James Rhodes: Another Musical Mystic?

Goya.colossus

“The Colossus” by Francisco de Goya

At the end of a blog post in the Guardian from earlier this year, James Rhodes, a British classical pianist dead set on rehabilitating classical music’s reputation for unnecessary and unbearable snobbery, quotes a mysterious letter written by the poet Charles Bukowksi. I know nothing of the historical context of the letter (nor do I know anything about Bukowski), but the letter itself doesn’t matter. The important point is the letter’s main injunction: “Find what you love and let it kill you,” Bukowksi says.[1] Rhodes’ murderous love is classical piano, but his aim in the post is not the rehabilitation of the depth, beauty, and creativity of classical music; it’s the rehabilitation of creativity itself.

Here’s the main part of his argument:

We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the maths. We can function – sometimes quite brilliantly – on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want.

He encourages us to risk everything for love of creation, and quickly proceeds to comfort us with assurances that we won’t loose too much if we do. But curious contradictions aside, his vision strikes me as tremendously idealistic. I, for one, cannot function very well on six hours of sleep, and I have grave reservations about how able a world full of “suicidal” artists would be to meet the basic needs of its innumerable inhabitants, not to mention produce the required means of an artist’s creation. Nonetheless, I can’t fault him for his idealism in itself. I have a good amount of sympathy for his frustrations and aspirations (“Is what we want [to do in our spare time] simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money?”).

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James Rhodes

What captures me is his absolute allegiance to feelings (to not “numbing out”). If Joshua James is an exemplary musical mystic in the world of contemporary folk rock (see this earlier post), James Rhodes may seem to be the exemplary mystic for those of us with classical taste. His most recent live release includes an effusive account of the complicated life and the unparalleled musical prowess of Beethoven, which comes during one his signature ramblings between pieces. Rhodes compares Beethoven to the formidable figure in The Colossus, the famous painting done by his contemporary (and fellow deaf artist) Francisco de Goya. The likeness is in Beethoven’s terrifying talent and biography, but in the end, Rhodes’ emphasis is not impressive biography or genius. It is feelings that loom largest, and Beethoven’s supreme commitment to them (as Rhodes sees it) makes Beethoven his favorite composer. “He wrote what he wanted to write,” Rhodes educates his audience, highlighting Beethoven’s disregard for “whether it was for God, or the church, or the state” because “it was all about feelings.” As this elation over Beethoven’s greatness winds down, Rhodes introduces the Waldstein Sonata and emphasizes feelings once again. “My favorite word about Beethoven is interiority,” he tells the crowd. “It’s kind of looking deep within yourself, and it’s all about feelings.” The piece, he explains, gets “quite dark” and “introspective.” The character of the emotions the piece evokes are of little importance. What matters is that they have an intense and immediate emotive quality.

When I listen to Rhodes play Felix Blumenfield’s “Study for the Left Hand,” I cannot deny the appeal of this dedication to and worship of subjective experience, whether pleasant or painful. There is something about Rhodes’ romance with the unmatched creative potential of a grand piano. His talent and the music it creates is tremendously gripping, so it isn’t hard to understand his willingness to sacrifice countless hours to the repetitiveness and frustration of practicing and to long nights in lonely hotel rooms. How incredible it would be to sit down and play with Rhodes’ tremendous ability Chopin’s Romanza from Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor! (Please pretend that I didn’t have to look up the names of these pieces. I am moved by classical music; I’m just not terribly familiar with it.)

But although Rhodes’ fidelity to feeling is reminiscent of the mystical music of Joshua James or the rituals of Indian Sufism, his worship exhibits a significant lack of interest in mystery. He seems to be quite at home with his feelings, whatever they might be, and their origins don’t appear to interest him. The contrast this provides with Joshua James’ openness to and interest in the possibility of something higher than feeling, something greater than human emotion, marks Rhodes as something different than a modern musical mystic. What that is, I’m not sure.

Hedonist is probably too unkind a word, and it isn’t adequately descriptive of Rhodes anyway. That said, I sense an unacknowledged moral risk in Rhodes’ orientation to art. He tells us he is absolutely in love with classical piano, even self-destructively so, but I am not convinced of the purity of his pursuit. Since reading his Guardian post and hearing many of his quirky, yet entertaining, concert monologues, I have been trying in vain to capture in words what I find somewhat disingenuous about Rhodes’ schtick. My powers failed me, but a passage from Saul Bellow came to mind. “Artists fall in love, of course,” Chick remarks in Ravelstein, Bellow’s novel-paean to Alan Bloom, “but love isn’t their primary gift. They love their high function, the use of their genius, not actual women. They have their own sort of driving force.” I wonder if the same might be said of Rhodes. A lover he might be, but there is always the question: a lover of whom?


[1] The letter in full reads:

My dear,

Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains.

For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.

Falsely yours,

Henry Charles Bukowski