Such is the Power of Music: An Interview with James Rhodes

It would be inconceivable to have a world without music, or to find someone who isn’t moved by music. I think there is room for both, I really do. There’s such profound depth there. But the more we talk about it, the easier it will be for others to talk about it. I never heard it put like that, but you’re right, it makes a lot of sense. There’s music   —   but silence from the outside world. Ghost of Gould, I swear. Not just rape, but mental illness, self-harm — this stuff is everywhere. That’s really special, but it doesn’t happen very often. 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. There always music going on. There’s no mobile phone, there’s no advertisements, there’s no Celebrity Master Chef, no reality shows. It really is like that! True. 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. We’ve all got something, even if it’s just mild social anxiety. Reconciled how? I think that’s part of it. 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. 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? Occasionally I finish a piece and there’s 10 to 20 seconds of silence afterward as it just kind of dissipates. You can play his pieces again and again and still feel like you’ve only scraped the surface. Was this book your idea or did the publisher approach you? I always promised myself, if I ever had a microphone, even a small one, I would talk about certain things. Certainly not. I haven’t met one person who wouldn’t be diagnosed with something. Just to kind of retreat, regroup. Of course music existed before him, but not with the kind of influence that he had. It can also be violence. But Gould’s right, too. That’s my hope, and it seems to be true. 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. “The whole thing is very surreal,” he said, as he sat at the piano and touched the keys for the first time. Along with this reckoning, you give your readers these mini-journeys to the ecstasy you feel when you’re inside certain pieces of music. 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? Did you conceive the book with that combination in mind? You can’t have one without the other, can you? 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? It’s very difficult to know how with classical music. And, like I said, it’s so important we give a voice to things. I hope it’s going to be quite a broad documentary. 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. So even if I tweeted about something as innocuous as, “I’m going to see my shrink,” I could have gone to prison. How long could you go without breathing, two minutes, two and a half? Now “the Rhodes Case” is being taught in law schools around the world. Hélène Grimaud calls Bach her “daily bread.” Nina Simone says that Bach made her dedicate her life to music. 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. It’s much more authentic and powerful than words and it’s the most universal thing there is. I don’t think it helps to question it. 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. And yet somehow, despite going through the things we all go through, the trauma, the mental stuff, they were able to leave this legacy. Yes, very much. And it came because I got this email a few months ago through my website. It’s the human condition in a language that goes beneath words and therefore is much more concentrated and taut. It doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate. The result, Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music, is an all-access pass to the sublime. You wrote the Little Book of Life Skills for piano to encourage more people to take up the instrument. He was such a huge fan, he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It was my idea. We all know about the perpetrators of the abuse, but very few of us could name the actual survivors. That’s such a huge question. It crosses every single socioeconomic and cultural boundary. But it does that for all of us, doesn’t it? It’s all become about work deadlines and having to be busy all the time and just rushing to stand still. But it’s also about more difficult things; I think there should be balance there. Music defies logic and reason. Can you say why? M. It humanizes them — makes them seem, I hope, more accessible. 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! I go to a live concert because I enjoy the atmosphere. Which I totally agree with. 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 would happily spend 20 hours alone for every hour I spend with others. I don’t know why that is. We can’t talk about this book without mentioning the court injunction to try to keep it from being published. I’m talking about playing and listening. I want to talk a bit more about silence. Because of course that’s so hard, and we really don’t want to know what we’re capable of doing. There’s something for everyone, I hope, and I love that. You know what’s so strange is that it wasn’t just an injunction. Not all the time —   as you know, I’m a musician, and that’s my job. 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 was touch and go for a long time. This was in 2014 in the United Kingdom. I mean really lucky. 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. We’re looking at his obsession with technology, him as a person, obviously his playing, as well as him and Canada. The cumulative effect of the literary concert he gives in these pages is transcendence, both for him and for the reader. You can choose whatever you want. They say things like, this happened to my ex and now I understand a bit more why she was the way she was. Because the dearth of creativity is symptomatic of something much deeper and more serious than just a scarcity of time. What was that like? 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 not the modern condition, in any case. 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? It would be minutes rather than hours. Since I wrote the book, I get all these videos sent to me on Twitter or Facebook — and these people are playing the piano! It’s in every single aspect of life. You could definitely, realistically in six weeks be playing a masterpiece by Bach. But as we just said, we’re not very good at staying alone with our thoughts. 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. Such is the power of music. Gould said that for every hour you spend with people, you should spend a certain number of hours on your own. It would be really strange to just write about the good bits. Rhodes didn’t just listen, though; through several uncanny twists of fate, he became an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. 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. Somehow music, it’s the one consistent thing — the only thing that’s never let me down. Do you know his essay, “Let’s ban applause!”? Yeah, there’s a balance, isn’t there? 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. I found it inspiring and a lot of fun. As long as there’s a decent piano. Then it will disappear. It’s like a magic trick. Yeah, not very long at all. 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. Ah, that’s the most fun part of my job. We live in such a noisy world. I think all ills are traced to a dearth of creativity! I guess it’s equally as important as the notes. I think you can have a state of wonder with a big audience clapping. And yet, look what they managed to do. Of course the Supreme Court intervened, and they changed the law to stop this happening again. 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. These are my best days. It turns out mine was the most important case in publishing in a hundred years, which is crazy. As a kid, I preferred the ’55 because it was full of youthful enthusiasm and mental speeds. 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. We don’t need to know how it works — we all know that it does, and that’s good enough. ¤
Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender. 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. They are a master-class in Wonder.” How long can you go without a fix? So silence is important. 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. We’re not very good at sitting still, are we? Some of the greatest bits of music — the really good bits — are the silence in between the notes. Life’s too short and it’s actually totally achievable. Even treatments of mental illness were on the list of things I wasn’t supposed to talk about. 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. I think that’s a big reason people don’t speak about it, because it is so uncomfortable. He’s the jumping-off point for everything. 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. Why do you think music has the ability to do that? Can you tell me a little about it and where you’re working? It cost two million dollars in legal fees, took 18 months, it almost killed me. It was great, it was amazing! 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). It’s a comfort blanket, isn’t it — it’s like oxygen. 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. So how do you choose new pieces of music to work on? 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! […] 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. 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. I guess he’s like Ground Zero for 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. 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. To me, that’s a really lovely message. 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. 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. Instead of chapter numbers, which are so boring, let’s have pieces of music, to make it more immersive. 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. But I think it’s a safe addiction — it’s not a bad thing … It’s much safer than movies or thinking or words. In Beethoven in particular. I got a piano teacher and I play every day. We don’t ban books. If you try to pick apart or rationalize things, it ruins them slightly. Can these roles of silence be reconciled, do you think? Your ex-wife attempted to prevent the book’s publication because of the effect it might have on your son. He said, after I retired, I read your book and I bought a piano. 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. To come here and play Gould’s piano, can you imagine? Probably one of those festivals where you’re in a tent on a field somewhere. I heard you tell Tom that you preferred Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations over the 1955 version. What’s the strangest place you’ve ever performed? “Gould, for me, was literally my childhood hero. With difficulty. A little electric keyboard, you don’t even need a proper piano. They make it possible to sit with you for the other parts. It’s very exciting for me. 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. 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. I mean, it’s insane! JUNE 22, 2017

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. You never get to the bottom of Bach. 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. Needless to say, parts of Instrumental are difficult to read. I mean, we have to. So what if there was a way. There’s more depth and reflection. Even if I’m not listening to it, it’s always going on in my head. To me, it’s one of the great things about concerts. Wouldn’t that be something! Yesterday we were over at the CBC studio and you played Gould’s practice piano. The article you wrote for the Guardian …
“Find what you love and let it kill you.”
That’s it. 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. “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. 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. So we all have to talk more. What do you think is the role of silence in music, then? 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. More silencing. 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. JAMES RHODES: We’re not going to that auditorium, I don’t think, but we went to Fran’s, which is just opposite. You can listen a thousand times to his music and still discover new things. Where else could he put it? The resilience of him! 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. 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. Because you know he struggled with mental illness. But you might well be thinking I wish I’d learned to paint, or draw, or play the piano, or dance tango. But honestly I’ll play anywhere, I don’t care. 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. So I just think it’s important we fight for things sometimes, even if it’s the hard thing to do. It is challenging but by no means too challenging. In his literary debut, British concert pianist James Rhodes merges an intense, eloquent, and appropriately furious memoir with the transporting beauty of classical music. 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. They didn’t just guzzle medication and watch Oprah — they fucking found a way through it. He counts the introduction of new classical music to readers of Instrumental as the book’s greatest feat. There was no issue with libel, there was no issue with privacy. The book isn’t a misery memoir, it’s about music, about fatherhood, it’s about business, it’s about all that stuff. It’s like he’s looking backward and all of that goes into the performance. Yes, I did. And then after that we went to Roy Thomson Hall, and I tried the piano he recorded the Goldbergs on. He could have lived anywhere in the world. 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. It’s like that E. Yes, and I was wondering if that idea came to you fully formed. I feel very lucky. We’ve already got some quite cool insights from people who knew him. 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? Culturally we’ve got our priorities all wrong. As I got older, I grew to admire the ’81 more. 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’ve heard that so many times. 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? “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. But Bach is the original. I find myself in this really strange world now where I share stages with my heroes, which is a very surreal experience. Why not do something extraordinary? He was such an iconoclast. 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. 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. I finally met the author in Toronto in May, where he’d come to record a BBC documentary on Glenn Gould. That’s my take: I wouldn’t dare say everyone else has to talk about it, but that’s what I feel. 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. 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. They were after a gagging order to stop me from writing or speaking in any medium anywhere in the world about my past. ¤
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: You’re in Toronto to record a Glenn Gould documentary. And it’s amazing. Isn’t that great? 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. James seems a natural ecstatic, and that may be what allowed him to survive what others would not have. Mozart is another. We’ve got to talk. Many times I thought, let’s just pull the book and get on with our lives. 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. I always wanted a way to talk about music, and it just seemed like the perfect idea to have a soundtrack to the book. There are certain things that we have to talk about more, even if they’re taboo and uncomfortable and exposing and challenging. They’re the perfect bookends to a life well lived. I’m a big fan of taking music into places you don’t usually expect it. They’re very different. I’m immediately wondering if you’re going to go to the Carlu, the old Eaton’s seventh floor, where he loved to record. It does that for all of us. “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. I don’t trust anything else but I trust in that. But it can also be oppressive. He used to send down for sandwiches and they’ve got a picture of him there. And it took me to a place of such magnificence, such surrender, hope, beauty, infinite space, it was like touching God’s face. No. They’re actually playing it, and some of them are really good. 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. 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. I did one with Florence and the Machine singing right next door. It’s wonderful!