Read Instrumental Online

Authors: James Rhodes


BOOK: Instrumental
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Published in Great Britain in 2015 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

This digital edition first published in 2014 by Canongate Books

Copyright © James Rhodes 2015

Quote from ‘A Poet's Advice to Children' from
E. E. Cummings, a Miscellany
, edited by George James Firmage. Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Quote from ‘After War, a Failure of Imagination‘ by Phil Klay © 2014,
Phil Klay and
The New York Times

The moral right of the author has been asserted

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 78211 337 9

Export ISBN 978 1 78211 534 2
eISBN: 9781782113386

Typeset in Bembo STD by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire

For my son

‘If we fetishise 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.'

– Phil Klay, veteran, US Marine Corps



Track One
: Bach, ‘Goldberg Variations', Aria (Glenn Gould, Piano)

Track Two
: Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Finale (Evgeny Kissin, Piano)

Track Three
: Schubert, Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, Second Movement (Ashkenazy, Zukerman, Harrell trio)

Track Four
: Bach-Busoni, Chaconne (James Rhodes, Piano)

Track Five
: Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, Second Movement (Garrick Ohlsson, Piano)

Track Six
: Scriabin, Piano Concerto, Last Movement (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Piano)

Track Seven
: Ravel, Piano Trio (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell)

Track Eight
: Shostakovich, Piano Concerto No. 2, Second Movement (Elisabeth Leonskaja, Piano)

Track Nine
: Bruckner Symphony No. 7, Second Movement (Herbert von Karajan, Conductor)

Track Ten
: Liszt, ‘Totentanz' (Sergio Tiempo, Piano)

Track Eleven
: Brahms, ‘German Requiem', First Movement (Herbert von Karajan, Conductor)

Track Twelve
: Mozart, Symphony No. 41 (‘Jupiter'), Fourth Movement (Sir Charles Mackerras, Conductor)

Track Thirteen
: Chopin Étude in C major, Op. 10/1 (Maurizio Pollini, Piano)

Track Fourteen
: Chopin, Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49 (Krystian Zimerman, Piano)

Track Fifteen
: Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, Second Movement (Krystian Zimerman, Piano)

Track Sixteen
: Schumann, ‘Geister Variations' for Piano (Jean-Marc Luisada, Piano)

Track Seventeen
: Schubert, Sonata No. 20, D959, Second Movement (Alexander Lonquich, Piano)

Track Eighteen
: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 (‘Emperor'), Second Movement (Radu Lupu, Piano)

Track Nineteen
: Rachmaninov, ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini' (Zoltán Kocsis, Piano)

Track Twenty
: Bach, ‘Goldberg Variations', Aria da capo (Glenn Gould, Piano)




All of these pieces of music are available to listen to for free at



I know that's not a hugely promising opening sentence for some people. But if you scratch the word ‘classical', perhaps it's not quite so bad. Maybe it even becomes understandable. Because now, with the word ‘music', we have something universal, something exciting, something intangible and immortal.

You and I are instantly connected through music. I listen to music. You listen to music. Music has infiltrated and influenced our lives as much as nature, literature, art, sport, religion, philosophy and television. It is the great unifier, the drug of choice for teenagers around the world. It provides solace, wisdom, hope and warmth and has done so for thousands of years. It is medicine for the soul. There are eighty-eight keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe.

And yet . . .

My job description is ‘concert pianist', and so there is, inevitably, a lot written about classical music in this book. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if some of the press around its launch will try as hard as possible to ignore that fact. They'll do that because core classical music doesn't sell anything, ever, and is seen by many as utterly irrelevant. And because everything about classical music, from the musicians themselves to the presentation of its product, the record labels, management – the whole industry ethos and ethics surrounding it – is almost totally devoid of any redeeming qualities.

But the unassailable fact is that music has, quite literally, saved my life and, I believe, the lives of countless others. It provides company when there is none, understanding where there is confusion, comfort where there is distress, and sheer, unpolluted energy where there is a hollow shell of brokenness and fatigue.

And so wherever and whenever there is the ubiquitous, knee-jerk temptation to roll eyes and tune out at hearing or reading the phrase ‘classical music', I think of the huge mistakes I've made in the past by lazily adopting the principle of contempt prior to investigation. And to those of you who have that reaction, I urge you, beg you, to hold on for a minute and ask yourself this:

If there were something not manufactured by government, sweat shops, Apple or Big Pharma that could automatically, consistently, unfailingly add a little more excitement, lustre, depth and strength to your life, would you be curious?

Something with no side effects, requiring no commitment, no prior knowledge, no money, just some time and maybe a decent set of headphones.

Would you be interested?

