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Music Media Review Print

Music Saved His Life: A Concert Pianist's Most Unusual Journey

April 1, 2018 - Easthampton, MA:

James Rhodes: Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music. New York, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, UK © 2015, US ed. 2017, Pp. xx + 283, $36.00.

This is an unorthodox memoir, unlike any I, a lover of the genre, have ever read, so this will be an unorthodox review. I believe that nearly every classical music lover ought to read this book, for multiple reasons, so you should procure a copy, by buying it or borrowing it from a library. Before opening its covers, however, most everyone will need to suspend some expectations: the Romantic era's notorious "disbelief," one's "inner prude" and inhibitions towards and avoidance of things distasteful for starters, because the journey is a rocky ride, but once begun, if you are anything like me, you will have difficulty putting it down. (The book could well deserve an "R" or a "Parental Advisory" rating, as did his live CD Jimmy, that included all the talking with the audience, almost certainly the first Classical one of its kind for both. [pp. 210-11].)

Subsequent to an event in his primary school at age 5, Jimmy's journey descended to unimaginable depths, but after finding in his home at c. age 8 a tape of a live recording (pianist unidentified) of Ferruccio Busoni's transcription for piano of J.S. Bach's Chaconne for solo violin from the Partita No. 2, S.1004, which captivated him and made him decide that he wanted to be able to play that when he grew up, his journey ultimately rose to incredible heights. (You can find Rhodes performing it on YouTube.)

Rhodes writes with no inhibitions, "laying all the cards on the table," "letting it all hang out," "spilling all the beans," and "telling it like it is," with "no holds barred," to the extreme, using rough, euphemism-free language with no asterisks substituted for any letters. He was subjected to violence and is using this language deliberately, with no excuses, but you should excuse him. The childhood event left him bi-polar, confused, schizophrenic; it would have done that to you, too, had you been subjected to it. He spiraled downward through alcohol and drug abuse to self-harm, has been institutionalized, and attempted suicide more than once. But he has survived and brought himself back, albeit not easily or swiftly or without relapses, though still addicted to cigarettes and coffee, to perform before crowds in major venues like Wigmore Hall and across Australia with great success.

Rhodes organized the book chronologically from a "Prelude" through twenty chapters, but it is also cyclical: instead of the traditional quoted-text epigraph, he heads each chapter with a specific recording (not necessarily the one I would chose; but it's not my book) and a description of a musical work that speaks to him and relates to the subject or mood at hand (All are available for listening online.), opening with the "Aria" from JSB's Goldberg Variations and closing with the "Aria da capo" performed by Glenn Gould from his 1981 studio recording. He mentions composers like Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt, who also dealt with dramatic emotional upheavals, and how those disruptions were reflected in their music as well as their lives.

He also tackles the subjects of the decline of Classical music and the current state and attitude of the major-label recording industry towards it, suggesting ways of combatting/countering all of that, things that he actually does himself, without compromising quality or "dumbing it down:" he's not kind to "crossover" schmaltz. His appraisals, assessments, insights, and observations are spot on in my opinion: the stranglehold of the commercial focus of the corporation-dominated industries, both performance and recording, needs to be broken so the focus is on getting the forgotten and ignored music played and heard rather than the million-and-oneth version of the same old chestnuts.

He tells in precise and accurate detail what goes into learning how to play the piano, determining and mastering fingering, for example, and what is necessary to become a "concert pianist" who performs "100,000 notes" from memory on a stage in front of an audience, and how to relate to that audience so you do not seem aloof and distant from it, or appear completely self-devoted and self-involved. This will be eye-opening for many listeners and readers, and it is good to see it laid out there cold, too.

Now that I've reached the end of my description of the book, you are wondering: "What was the catastrophic event that nearly completely derailed him?" He was raped by his gym teacher and boxing coach, and a teacher who observed him walking back to class with blood running down his legs did not question him, investigate, or report what she saw; the administration looked the other way, and he, of course, did what the coach asked him to do: "Don't say anything to anyone." This is laid out in that teacher's police report, filed 20 years later in support of his criminal lawsuit, reproduced verbatim in chapter 2 (pp. 15-19). The treatment continued for a few years until he finally begged his parents to move him to another school, without telling why, of course; victims of such always blame themselves.

He closes the book with these words: "Music can shine a light into places where nothing else can reach. The great musical genius lunatic Schumann tells us 'To send light into the darkness of men's hearts – such is the duty of the artist.' I think it's the duty of all of us, no matter what we do to fill our time. And as long as I'm [honoring] that, then even if I don't make it I will fall asleep happy." (Afterword, p. 254)

I doubt you'll be sorry you followed my advice; you'll have an eye-, heart-, and mind-opening experience.