Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The nature of suffering; the power to heal

“What is the purpose of music?” asks British composer Jonathan Harvey. “It is, in my view, to reveal the nature of suffering and to heal.” This might have been an epigraph for James Rhodes’ book Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music.  This is a profound, and profoundly profane, even subversive, book about the hell a bright, sensitive young boy goes through after years of sexual abuse, and the transformative power of music and family to bring at least partial healing.

Here’s how Rhodes introduces himself in the first chapter:
“I’m a vain, self-obsessed, shallow, narcissistic, manipulative, degenerate, wheedling, whiny, needy, self-indulgent, vicious, cold, self-destructive douchebag.”
You can tell from that sentence that he’s a hell of a writer, and a very funny one as well. His book has the ironically smile-shaped arc of most every abuse and self-abuse memoir: an idyllic beginning, followed by the descent into horrors, and further, self-inflicted, horrors, with a final redemptive upswing. While its tone is often light and sardonic, Rhodes’ story is the opposite of facile; his pain is always close to the surface, as is his love for his son and his profound belief in the power of music. The keynote is honesty; he doesn’t indulge in the sensational, make excuses for his own bad behaviour, or lapse into self-pity. I was constantly impressed by his courage.

Though Rhodes is nearly as accomplished at the word processor as he is at the piano, the ability of the best of writers to communicate musical ideas and experiences is limited, especially when writing for non-musicians. His clever way around this is to create what he calls a soundtrack for the book: twenty pieces of music that are important to Rhodes on his journey, one for each chapter. He begins with Glenn Gould’s 1955 version of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and ends with the same piece, which Gould re-recorded in 1981. Rhodes sees Gould, who suffered from his own often self-inflicted paralyzing torments, as a fellow soul who survived and thrived for a time by the power of music. Many of the other composers and musicians represented in his soundtrack - Chopin, Schubert and especially Bach - are presented as victims of adversity and abuse. This filter with which he views great music can seem perverse at times, but it often provides us with surprising insights.

The music is made available as a Spotify playlist, freely available on the web.

“I’ve no idea if I’m going to survive the next few years”, Rhodes says in the Afterword to his book. “I’ve been in places before where I felt solid, reliable, good, strong and it’s all gone to shit. Sadly I am only ever two bad weeks away from a locked ward.” Now that I’ve read his book, and listened to most of his recordings, I feel sympathy, not pity, for him as a person, and great respect for him as an artist. I follow Rhodes on Twitter - you should too - and I look forward to more music and more prose. I wish him nothing but the best.

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