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Don’t shoot the piano player

Play It Again: an Amateur Against the Impossible - review.

Play It Again: an Amateur Against the Impossible
Alan Rusbridger
Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £18.99

The Guardian editor and amateur pianist Alan Rusbridger is a man in search of a challenge. The opening pages of this memoircum- how-to-manual throb with wistful metaphors about climbing mountains and triumphing over hostile nature. But with the Matterhorn a tricky commute from the Guardian’s King’s Cross offices, Rusbridger must content himself with a rather more domestic enterprise: learning and performing Chopin’s Ballade No 1, a piece even the greatest professionals struggle to master. With just 20 minutes a day to spare for practice, and the small matter of WikiLeaks, phonehacking and a Libyan revolution to contend with, he sets off on an adventure into the musical unknown.

A self-confessed “archetypal amateur” who “returned to the piano in middle-age”, Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth. For this one-time chorister and clarinettist, musicality isn’t the issue so much as dogged, pedantic technique – the grunt-work that never quite happened way back when. Although dressed up in the trappings of Chopin’s Romantic excess, in many ways this is a quest for stillness and slowness. The juxtaposition of an hour spent adjusting the fingering of a single bar with the convulsions of “the first prolonged, rolling, real-time global scoop” is as absurd as it is telling.

What could be a navel-gazing study of self-growth emerges as a much more intriguing story about the value of amateurism. Rusbridger takes us through the social and political implications of 19th-century Hausmusik, where amateurs and professionals would regularly come together in a dialogue of equals, and explores the “cult of precision and perfectionism” that dominates our own age, in which the recording industry has largely replaced music-making with musicalready- made.

Chopin’s Ballade (which is, incidentally, the piece that saves Adrien Brody’s life in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist) takes many forms throughout the book – nemesis, stress-reliever, friendship-former – but, most interestingly, it’s also a mirror into which a cast of extraordinary and unlikely characters peer. Amateur musicians are seemingly everywhere in public life. Simon Russell Beale confesses to coming into rehearsals two hours early in order to practise on theatre pianos. Condoleezza Rice remembers time spent at music college and the therapy of playing Brahms in her hotel room while US secretary of state. And then there’s the New York Times’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, whose amateur efforts were so serious as to get him to the final of the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition.

There are professional musicians here, too. Faced with tackling this piece, Rusbridger enlists the advice of the finest practitioners. Emanuel Ax is endearingly humble and encouraging, Murray Perahia gets to the emotional core of the matter, while Barenboim is just Barenboim. An impromptu breakfast with the late musicologist Charles Rosen yields all manner of technical gems that even specialist publications would baulk at.

Rusbridger is a geek – unabashedly and exhaustingly fascinated by this music. He cares about fingering, arm-pressure and complex rhythmic divisions, and rarely takes pity on the casual reader. The book opens in a squall of narrative black notes. Surely no other writer would have been allowed to get away with ten pages of dense musical analysis upfront – as forbidding in sheer bulk as its technical language. Rather like the discourses on agricultural philosophy in War and Peace, however, such passages (and they are legion) can be skipped over without loss, and what remains is strangely gripping.

For all the breadth of his context on the Ballade, Rusbridger has no problem putting himself front and centre. We see him dashing to Libya at the height of the conflict to rescue a correspondent, and duelling with the increasingly eccentric Julian Assange. While the diary format can make for a fragmented narrative, it also allows the tensions of WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent investigation – “Six months of gradual crescendo then three weeks of total mayhem” – to build as if in real time.

In a nice closing touch, Rusbridger includes a scan of his own score at the end of the book, lively with the scrawled pencil scars and neuroses of 16 months of practice, tuition and performance. What is unacountably lacking, though, from one who never misses an opportunity to trumpet the multiplatform, digital future of media, is a document of his final performance. After months spent on the internet watching pianists in China, Australia and the US, creating a virtual global seminar-group of Chopin obsessives, it seems strange that Rusbridger should be content with just a verbal, rather than a musical, contribution to the conversation he himself started.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman’s classical music critic

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide