At La Scala, the world’s most famous opera house and concert hall: neither here nor at its least glamorous counterparts elsewhere is it possible to discern, from the audience, the awful truth about what music means to some musicians — photograph by MIL22
James Rhodes at the piano
After you have recovered from your astonishment at seeing the Kindle price for this book, Instrumental: A Memoir Of Madness, Medication And Music — £8.54, or $24.46 in the U.S., where you cannot buy a copy, at present, you click on ‘Look Inside’. First come the chapter headings most unusual for an autobiography, irresistible for any lover of classical music: ‘Track One: Bach, “Goldberg Variations,” Aria (Glenn Gould, Piano)’, ‘Track Two: Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Finale (Evgeny Kissin, Piano),’ … and so on. The opening paragraphs are so raw, self-lacerating and articulate, at once, that you feel as if the top of your head has gone missing. You emerge from the text to Look Outside again, following your scrolling finger down to British reviews that add up to a standing ovation … but, wait! Are you seeing straight? Can this really be the first reviewer? Yes. Improbably, here are the words of the clip and credit beneath it:
A person who has suffered in the way that [James Rhodes] has suffered, and has struggled to cope with the consequences of his suffering in the way that he has struggled, has the right to tell the world about it. And there is a corresponding public interest in others being able to listen to his life story in all its searing detail. (THE SUPREME COURT)
Though we have yet to read more than the brief sample of the text on the Kindle site, it looks as if it is written in the incandescent Angry Young Men tradition of 1950s England — by one of the Oxford-educated members of the group, perhaps. The soaring encomiums it has won from reviewers are plainly not hyperbole extracted by cunning marketing and influence-peddling. The reader reviews on Amazon UK confirm that. Who has ever seen nothing but 5-star reviews for a work with more than a handful of testimonials, on the e-bookseller’s site? This one had 111, when we last checked.
Judged by the Court’s explanation for its decision, quoting James Rhodes at length — hair-raisingly — his book is the most stunning record of art redeeming life that most of us will ever have encountered. Almost equally arresting were the words the justices chose to spotlight the sublime importance of freedom of expression:
Freedom to report the truth is a basic right to which the law gives a very high level of protection. It is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which speech which is not deceptive, threatening or possibly abusive, could give rise to liability in tort for willful infringement of another’s right to personal safety. The right to report the truth is justification in itself.
News and analysis of this uplifting decision was posted in two entries in Inforrm’s Blog (the International Forum for Responsible Journalism) — one of them a re-blogging of an entry in the Injunctions Blog. Somehow, both posts failed to mention that the pianist and autobiographer was represented at the appeal by Hugh Tomlinson QC — anointed Lawyer of the Week by The Times for his victory — who happens to be the founder-editor of the INFORRM web site. The blog is invaluable to anyone trying to keep up with changes in media law in the disorienting transition from traditional publishing, but especially indispensable for independent journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists who — unlike their counterparts in corporate media — have no legal department watching their backs. Many, if not most, INFORRM posts are reproductions of entries in other blogs, mainly from the UK, Ireland and Australia — an exemplary exercise in aggregation.
The INFORRM editor was also the founding editor of the UK Supreme Court’s blog, inspired by its American counterpart, the SCOTUS blog. However, Britain’s court of last resort stole a jump on the Americans with the start of live video streaming of its proceedings in 2011 — a move still being resisted across the Atlantic. This proof of a commitment to using post-Gutenberg media to deliver radically open justice dovetails perfectly with the justices’ heavily underlined commitment to protecting free speech in all its forms.
A videorecording of Lord Toulson delivering a summary of the Rhodes case judgment can be watched here.
Below, we post extracts from the detailed exegesis of keenest interest to us.
Just how did Instrumental come to the attention of Britain’s highest court of appeal? From the opening paragraph of the judgment published on 20 May, it is possible to glean the conventionally-minded reasoning to which the lower court responded, in suppressing its publication:
By these proceedings, a mother seeks to prevent a father from publishing a book about his life containing certain passages which she considers risk causing psychological harm to their son who is now aged 12. Mother and son now live in the United States of America and so the family court in England and Wales has no jurisdiction to grant orders protecting the child’s welfare. Instead, these proceedings have been brought in his name, originally by his mother and now by his godfather as his litigation friend, alleging that publication would constitute a tort against him. The tort in question [dates back to 1897, and is] generally known as intentionally causing physical or psychological harm. What, then, is the proper scope of the tort in the modern law? In particular, can it ever be used to prevent a person from publishing true information about himself?
