YOU’D THINK THAT a reckoning with sexual assault would be incompatible with trippy musings on extraordinary feats of musical achievement, but you’d be wrong. In his literary debut, British concert pianist James Rhodes merges an intense, eloquent, and appropriately furious memoir with the transporting beauty of classical music. The result, Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music, is an all-access pass to the sublime.
Humans are adept at finding ways to avoid recognizing and confronting evil, and for its victims this evasion is a legitimate and necessary coping mechanism. But Rhodes reached a point in his life when he needed to face its emotional consequences, and he relates his story with brutal, at times uncomfortably explicit, honesty. Needless to say, parts of Instrumental are difficult to read. This is an account of childhood rape: it will break your heart again and again, not only for Rhodes’s physical and emotional pain, but also as it dawns on you that his experience is by no means unique. “I went, literally overnight, from a dancing, spinning, gigglingly alive kid who was enjoying the safety and adventure of a new school, to a walled-off, cement-shoed, lights-out automaton,” he writes. “It was immediate and shocking, like happily walking down a sunny path and suddenly having a trapdoor open and dump you into a freezing cold lake.”
What Rhodes wants you to know is that intense beauty can coexist with unimaginable pain, and he shows you how that’s possible. “I hit play and heard a piece by Bach that I’d not heard before,” he remembers, about hearing the Bach-Marcello Adagio while in a psych ward.
And it took me to a place of such magnificence, such surrender, hope, beauty, infinite space, it was like touching God’s face. […] Glenn Gould was playing his Steinway, reaching out from forty years in the past, three hundred years in the past, and letting me know that things were not only going to be OK, they were going to be absolutely fucking stellar […] It shattered me and released some kind of inner gentleness that hadn’t seen the light of day for thirty years.
Each of the 20 chapters in this memoir, which ranges from boyhood to new fatherhood, opens with a brief essay on one of his personal touchstones in classical music (with a Spotify playlist so that you can listen, too). Rhodes didn’t just listen, though; through several uncanny twists of fate, he became an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. The cumulative effect of the literary concert he gives in these pages is transcendence, both for him and for the reader.
I’ve wanted to have a conversation with Rhodes since I first read Instrumental more than two years ago, after its UK release, but legal proceedings delayed the book’s publication in North America. I finally met the author in Toronto in May, where he’d come to record a BBC documentary on Glenn Gould. Earlier in the year, during an interview on CBC’s cultural program, q, Rhodes had learned that Gould’s rehearsal piano lived at the q studio, so he’d made plans for a visit. “The whole thing is very surreal,” he said, as he sat at the piano and touched the keys for the first time. “Gould, for me, was literally my childhood hero. He was such an iconoclast. He did things with the piano that no one else had done before.”
Inside the booth, I watched James and q’s host Tom Power joke and kibitz as they talked about the piano. When Rhodes settled down to play the Bach-Marcello Adagio, one the master himself would have played on that very piano, silence settled over the booth and the hair on my arms stood on end. Ghost of Gould, I swear.
James seems a natural ecstatic, and that may be what allowed him to survive what others would not have. It’s not surprising that he continues to suffer emotionally as a result of what happened to him, and yet he has dedicated his life to bringing extraordinary beauty into the world. He counts the introduction of new classical music to readers of Instrumental as the book’s greatest feat.
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: You’re in Toronto to record a Glenn Gould documentary. Can you tell me a little about it and where you’re working? I’m immediately wondering if you’re going to go to the Carlu, the old Eaton’s seventh floor, where he loved to record.
JAMES RHODES: We’re not going to that auditorium, I don’t think, but we went to Fran’s, which is just opposite. He used to send down for sandwiches and they’ve got a picture of him there. We’re interviewing people who knew him, producers, engineers, presenters and fans of his like [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau for a 45-minute documentary, looking at the whole autistic spectrum disorder, is it valid for him, is it important. Because you know he struggled with mental illness. We’re looking at his obsession with technology, him as a person, obviously his playing, as well as him and Canada. He was such a huge fan, he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. He could have lived anywhere in the world. I hope it’s going to be quite a broad documentary. We’ve already got some quite cool insights from people who knew him. It’s very exciting for me.
Yesterday we were over at the CBC studio and you played Gould’s practice piano. What was that like?
It was great, it was amazing! And then after that we went to Roy Thomson Hall, and I tried the piano he recorded the Goldbergs on. I find myself in this really strange world now where I share stages with my heroes, which is a very surreal experience. I never thought I’d end up doing things like this, that I would end up on the same stage as Zimerman, Sokolov, and Kissin and Gould, and yet here we are. I feel very lucky. I mean really lucky. This isn’t a job for me: if I won the lottery and I could do anything, I would do stuff like this all the time. To come here and play Gould’s piano, can you imagine?