We all have a soundtrack to our lives. Many of us have become immune, overexposed, tired and let down by it. We are assaulted by music in movies, TV shows, shopping malls, phone calls, elevators and advertisements. Quantity has long overtaken quality. More of everything is, apparently, good. And Christ, what a price we are paying for it. For every genuinely thrilling rock band, film score or contemporary composer, there are several thousand piles of shit that are thrust upon us at every opportunity. The industry behind it treats us with almost zero respect and even less trust. Success, rather than being earned, is bought, paid for, whored out and pushed onto us manipulatively and insidiously.

Among other things, I want this book to offer solutions to the watered-down, self-serving bastardisation of the classical music industry that we have been forced to embrace against our will. I hope that it will also show that the problems and potential solutions within the classical industry are applicable to a much, much wider panorama of similar issues within our whole culture in general and the arts in particular.

And woven throughout it is going to be my life story. Because it's a story that provides proof that music is the answer to the unanswerable. The basis for my conviction about that is that I would not exist, let alone exist productively, solidly – and, on occasion, happily – without music.

Many people would say that it is far, far too early for me to be writing a memoir. I'm thirty-eight (at time of writing), and the notion of an autobiography at this age might seem indulgent and egotistical. But to be able to write about what I believe in and has kept me alive, to expand on the ideas I've had for so many years, to respond to criticism and offer solutions to something that is troubling and urgent, is, I think, a worthwhile thing to do.

My qualifications for writing this come from having made it through certain experiences that some people perhaps wouldn't have. And having come out the other side (thus far) and, in the eyes of the editor who sold this idea to her boss ‘made something of myself', I've now been given the opportunity to write a book. Which makes me fall about laughing because, as you'll see over the next 80,000 words, I'm surrounded by an inherent madness, have a rather warped concept of integrity, few worthwhile relationships, even fewer friends, and, all self-pity aside, I'm a bit of an asshole.

I hate myself, twitch too much, frequently say the wrong thing, scratch my ass at inappropriate times (and then sniff my fingers), can't look in the mirror without wanting to die. I'm a vain, self-obsessed, shallow, narcissistic, manipulative, degenerate, wheedling, whiny, needy, self-indulgent, vicious, cold, self-destructive douchebag.

I'll give you an example.

Today I woke up slightly before four in the morning.

Four a.m. is the worst possible time in any given twenty-four hours. In fact that hour between 3.30 and 4.30 is the absolute fucker. From 4.30 you're OK – you can kick around in bed until 5 and then get up safe in the knowledge that some people do in fact get up at 5 a.m. To get their idiotic jogs in before work, to get ready for the early shift, to meditate, to do yoga or have a blessed forty-five minutes not thinking about the kids or the mortgage.

Or just not thinking.


But if you're up any time before then, evidently there is something wrong with you.

There has to be.

I started writing this at 3.47 a.m.

There is something wrong with me.

I have seen enough 4 a.m.s roll by on my Rolex (fake), iPhone dock, IWC (real), grandfather, wall, auto-reverse/FM/CD player, Casio, Mickey Mouse (timepieces in reverse order) to last several lifetimes. There is the inevitable mental click, like a switch being flicked on, the ‘fuck it' moment, when you decide to get up and on with it. To step up and step out into the world. Knowing it's going to hurt. That it's going to be a long one.

I know, for example, that I will have completed my four hours' piano practice, smoked fourteen cigarettes, drunk a pot of coffee, showered, read the paper, caught up on emails and filled the car up with petrol by 9 a.m. today. My entire day and everything that I needed to do in it will be achieved, over, ticked off by 9 a.m. What do I even do with that information? What the hell do I do from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., which is the earliest I can turn my light off and try to go to sleep without feeling like a mentally ill loser?

And I know why I'm up so early so often.

It's all because of my head. The enemy. My eventual cause of death; land-mine, ticking bomb, Moriarty. My stupid fucking head that makes me weep and scream and yell and scratch my mental brain-eyes out in frustration. Ever-present, consistent only in its inconsistency, angry, spoiled, rotten, warped, wrong, sharp, honed, predatory.

Here's what happened this morning:

La Tête

A short play in one act by James Rhodes.


A man; dishevelled, troubled, stubbly, skinny.

A woman; hot, blonde, too good for him.

The man is lying in bed next to the woman. His eyes flip open next to his girlfriend.

She is asleep. He is awake and restless.

The clock says 3.30 a.m.

With his extremely expressive face, he reveals that he shouldn't be with someone as good as she is. Shouldn't be sharing a bed with anyone. Shouldn't be this normal, dangerously intimate, quo-fucking-tidian.

The girl is too pretty, kind, generous.

The man hugs her. She doesn't move.

He reaches over and lifts her hair off of her eyes.

: I love you so much darling. I miss you. I want you.

