is not generally the case.” (extract from biography, at  https://juxtaposestudios.com.au/artist-profiles/exstasis

I think that the above quote sums up how I felt about Melvyn’s music; that he, the performer, is able to create something ethereal. He tells a story that only exists in the consciousness of the performer and the listener; if people would only take the time to stop and listen.

As is often the case, a simple event has shown me a lot, and has taught me a little bit more about myself. You just never know what you will find along the road of life. Nor can you ever assume to know the story of the people you pass in the streets.

If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”  George Eliot, from Letter to Charles Bray, 15 July 1859