Then, later passages in the very long but riveting explanation for the decision show how profoundly impressed the higher Court was — to its everlasting credit — by the meaning of music for this particular musician:
The father is James Rhodes, the concert pianist, author and television filmmaker. The book is entitled Instrumental. The author believes that “music has, quite literally saved my life and, I believe, the lives of countless others. It has provided company where there is none, understanding where there is confusion, comfort where there is distress, and sheer, unpolluted energy where there is a hollow shell of brokenness and fatigue”. He wants to communicate some of what music can do, by providing a sound track to the story of his life. “And woven throughout is going to be my life story. Because it’s a story that provides proof that music is the answer to the unanswerable. The basis for my conviction about that is that I would not exist, let alone exist productively, solidly – and, on occasion, happily – without music.” So the book juxtaposes descriptions of particular pieces of music, why he has chosen them, what they mean to him, and the composers who wrote them, with episodes of autobiography. He wants the reader to listen to the 20 music tracks while reading the chapters to which they relate.
Thus far, there would be nothing for anyone to worry about. But the author’s life has been a shocking one. And this is because, as he explains in the first of the passages to which exception is taken, “I was used, fucked, broken, toyed with and violated from the age of six. Over and over for years and years”. In the second of those passages, he explains how he was groomed and abused by Mr Lee, the boxing coach at his first prep school, and how wrong it is to call what happened to him “abuse”:
“Abuse. What a word. Rape is better. Abuse is when you tell a traffic warden to fuck off.
He describes how he learnt to dissociate himself from what was happening, to block it out of his memory, how when he moved to other schools he had learnt to offer sexual favours to older boys and teachers in return for sweets and other treats. He gives a searing account of the physical harms he suffered as a result of the years of rape and of the psychological effects, which made it hard for him to form relationships and left him with an enduring sense of shame and self-loathing.
He recounts the ups and downs of his adult life: a year at Edinburgh University filled with drugs and alcohol, leading to his first admission to a psychiatric hospital; a year working and sobering up in Paris; three years studying psychology at University College London, leading to a highly successful career as a salesman in financial publishing; meeting and marrying the mother, whom he calls Jane, an American novelist then living in London; making a “perfect home” with her. He is kind about his wife – “The poor thing didn’t stand a chance” – and hard upon himself …
Then their child, whom he calls Jack, was born: “My son was and is a miracle. There is nothing I will experience in my life that will ever match the incandescent atomic bomb of love which exploded in me when he was born.” He wanted to be a perfect father, but “I don’t think that I will ever be able to make my peace with the fact that the ripples of my past became tidal waves when he was born”. His past had installed “an unshakeable belief that all children suffer through childhood in the most abominable ways and that nothing and no-one can protect them from it”. Eventually, he looked for professional help from a charity specialising in helping victims of child sexual abuse and was told that he must tell his wife about the abuse. So he did. Their child was then four years old. “It is, apparently, very common for the world to spin completely off its axis when your child approaches the age you were when the abuse began”.
Interwoven with this painful story is the story of his relationship with music. He discovered music, specifically, Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor, transcribed for piano by Busoni, while still at the preparatory school where he was being so brutally abused:
“… that piece became my safe place. Any time I felt anxious (any time I was awake) it was going round in my head. Its rhythms were being tapped out, its voices played again and again, altered, explored, experimented with. I dove inside it as if it were some kind of musical maze and wandered around happily lost. It set me up for life; without it I would have died years ago, I’ve no doubt. But with it, and with 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.”
At his next preparatory school he largely taught himself to read music and play the piano. At Harrow, he had his first proper teacher, who was “awesome”. He discovered that “literally the only thing in the universe I realised I wanted was to travel the world, alone, playing the piano in concert halls”. Then he gave it up during the ten years of university, building a career and getting married. But after his son was born and the demons returned, “I looked for distractions. I looked for a way out that didn’t involve homicide or suicide”. He found it in music. He set about building a business partnership with the agent of “the greatest pianist in the world”, but was persuaded instead to train as a pianist himself. He worked hard. And when he had begun to resort to self-harm, he decided to organise his first public concert. He rented a hall on the South Bank, the hall was filled, and the concert went well: “I realise that all those fantasies about giving concerts that I had as a kid, that kept me alive and safe in my head, were accurate. It really is that powerful. And I knew I wanted to do it forever. No matter what”.
Then the suicidal ideas and attempts and hospitalisation took over. But a friend visiting him in hospital brought him an iPod nano loaded with music inside a giant bottle of shampoo (toiletries being the only gifts allowed). Once again music was his salvation. It persuaded him to do what he needed to do to get out. After separating from his wife, he started to get more involved in the piano again. And in a café he met the man who was to become his manager. Together they arranged for him to record his first CD, Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos. He found a sponsor to enable him to concentrate on his music. He did a documentary about Chopin for the BBC. His manager arranged concerts at the Roundhouse and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Together they devised a new sort of concert, in which the pianist talked about the music, the composer and what it meant to him, in an informal way quite unlike the usual classical music concert. It was a success. Through his manager he met the woman who was to become his second wife.
[ continues: … https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2014-0251-judgment.pdf ]