Instrumental by James Rhodes

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Reviewed by Annabel

It’s hard to know where to start in writing about this memoir. I could be glib and say it’s about the healing power of classical music, which is true, but to find out how James Rhodes was able to harness this magic to make a life for himself, you have to read through his account of the horrific child-abuse that he suffered, and all the injuries, shame, anger, breakdown, self-harm, OCD, addiction and more that followed.

It has taken a year for this book to finally hit the shelves. Rhodes’s ex-wife slapped on a lawsuit preventing its publication because she didn’t want their young son to find out about his father’s early life by reading it. The judge ruled that Rhodes should be allowed his freedom of expression, and the book is simply dedicated ‘For my son’.

It is rather a miracle that Rhodes is here, for he nearly died in a suicide attempt during a stay in a psychiatric hospital, trying to hang himself with a TV aerial cable, but he failed and was rescued from choking to death in time. It took him thirty years to be able to open up and talk about what happened to him. It took corroboration about her suspicions from a former deputy head of his prep school who contacted the police when she read an interview with him for the authorities to take him seriously. Most shockingly, the PE teacher, Peter Lee, who had enticed him to stay after school and boxing club with matches before repeatedly raping him, was still working with young children. He died before he could be brought to trial.

Rhodes tells us what to expect from the book in its ‘Prelude’.

The better part of me doesn’t even want you to read this book. It wants anonymity, solitude, humility, space and privacy. But that better part is a tiny fraction of the whole, and the majority vote is for you to buy it, read it, react to it, talk about it, love me, forgive me, gain something special from it.

I’ll confirm that I did all of the above on reading Instrumental. Once I’d started reading, I couldn’t stop. I read it from cover to cover in one session, running the whole gamut of emotions, going from being shocked and angry to weeping copiously before finally being happy for Rhodes, now starting to be in a better place with great support from his new partner and friends, and continuing to forge his new career as a pioneer amongst the new generation of concert pianists.

The memoir is structured into twenty chapters or tracks, each chapter being prefixed by an introduction to a classical composer and one particular piece of music – and narrowed down further to Rhodes’s preferred artist. The twenty tracks make up a playlist for the memoir, starting with Bach’s Goldberg variations as played by Glenn Gould, through Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin to Scriabin, Ravel, Rachmaninov et al. The one piece he picks his own performance of is the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, a movement from one of Bach’s partitas for violin written in memory of his late wife, transcribed for the piano by Busoni. It was hearing this piece that gave Rhodes one of his ‘Princess Diana moments’, never forgotten.

For me there have been four so far. In reverse chronological order, meeting Hattie, the birth of my son, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, getting raped for the first time. Three of these were awesome. And by the law of averages, three out of four ain’t bad. …

I know how clichéd it is, but that piece became my safe place. … It set me up for life; without it I would have died years ago, I’ve no doubt. But with it, and all the other music that it led me to discover, it acted like a force field that only the most toxic and brutal pain could penetrate.

Part of Rhodes’s new mission in life is to try and find a new audience for classical music. While he acknowledges the wonderful performers that are out there, he doesn’t like the formality that typical classical concerts and recitals are hidebound by. Rhodes doesn’t wear tails and bow tie, or even a suit, t-shirt and jeans with sneakers would be typical garb for one of his recitals. Indeed, I’ve seen a Youtube clip of him playing the aforementioned Chaconne in white sneakers, and the laces were coming undone (I crossed my fingers that they wouldn’t get trapped in the piano’s pedals!). Unlike virtually all other classical musicians, he is also happy to talk between pieces, giving introductions – much like the chapter ones in Instrumental.

What was amazing is that initially he was self-taught, only starting lessons at 14. Having ‘got the piano bug’ at school, he learned to read music and went on from there whenever a practice room with a piano was available:

… I had no idea about things like fingering or how exactly to practise. Which finger to use on which note is, arguably, the most important part of how to learn a piece. Get it right and it makes your job so much easier. Get it wrong and it’s an uphill battle that will never be fully secure in performance.

Rhodes’s passion and commitment to his music carry us through all the trauma of his life so far, punctuating this brutally honest and candid memoir, giving us the chance to take a short break from the despair he chronicles in between.
You won’t have realised from the quotes I chose, but the text is otherwise literally peppered with swearing and some very direct language, written in a conversational style. James has made documentaries for the BBC and Sky Arts about music and writes well, and ever the performer perhaps, even while talking about some of his lowest moments, he shows a self-deprecating wit and a funny side, himself being the butt of all of his jokes. This book may be full of anger and what it’s like to be a victim, but there is much self-analysis and ultimately hope for the future between its covers too.

Although it was, perhaps, the most difficult memoir I’ve ever read, I was very glad to have read this account of ‘music, medication and madness’. For better and worse, it will stay with me, but I recommend it to all those who can stomach it. Instrumental is an important book for exposing the hidden shame that victims of such horrific abuse have been made to suffer for all these years. I wish James much happiness in the years to come, and much success in his mission to make classical music come alive for the Youtube generation.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would love to see a James Rhodes recital.

James Rhodes. Instrumental (Canongate: Edinburgh, 2015) 9781782113379,  304pp., hardback.

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