It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sitting on our flight from Brisbane to Sydney next to a boy, who can’t be more than 10 years old, who’s unnaturally good at drawing. Next to him is his sister, glued to her iPhone, and both of them have their big toenails painted bright silver (they are wearing matching sandals, too). Part of me wants to commend him, particularly for his artistic talent, but their parents are sitting on the other side of the aisle, and I don’t want to be that creepy 31 year-old who initiates conversation with minors on planes.
I’ve just finished the first chapter (for want of a better word) of Zadie Smith’s most recent book, Feel Free – a collection of her essays and speeches from the past eight years that was published just last month. The last piece that I just (re-)read was called On Optimism and Despair, a speech she gave upon winning the Welt Literature Prize in Berlin in November 2016 (a matter of weeks after Trump’s election in the U.S.). It’s a speech that’s been close to my heart for a long time, and it provides the text for the final movement of the piece Nico Muhly wrote for us for our 50th anniversary, called To stand in this house. I urge you to read it. (Zadie, like the original six King’s Singers, is a former undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge.) The speech is an impassioned plea for us always to strive to keep making progress: she believes that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, [and] it must be redoubled, restated, reimagined if it is to survive.” It’s something I feel acutely in my professional life as a musician – in wanting to break down barriers between genres, to illuminate the amazing and life-giving diversity of music there is in our world today, and to make that world of diverse music as accessible and as meaningful to as many people as possible. But I of course feel it acutely as a human too. I feel so strongly that we’re all obliged to try to make our world the best, most harmonious place it can be, bringing people together rather than forcing or reinforcing divides between them.
Last night, we received a message from a fan to say that we should be wary of a protest that’s happening in Sydney today, that might prevent people from getting to our concert on time (the volume of people will impede the flow of traffic, they said). Now there may be a Pro-Palestine March in the CBD today (I’m unable to find any concrete information about one online), but the so-called “protest” being referenced here was actually Sydney’s 40th Mardi Gras Parade: the first since Australia’s Marriage Equality Legislation was passed in November. There will be hundreds of thousands of people thronging in the city centre, not far from St Mary’s Cathedral, where we’re performing this evening. But please, please forgive the minor inconveniences of potential road delays or noise pollution from outside the cathedral: I’m thrilled that our celebration of bringing people together through their love of music, and their celebration of bringing people together through their love of each other, can happen in the same city on the same day. What a wonderful context for progress! Lots of people all delighting in each other’s company and each other’s achievements on the same day! (And in case there are any concerns about the potential for traffic, I have checked on the state of public transportation in Sydney this weekend: there is an increased service to accommodate the number of people in the city.)
There will have been many times in the past when a 10 year-old boy (just like the one sitting next to me) was punished for two silver-painted toenails. There are still occasions all over the world when whole tribes of people – on account of their sexuality, colour, creed, religion, or any number of other factors – will be victimised for celebrating who they are (even accused of protest). As we land in sunny Sydney, just hours before tonight’s concert, I’m more focussed than ever on how we – as King’s Singers, and as humans – can use today, and whenever we perform or have a public forum, to make true progress, and not to lose sight of the optimism that Zadie bravely, if mournfully, remembers.
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