It’s wonderful! I heard you tell Tom that you preferred Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations over the 1955 version. Can you say why?
They’re very different. As a kid, I preferred the ’55 because it was full of youthful enthusiasm and mental speeds. As I got older, I grew to admire the ’81 more. There’s more depth and reflection. It’s like he’s looking backward and all of that goes into the performance. They’re the perfect bookends to a life well lived.
Do you know his essay, “Let’s ban applause!”?
He hated the loud cacophony of applause that came in at the end of a concert; he said that he felt that silence, not applause, cradles a piece of music best. He wrote, “The purpose of art is not the momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” Do you agree with him?
I think there is room for both, I really do. I think the lovely thing about a live performance is that it is very different from a recording; for me, the applause is part of that. It’s a moment in time that won’t ever be repeated in the same way and it’s shared, without sounding too pretentious, just by the people in that room at that moment. Then it will disappear. A recording, you can listen to again and again, on the subway, in the car, or at home and of course there’s no applause there.
I go to a live concert because I enjoy the atmosphere. I think you can have a state of wonder with a big audience clapping. I think that’s part of it. But Gould’s right, too. Occasionally I finish a piece and there’s 10 to 20 seconds of silence afterward as it just kind of dissipates. That’s really special, but it doesn’t happen very often. We’re not very good at sitting still, are we?
Certainly not. It’s not the modern condition, in any case. What do you think is the role of silence in music, then?
I guess it’s equally as important as the notes. Some of the greatest bits of music — the really good bits — are the silence in between the notes. In Beethoven in particular. You can’t have one without the other, can you? Gould said that for every hour you spend with people, you should spend a certain number of hours on your own. Which I totally agree with. I would happily spend 20 hours alone for every hour I spend with others. Just to kind of retreat, regroup.
So silence is important. But as we just said, we’re not very good at staying alone with our thoughts. We live in such a noisy world. To me, it’s one of the great things about concerts. It’s the last place we can go where the lights go off and we close our eyes and we can just disappear inside of ourselves for an hour and a half. There’s no mobile phone, there’s no advertisements, there’s no Celebrity Master Chef, no reality shows. There’s music — but silence from the outside world.
I want to talk a bit more about silence. It can also be violence. Your memoir tells us of the willful blindness and silence of the adults around you who might have stopped the terrible abuse you had to endure. Can these roles of silence be reconciled, do you think?
I never heard it put like that, but you’re right, it makes a lot of sense. Reconciled how?
I guess I’m thinking about the way that silence works as an active part of music, and also, as you say, a way to restore. But it can also be oppressive.
There are certain things that we have to talk about more, even if they’re taboo and uncomfortable and exposing and challenging. It’s much easier for people to just use the word abuse and not really dig beneath that and look at what that really, really entails. Because of course that’s so hard, and we really don’t want to know what we’re capable of doing. I think that’s a big reason people don’t speak about it, because it is so uncomfortable. But the more we talk about it, the easier it will be for others to talk about it. That’s my hope, and it seems to be true. There have been so many messages, thousands and thousands from people who have found the book helpful, and not just from people who have been through things, but from ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, doctors. They say things like, this happened to my ex and now I understand a bit more why she was the way she was.
We’ve got to talk. I mean, we have to.
We can’t talk about this book without mentioning the court injunction to try to keep it from being published. More silencing. Your ex-wife attempted to prevent the book’s publication because of the effect it might have on your son.
You know what’s so strange is that it wasn’t just an injunction. They were after a gagging order to stop me from writing or speaking in any medium anywhere in the world about my past. Even treatments of mental illness were on the list of things I wasn’t supposed to talk about. So even if I tweeted about something as innocuous as, “I’m going to see my shrink,” I could have gone to prison. I mean, it’s insane! This was in 2014 in the United Kingdom. We don’t ban books. There was no issue with libel, there was no issue with privacy. Of course the Supreme Court intervened, and they changed the law to stop this happening again. Now “the Rhodes Case” is being taught in law schools around the world. It turns out mine was the most important case in publishing in a hundred years, which is crazy. It cost two million dollars in legal fees, took 18 months, it almost killed me.
So yeah, so more silence, no more “we can’t talk about this, let’s pretend it didn’t happen.”
Some things are just too important. Many times I thought, let’s just pull the book and get on with our lives. I keep coming back to this idea that I’m lucky that I had the money to fight, and famous friends who could help, and access to unbelievable lawyers and psychiatrists and experts, and it still took me 18 months. It was touch and go for a long time. So if that’s how it was for me, with all of that privilege, then how could anyone who went through something similar at the hands of the Catholic church or whatever, who didn’t have those resources — how could they ever hope to tell their story? So I just think it’s important we fight for things sometimes, even if it’s the hard thing to do.
