In pianist James Rhodes' self-hatred, there is a compelling case for empathy

In his memoir Instrumental, it feels at times as though Rhodes is daring you to dismiss him, to find his story trivial or inferior.

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Instrumental: a Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music
James Rhodes
Canongate, 275pp, £16.99

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice in his career – at the start, in 1955, and then again in 1981, the year before he died. His technical mastery had, if anything, increased over the decades and in the later version there is a swithering, autumnal colour, an aching sense of loss that you feel could only come from a musician nearing the end of his life. To the frustration of recording engineers everywhere, Gould used to hum while he played – unconsciously, he said – and somehow his gentle vocal overtones during the 1981 performance, hovering at the edge of your hearing, only drag you more completely into his perfectly voiced melody. At times, it can feel like your entire future happiness is suspended somewhere in between two of his sublimely hesitant notes.

This is the music that the pianist James Rhodes has chosen as the first and last “tracks” for his memoir, Instrumental, in which each chapter is named after a piece that has a particular resonance for him. These Goldberg Variations, he writes, “do things to me that only top-grade pharmaceuticals can achieve”. After a few chapters, you are ready to take him at his word. From the outset, it’s hard not to feel that we’re in “misery memoir” territory, as Rhodes explains how he was repeatedly raped and abused by his gym teacher from the age of six, an experience – “Child rape is the Everest of trauma,” he writes – that leads to years of self-harm, medication and hospitalisation.

He dealt with the horror by escaping, first out of himself (he learned to divorce his consciousness from what was happening to his body) and then into music. At seven, he had what he calls a “Princess Diana moment” when he found a cassette of the Bach-Busoni chaconne, an early-20th-century piano transcription of the Partita for Violin No 2, which is said to have been Bach’s memorial to his first wife. “It was like being on the receiving end of a Derren Brown trance-inducing finger-click while on ketamine,” Rhodes writes, which is something that I am absolutely sure nobody has ever said about this music before.

It is typical of the furious bluntness and belligerence with which Rhodes writes. At times, it feels as though he is daring you to dismiss him, to find his story trivial or inferior. The book received a lot of publicity after Rhodes had to overturn an injunction taken out by his ex-wife to prevent the publication of passages relating to his abuse on the grounds that they would cause harm to their son. Seeing him standing triumphant outside the Supreme Court, next to his schoolfriend Benedict Cumberbatch, you could feel the defiance emanating from him.

In his performing style and image – tattoos, cigarettes, jeans and trainers onstage – Rhodes positions himself as an outsider to the classical music world. He is often described as self-taught, too, which is not entirely true: although he didn’t go to music college, he certainly had lessons during his time at Harrow and then later in Italy. His concerts aren’t to everybody’s taste, as he likes to talk between pieces and is unashamedly positive about the music.

There is a gear change about halfway through this book where he begins to set out his manifesto for how to make classical music more approachable (he suggests dropping the “classical”, for starters). Technically, he might not be among the top flight of concert pianists; in a rare lapse of ego at one point, he describes himself as a “tattooed loser” who “plays the piano perhaps as well as a bunch of music college undergraduates but certainly no better”, but if anyone can bring much-needed diversity to concert audiences, it’s him.

Reading a memoir is always an exercise in getting inside the author’s mind, to a greater or lesser extent. For at least half of Rhodes’s book, this is a distinctly unpleasant experience. He is frenzied, wheedling, entitled and infuriating by turns. Then you realise that such is the horrific nature of the trauma he is still living with that there is no criticism you could make of him that he has not already made of himself. Extreme self-hatred is an unusual route to empathy but it is no less powerful for that. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?