: (
croaky and still half asleep
) I love you too, precious one. It's all OK, baby. Promise.

She falls back asleep

The man starts to stroke her right breast and kisses her neck. He's clumsy with it and desperate in a bad way.

: Mmmm. Can I have just a little bit longer to sleep, darling? You're so sexy. It's dreadfully early still.

She falls back asleep.

The man stumbles out of bed passive aggressively, gets dressed noisily and shuts the bedroom door.

He walks into the kitchen and puts on the coffee machine.

: (
imitating her
) It's dreadfully early still . . . Fuck's sake.

Pinteresque pause

: (
walking about in a strop, to the audience
) She fucking hates me. Anyone else and she'd be fucking his brains out. For a really long time. She's probably taking care of herself right now, thinking about some asshole in the gym. Someone who isn't insecure and whiny. One of those dicks who is all self-assured and confident. Who can effortlessly get away with using the word ‘fella'. Can talk about football convincingly. Find and use a stopcock.

He sits at his computer with his coffee cup.

Opens up a program, lights a cigarette, and starts typing.

: (speaking as he types) My love, You're in bed masturbating over one of your exes or your boss or some other well-built, handsome cunt as I write this. I know you are. And so I have to punish you from the other room, using only my mind.

Sips coffee.

I know they're everything that I'm not. In my head I've imbued them all with a magical, effortless reality of ‘massive cock and total genius'. I can't believe you're doing this to me. I am so furiously angry at you. So angry I am shaking. The adrenaline is flowing. My breathing is exploding. I am high from too
much or too little oxygen, I don't know which one. I am right and you are wrong. I know what you are really thinking about and who and what you really want, and it cannot, will never, be me. Thank you for making it so clear to me. Now, once again, my world somehow fits. Order is restored and butterflies can flap away with impunity. Once again, anything that has threatened to make me less of a victim, a little bit happy, content, human, has been disregarded and dealt with. And it's not even ten past four. This is on you, you heartless, cruel bitch.

The man positions the computer screen just so. He pulls open the kitchen drawer, removes a knife and slits his throat.


That scene, that Brechtian fucking masterpiece – except for the last sentence because I'm too much of a fraud to follow through – was my morning head today. It plays out in a thousand similar ways each and every day and involves most people I come into contact with. It is how my head works, has worked, will probably work forever. Usually I manage to keep it to myself more successfully. Sometimes it comes out sideways. Always, it is there. And that is why I can't help but feel like I'm a mentally ill loser.

A quick caveat before you read any further: this book is likely to trigger you hugely if you've experienced sexual abuse, self-harm, psychiatric institutionalisation, getting high or suicidal ideation (the oddly charming medical term for past or present obsession with wanting to die by your own hand). I know this kind of warning is usually a cynical, salacious
way of getting you to read on, and to be fair, there's a part of me that put it there for precisely that reason. But don't read this and then carve your arms up, spin out thinking about what happened to you when you were a kid, self-medicate, beat your wife/dog/your own face and then blame me. If you are one of those people then you've no doubt put responsibility for doing all of those things on the shoulders of other people your whole fucking life, so please stop it and don't foist your pathological self-hatred onto me. I have, from time to time, done the same thing myself and it is as misguided as it is pathetic.

The better part of me doesn't even want you to read this book. It wants anonymity, solitude, humility, space and privacy. But that better part is a tiny fraction of the whole, and the majority vote is for you to buy it, read it, react to it, talk about it, love me, forgive me, gain something special from it.

And, again, this book will talk, in places, about classical music. If you have concerns about that, then just do one thing before either throwing this book away or placing it back on the shelf. Buy, steal or stream these three albums: Beethoven Symphonies Nos 3 and 7 (you can buy all nine of his symphonies played by the London Symphony Orchestra on iTunes for £5.99); Bach Goldberg Variations (played on the piano by Glenn Gould and ideally the 1981 studio recording, on iTunes for under a fiver); Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 (Andrei Gavrilov playing piano, £6.99). Worst case, you've paid for them, hate them all and are out of pocket the price of a takeout. Call me an asshole on Twitter and move on. Best case, you've opened a door to something that will baffle, delight, thrill and shock you for the rest of your life.

During my concerts I talk about the pieces I'm playing, why I've chosen them, what they mean to me, the context they were written in. And in that vein I'm going to offer a soundtrack to this book. In much the same way as fancy restaurants will suggest wines to accompany each course, there will be pieces of music to accompany each chapter. You can access them online at
– they're free, carefully chosen and important. I hope you like them.

BOOK: Instrumental
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Crowned by Fire by Nenia Campbell
El hijo del lobo by Jack London
Watchstar by Pamela Sargent
Chimera-44 by Christopher L. Eger
Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton
David Bowie's Low by Hugo Wilcken