The epigraph to Instrumental is a quote from Phil Klay, a US Marine Corp veteran: “If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable, then survivors are trapped — unable to feel truly known … You don’t honour someone by telling them, ‘I can never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.” Was that your motivation for writing the book?
Yes, very much. I always promised myself, if I ever had a microphone, even a small one, I would talk about certain things. Not all the time — as you know, I’m a musician, and that’s my job. The book isn’t a misery memoir, it’s about music, about fatherhood, it’s about business, it’s about all that stuff. But it’s also about more difficult things; I think there should be balance there. It would be really strange to just write about the good bits. And, like I said, it’s so important we give a voice to things. Not just rape, but mental illness, self-harm — this stuff is everywhere. I haven’t met one person who wouldn’t be diagnosed with something. We’ve all got something, even if it’s just mild social anxiety.
So we all have to talk more. We all know about the perpetrators of the abuse, but very few of us could name the actual survivors. I think if you’re lucky enough to be in the public eye and you have the strength and the resources, I think we kind of have a duty. That’s my take: I wouldn’t dare say everyone else has to talk about it, but that’s what I feel.
Along with this reckoning, you give your readers these mini-journeys to the ecstasy you feel when you’re inside certain pieces of music. They make it possible to sit with you for the other parts.
Yeah, there’s a balance, isn’t there?
Yes, and I was wondering if that idea came to you fully formed. Did you conceive the book with that combination in mind?
Yes, I did. I always wanted a way to talk about music, and it just seemed like the perfect idea to have a soundtrack to the book. Instead of chapter numbers, which are so boring, let’s have pieces of music, to make it more immersive. If you think of Beethoven and Bach or any of the other great artists, we kind of put them up on a pedestal, but actually they were ludicrously human — they were just like you and me. And yet somehow, despite going through the things we all go through, the trauma, the mental stuff, they were able to leave this legacy. I think it’s really important to be able to say that they were awkward socially, they were broke, they were surrounded by grief, they went through catastrophic relationships, just like you and me and everyone else. And yet, look what they managed to do. They didn’t just guzzle medication and watch Oprah — they fucking found a way through it. To me, that’s a really lovely message. It humanizes them — makes them seem, I hope, more accessible.
It’s the thing I’m most proud of in the book, actually, that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are listening to this music who might not have known where to start. It’s very difficult to know how with classical music. There are so many barriers to entry and it seems very confusing and overwhelming and it’s a whole new language you feel like you have to learn, and all these rules. So to have something where there are 20 tracks from Bach right through to Shostakovich and everything in between … you might hate Chopin but love Liszt or vice versa. There’s something for everyone, I hope, and I love that.
The Somali-Canadian poet and hip-hop artist K’naan, who grew up in war-torn Mogadishu, has a great line his song “Take a Minute”: “I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations / Creating medication out my own tribulations.” It does that for you, too, doesn’t it?
But it does that for all of us, doesn’t it?
Why do you think music has the ability to do that?
I don’t think it helps to question it. Music defies logic and reason. It’s like a magic trick. It’s like that E. M. Forster quote: “Music is the deepest of the arts and deep beneath the arts.” Like it or not, we’re all born fluent in the language of music. It’s much more authentic and powerful than words and it’s the most universal thing there is. It crosses every single socioeconomic and cultural boundary. It does that for all of us. It would be inconceivable to have a world without music, or to find someone who isn’t moved by music. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why certain people like certain genres and not others and I’m sure there are many studies that look at that. If you try to pick apart or rationalize things, it ruins them slightly. We don’t need to know how it works — we all know that it does, and that’s good enough.
True. When you’re introducing the first chapter with the Goldberg Variations, you write that the Variations “do things to me that only top-grade pharmaceuticals can achieve. They are a master-class in Wonder.” How long can you go without a fix? I’m talking about playing and listening.
Yeah, not very long at all. It would be minutes rather than hours. There always music going on. Even if I’m not listening to it, it’s always going on in my head. It’s a comfort blanket, isn’t it — it’s like oxygen. How long could you go without breathing, two minutes, two and a half? But I think it’s a safe addiction — it’s not a bad thing … It’s much safer than movies or thinking or words. Somehow music, it’s the one consistent thing — the only thing that’s never let me down.
You don’t need to understand that, but you have to respect it: for 35 years music has always always, always had the same effect; it’s always made me feel better. I don’t trust anything else but I trust in that.
You wrote the Little Book of Life Skills for piano to encourage more people to take up the instrument. Was this book your idea or did the publisher approach you?
It was my idea. And it came because I got this email a few months ago through my website. The guy said, I’m a retired Mexican airline pilot and I used to play the piano when I was a kid, and I always regret giving it up.
I’ve heard that so many times. He said, after I retired, I read your book and I bought a piano. I got a piano teacher and I play every day. These are my best days.
