Enough time has passed since my last visit in 2019 that I have forgotten early spring mornings in Cambridge. Take your first steps out into the front court at King’s, and a gentle moisture envelops your face and hands without any biting or harshness. The chapel and the Gibbs Building glow in the early light to the point where it feels like midday. The only sounds are that of birdsong everywhere and a few bicycles creaking towards the few and faithful coffeehouses open before 8am. (Naturally, they are populated at that hour by US expats such as yours truly.)
Since my arrival, I’ve been practicing gently through the jet lag and getting acquainted with the harp I’ll be performing and recording on over the next week. Dinners and drinks are spent with Nico Muhly, a celebrity/familiar face in Cambridge. He emerges from the room next door dressed in solid black, that musician’s uniform which somehow seems innocuous in Manhattan but totally conspicuous in Cambridge. (Full disclosure: I’m not doing much better. Having been on a Club Monaco spending spree in December, my minimalist fag packing choices for this trip included patterned trousers which indicate I’m about to get cocktails in Flatiron at 3pm on a Tuesday or golfing in Boca Raton in 1973.) We imbibe and discuss what all people discuss in Cambridge: college, education, memories of development, the past. What did we read? Who taught us? What characters did we meet?
Old universities, be they Ivies or Oxbridge, have this bizarre self-conscious rigor in maintaining tradition, attracting eccentric and precocious undergraduates, who will either fly the coop into one or another greater cosmopolis or remain and become the eccentric professors who you can tell haven’t ever left. (In Cambridge, they dress in tweed, poorly tailored shirts or dull sweaters – signifiers of a chic frumpy austerity which seems never to change.) And yet, despite being in a scholastic paradise, the undergraduates one meets are hungry to know what awaits them on the other side. They inquire with alumni about how to get out, form a bridge into the real world, ditch the tweed and get into the city. It is then that one remembers that these universities, even big ones, are really very small places with a highly specific purpose: education. They put up paradoxic fronts of changelessness and authority for students, most of whom who will ultimately have an ephemeral existence here of only three or four years. The buildings, the clothes, the birds, the sunlight all remain the same, surviving the ages. It is we who are just passing through.
The other question students love to ask is “what is it like to be back?” For me, the only correct answer is “weird.” No alum is the same person as they were as an undergraduate. In my humble opinion, if misgivings arise, that’s ok. Before coming to the UK, I was driving my parent’s car through Tennessee listening to an excellent interview with writer Ocean Vuong. One thing in particular he offered resonates with me this week. He apparently tells his students that if they hate a story or an essay they wrote even month before, they should be congratulated. It means they’ve grown. Fortunately for me, feelings of regret or foreboding are fleeting, as there are a great many wonderful and beautiful things to do and see, which not many people care about unless you’ve studied here or have some romance with others have passed through. Here one can commune with any number of Saints, or at least with the imprints of their embryonic existence as students.
When I come back to King’s, I slip back into a routine. I sneak into the library, climbing two flights of stairs and grab a ladder to a row of tattered choral octavos. I grab a copy of Handel’s Israel in Egpyt and look on E.M. Forster’s signature in the front page. I peruse Messiaen scores with Sir Andrew Davis’ markings in them. I head downstairs to find volumes in the history section which (according to local lore) are filled with Salman Rushdie’s notes in the margins. I grab my running shoes and run through Coe Fen, the slightly overgrown bog past the Fitzwilliam Museum after which my old school’s favorite hymn was named (which includes the fabulous lines “Ten thousand times ten thousand sound Thy praise; but who am I?”). I work my way towards Sheep’s Green and into Grantchester. I stop at the church and sit before running past Rupert Brooke’s onetime abode before stopping again at Byron’s Pool, eavesdropping on a group of undergraduates talking about an article. Then it’s back over to Grantchester Meadow and zipping past Newnham College, reverse tracing Virginia Woolf’s treks to have tea at the Orchard. Grange Road takes me West Road. I pass the history faculty where I went to lectures and checked out stacks of books I know I’ve read but can’t remember reading. I run into the back of King’s and into front court. It’s no longer quiet, as the organ scholar is practicing Liszt at full throttle.
