Shocking and terrifying book about music. And life.
I have read many books about music. I am a musicologist after all, so reading about music has been a requirement and also my passion. But never before happened, that I just couldn’t continue reading and had to stop. Being a parent myself, and also escaping similar fate of the author by literally a “few centimeters”, made my reading of the first few chapters of this book particularly demanding.
I am not going to spoil it for those of you, who will decide to read the book, so don’t expect here an explanation. This is not your ‘50 Shades of classical music’ or anything like. Although its beginning could feel like that.
It also could feel like a book from some rich schmuck who has had more luck in his life than he deserves. Your pick…
James Rhodes is a British classical pianist. He introduces his book Instrumental, the Sunday Times bestseller, as ‘A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music’. But it is more than a memoir. It is a manifesto of the power of music. Of the music obsession. Of the healing power of music.
The combination of drugs, music and insanity is nothing new. Quite recently the phrase “Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll” has been headlining the whole music era.
What makes Rhodes’ book different is that it is about classical music, that it is so personal and open, and that it doesn’t end tragically.
There is a tragedy in the book though – at its beginning. For the rest of the book the author writes about his suffering and fights to deal with this tragedy.
It is impressive how music has been incorporated into the written text. Each of the twenty chapters starts with music. These are particularly chosen pieces of music played by particular interprets. For the interested readers there is a link to Spotify, where they can listen to all those music examples.
Rhodes briefly but masterfully introduces each classical music composition. From Bach through Beethoven, Chopin and others, he writes about them similar as he speaks. About composers and their music, about musicians who interpret it. Also about his relationship with this music. He speaks and chats with the audience in a similar way at his concerts as he breaks from the uptight traditional approach to the classical music performances.
With these music introductions the whole book got an another dimension – acoustical. It is like a movie when music accompanies the story and makes it so much more vivid and emotional.
With this book the author is “giving a finger” to his troubled past.
Once the trauma is mostly over and he finds the inner balance, his peace of mind, even forgiveness, the tone of the book – and the tone of the music changes. It eases up. That’s when the second part of the book begins.
And a different fight he starts too. It is a fight for the classical music.
James Rhodes is a pianist, who came to the classical concert circuit from a very different direction than anyone else. So there is no surprise when he starts a battle against the classical music establishment. The reason, to put it bluntly, is his effort to save classical music for next generations of audience. He proposes new ways how to promote and perform classical music. To make it more affordable and palatable for inexperienced listeners.
And he does what he is talking about. He gives concerts in ‘non-traditional’ times, attire, and venues. He chats with the audience. And makes successful videos about classical music aired on the television.
His writing style is entertaining, even when describing the most terrifying moments. That helps in revealing and writing about such intimate details of his life.
The second part of Rhodes’ book unveils the world of classical music to an uninitiated reader. He depicts his studio recording sessions, collaboration with publishing companies, practicing on piano and giving concerts, making videos, living life of a concert performer.
All this information is given in a very personal open way, and is populated with the closest people without whom, as author puts it, his career wouldn’t be possible.
The relationship with his son represents the strongest bond that has kept him alive even in the darkest moments. Then there is his girlfriend, manager, mother, friends and benefactors.
And then there is Rhodes’ strife to change the classical music world where he feels he doesn’t fit into. He also stresses the importance of the music education and creativity in general. He tries to initiate the change by own example and also by giving speeches, making films and writing for newspapers. Some of those articles are also part of the book and they carry a strong message.
Here also lies the point where I don’t agree with Rhodes’ classical music purism, although I understand his position. My strong belief is that ANY music that is able to raise positive emotions is valuable. Doesn’t matter whether it is Les Miserables for cello, Il Divo or Ludovico Einaudi. The problem is the corrupt system – not music. But Rhodes knows this too well as he identifies his “goals of freeing music from the tyranny of the asshole.”
Author’s viewpoint would also imply that classical music stopped evolving, therefore everything valuable had been composed in the past. I cannot accept this either. But I will let the reader decide.
James Rhodes wrote this book to put a final ending to a horrid part of his life, so that he could move on and freely continue in the next part. As he explained in his TED talk: “this book is the love letter to music”.
Reading through the book a reader can imagine listening to the tones of beautiful music as described and played by the author. Because music is important. The author says it clear:
“Now I know that music heals, I know that it saved my life, kept me safe, gave me hope when there was none elsewhere.”