And I thought, there must be so many people who think: I’ll never play the piano again, I wish I’d kept it up. So what if there was a way. It is challenging but by no means too challenging. It doesn’t require six months or a year or four hours a day — 40 minutes a day, one day off a week, six weeks. A little electric keyboard, you don’t even need a proper piano. You could definitely, realistically in six weeks be playing a masterpiece by Bach. Wouldn’t that be something! Since I wrote the book, I get all these videos sent to me on Twitter or Facebook — and these people are playing the piano! And it’s amazing. They’re actually playing it, and some of them are really good. Isn’t that great? When you’re lying in a hospital bed on morphine, you’re not going to be wishing, Ah, I wish I’d done a few more spreadsheets. But you might well be thinking I wish I’d learned to paint, or draw, or play the piano, or dance tango. Why not do something extraordinary? Life’s too short and it’s actually totally achievable.
The article you wrote for the Guardian …
“Find what you love and let it kill you.”
That’s it. You wrote, “Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor Concerto.” Are you arguing that contemporary ills might be traced to a dearth of creativity?
I think all ills are traced to a dearth of creativity! Because the dearth of creativity is symptomatic of something much deeper and more serious than just a scarcity of time. Culturally we’ve got our priorities all wrong. It’s all become about work deadlines and having to be busy all the time and just rushing to stand still. It’s in every single aspect of life.
So how do you choose new pieces of music to work on?
Ah, that’s the most fun part of my job. With difficulty. It’s like how do you choose a new book to read or … I know I only pick pieces that I love, but there’s so much choice. I could live 20 lifetimes, work eight hours a day, and cover five percent of the repertoire; it’s insane, but it’s a lovely thing to think about. It’s just like lining up a bunch of the most beautiful people on the planet and deciding which one am I going to spend the night with. It really is like that! You can choose whatever you want.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever performed?
Probably one of those festivals where you’re in a tent on a field somewhere. I did one with Florence and the Machine singing right next door. But honestly I’ll play anywhere, I don’t care. As long as there’s a decent piano.
I’m a big fan of taking music into places you don’t usually expect it. Last month, I went to Cologne and they brought a giant grand piano into this very destitute housing estate, filled with refugees and graffiti everywhere. I played for a bunch of them and the music was met with such concentration and happiness from the crowd — kids having fun, adults wanting to teach them little tunes. I found it inspiring and a lot of fun.
Hélène Grimaud calls Bach her “daily bread.” Nina Simone says that Bach made her dedicate her life to music. In your book, you wrote this about Bach’s Chaconne: “Imagine somehow finding a way to construct the entire universe of love and grief that we exist in, putting it in musical form, writing it down on paper and giving it to the world.” What is Bach, for you?
That’s such a huge question. I guess he’s like Ground Zero for classical music. He’s the jumping-off point for everything. Of course music existed before him, but not with the kind of influence that he had. He was so prolific and extraordinary, and lived a life that most people wouldn’t have survived, much less be able to carry on and create the way he did. The resilience of him! You never get to the bottom of Bach. There’s such profound depth there. You can listen a thousand times to his music and still discover new things. You can play his pieces again and again and still feel like you’ve only scraped the surface. There are very few people you could say that you could study for a lifetime and still not understand, and he’s one of them. Mozart is another. But Bach is the original.
Critic Michael Markham argues that the modern understanding of the Chaconne that it was a kind of grieving for a suddenly deceased wife, couldn’t have been true. He writes that we’re projecting from our cultural moment — that “[a]rtists of the early 1700s did not wear their lives on their sleeves.”
The beauty of classical music, of any art form, is that it’s up to the person viewing or listening to it to decide what it means for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate. The great thing about the Chaconne for me is that he tries to end it, two or three times you think it’s the end. It’s like you say goodbye to someone in a hospital bed and as you leave you think, Ah, I just have one more thing to say, and then one more thing …
Music provides a soundtrack, and everyone who listens to it will have their own story. The truth is, until a composer writes, at the top of a score, “This piece is about…,” you can say whatever the fuck you want and no one can say you’re wrong! Maybe they didn’t go to therapy back in the 1700s, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t experience grief or loss or the depth of emotion we feel today! Where else could he put it? You can’t wear it on your sleeve, you can’t go down to the fucking tavern in 1790 and say, “Oh, I’m feeling really depressed!” But you could pour it out onto composition paper and make it personal to you. I think Markham’s piece is exciting, and I’m grateful that anyone’s talking about and debating Bach, but I don’t buy that these composers weren’t romantic because of the time they lived in.
I’d love your thoughts on his last line: “We have met the composer, and he is us.”
To me, that’s about the idea that there’s nothing more universal than music, and that’s why we all relate to it. It’s the human condition in a language that goes beneath words and therefore is much more concentrated and taut. Such is the power of music.