It’s funny that with the exception of grabbing a harp, I haven’t been back into chapel. But whenever I walk by, it seems as though the organ scholar is always practicing (which is likely the case). I know why I don’t go in to listen. I know full well the absolute sense of horror I would have felt if another ex-organ scholar came in to listen, even if for pure enjoyment. The pressure is always on. For as wonderful and easy as communing with the dead in Cambridge, somehow doing the same with the living is terrifying. Eminent alumni, musicians, Nobel prize winners and famous writers are on every corner, striking awe into the hearts of undergraduates either with their brilliance or perhaps their quickness in overturning your ideas with a simple question in a tutorial or seminar. They attend concerts too, they smile, they applaud, and yet it’s unfathomable that their critical faculties ever shut off. After all, they spend hours telling you to get your brain into high gear and to engage it as much as possible. How could it be any other way?
Ancestor worship in Cambridge is a weird and shitty way of coping with the pressures of self-expectation. When you’re a student, all those feelings get supplanted onto worries about the exams, the intellectual rigor, the teaching style (and evensongs and voluntarues), etc. As a result, it’s easy to look to the Immortals of Cambridge Yore to witness that there is life on the other side. For me, I latched onto the Bloomsbury Group, seeing a gaggle of misfits with wild ideas who somehow lifted themselves out of the self-imposed restraints that the atmosphere in the college somehow enables. In particular I devoured Forster and Woolf, being a pretentious literary queerling who had yet to figure a host of things out about what my sexuality meant (which in the end was very little, but at least the depressive book binges were good).
Back in the States, my friends will tell you that since the pandemic started, I never shut up about Hesse. As Time has passed, I’ve steered towards his novels about getting out of one’s own head, rather than the melancholy wallowing which one finds in Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando, or the strange moralistic smugness of Maurice or Howard End. At the end of one of Hesse’s more famous novels, music obsessed protagonist (The Steppenwolf) is guided through hell by Mozart, who invites him to look on at Wagner and Brahms slaving away and laugh at them as they travail in their aesthetic ideologies. It’s then you realize the entire novel is about one man’s realizations that all our chosen ancestors were not all immortal at one point, but human. Likewise, our isolated existences and identity formation see us come emerge from our shells, transforming our wolf-like, self-protective tendencies into softer, more human impulses.
“I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket . . . I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”
If anything, I’ve not laughed as much at Cambridge as I have the last few days. The town’s love affair with the tradition is beautiful but comical. There is no reason that walking on a patch of grass (a privilege reserved for Dons, alumni and ducks) should have the same thrill as unprotected sex (or any other shot of adrenaline). Punting (rowing a boat in a shallow river using a 12 foot pole) is a fundamentally stupid and inefficient means of getting anywhere. That one bell-tower that peels thirteen times at noon is ridiculous. And yes, it is comical that there is in fact a phantom-like creature practicing the organ at such a volume that it can be heard in the street on a busy afternoon.
Returning is complicated but freeing, as one gets to see the other side – the peace of some unforeseen transcendence. The conditions of my return are something I actually could not have imagined a decade ago. If someone had told me undergraduate self that in a decade, I’d be (1) living splitting my time between New York and Cleveland, (2) playing the harp for a living and (3) hearing Mozart emanating from Nico’s Muhly’s room next door, I might tell you that you were out of your mind, or else wonder if its another expectation which needed achieving in order to “live up” to the magnanimous and imposing aura of my chosen university. Time heals, but laughter is the best medicine. (Try as I may, I can’t describe how great it is to be back.)
NOTE: this blog is supposed to be about music. I swear I’ll get back to it… eventually.