Classical music isn’t known for being an accessible art form. It is deeply embedded in our culture and there are plenty of classical pieces that most people would recognise instantly, but many wouldn’t list the genre as part of their regular listening habits and others screw up their faces at the mere mention of it. […]

Classical music isn’t known for being an accessible art form. It is deeply embedded in our culture and there are plenty of classical pieces that most people would recognise instantly, but many wouldn’t list the genre as part of their regular listening habits and others screw up their faces at the mere mention of it. But at its core classical music is universal and everyone has the capacity to enjoy it.

Enter James Rhodes, who is on a mission to bring classical to the masses. Taking an early interest in the piano but not dedicating his life to it until four or five years ago, James hopes to take Bach and Beethoven to places they have never been before, demystifying and re-framing the genre in a way that is less uptight and easier to relate to.

Preparing for his appearance at Doc/Fest next month, where his new Channel 4 film Notes From The Inside will be screened, along with a live performance and a Q&A session, as well as a series of gigs at Soho Theatre in London in July and August, we chatted to James about what makes him tick.

Tell us a bit about how you got into the music industry, because you kind of came back to music didn’t you?

Yeah I got into it young. Not so much playing, but just listening. I stole a CD when I was about seven or eight and it was literally life-changing. From that moment all I wanted to do was play the piano and surround myself with music. But I didn’t get a teacher until I was 14, and then at 18, even though it was the only thing I wanted to do, I gave up playing and went to university and then went into the city. I basically had ten years where I didn’t touch a note, although I listened all the time and went to concerts. It was only when I was 29 that I finally figured that life is too short, quit the job and started working my ass off. It’s a bit like wanting to become a brain surgeon at 40. People just look at you and go, “Really?”

Tell us about Notes From The Inside, the new Channel 4 film that will form the centrepiece of your Doc/Fest event on 14th June.

I was incredibly lucky in that this idea was in line with what I’ve always wanted to do since starting out playing the piano, which is to try and take classical music into places you wouldn’t normally expect it. I’ve spent some time in mental institutions myself, so this project was almost like coming full circle. Having been sectioned, having been in a mental hospital without a piano, I thought it would be lovely to take a piano inside a place like that – this giant, nine-foot, £120,000 Steinway. Put it in the main room there, meet some of the patients, talk to them, get some of their back stories, find a piece that I think will resonate with each of them individually, and then just play it to them. Not assuming that it will change anything in the grand scheme of things, but more to see if it can break through the chinks in the medication, just to see if music can tunnel through and make things a little shinier for them, if only for a few hours or a few minutes.

In some cases a project like this could have a really profound impact on people…

Oh of course. There’s music therapy, which is incredibly powerful, especially for children, but also for adults with autism and Asperger’s. We all know how profoundly music changes how we feel. Certainly it’s the only thing that has done that for me without letting me down.

The lovely thing about classical music for me is that if you listen to a Tori Amos song, it’s kind of one emotion and that’s it, whereas if you listen to a Beethoven sonata it drags you through everything, from joy and victory right through the deepest anguish and introspection. I think there’s something terribly wrong when in a country of 60 million, I would say at least 20 million have never heard a whole Beethoven sonata before. It’s not a question of snobbery. It’s there, it’s cheap if not free, and we’re still listening to it 200 years later. There’s a reason for that. Are we going to be listening to One Direction in 200 years?

I really hope not. I think it’s a really great goal to have, but do you ever feel like you are fighting a losing battle against a three-minute culture?

I did a TEDx talk in Oxford about that. God forbid we should just sit and shut up for 20 minutes. We seem incapable of it, and I include myself in that. One of the best things about classical music in particular is that the pieces are generally so much longer, so it’s one of the few times you can just switch off, where you’re not bombarded with adverts and texts and tweets. You can just sit, put your arm around a pretty girl, close your eyes and disappear for an hour.

Certainly there are gatekeepers in the world of classical music, but I think it has to stop apologising for what it is. It has to stop trying to keep people out, even when it’s bleating on about wanting to bring more people in.

I was forced into playing clarinet at school and hated it, so for years I thought I wasn’t musical, but then at 16-17 I started teaching myself the guitar. I realised that it’s not about being ‘musical’, whatever that means. It’s just about playing and improving. Do you think this is a problem in the same way that teaching English Literature formally might put people off Shakespeare?

Yeah of course. Things like that really shape us. I’ll never forget, when I did a concert just after I’d quit my job, just for a few close friends, this very famous piano teacher came. I won’t tell you her name, but she wrote me an email afterwards saying, “Whatever you do, please, please abandon any hope of having any kind of conceivable career in any field of classical music.” And this just went on for about 2,000 words. I just thought, why would you do that? At a lot of music colleges it’s the same. It’s the idea that they pull you apart to try and build you back up, but it has a serious impact, especially on kids.

I have so many parents coming up to me at the end of concerts with their nine-year-old, saying, “You’ve got to tell little Fergus to practise his scales,” and I just go, “Why? You’re nine! You should be torturing frogs or something.” Find a piece you like – whether it’s the Simpsons theme tune or the first movement of Moonlight Sonata – get a teacher you think is quite cool and do 20 minutes a day. If you don’t want to do scales then don’t do them.

What piece or pieces would you recommend to people who want to get into classical music?

You can’t go wrong with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony or Emperor piano concerto, the Chopin nocturnes… It’s a good question, because even if you can find a shop that sells classical music, even if you know what you want, there are sometimes 15 different recordings. They all look dreadful, they’ve all got French watercolours on or some conductor looking constipated. It’s so confusing. What I would say to people is follow me on Twitter and ask me. I’ll always answer whenever I can.

Have you ever thought about composing your own pieces?

I’ve thought about it but I haven’t done it yet. My manager keeps badgering me to do it. I’m not ruling anything out though. Maybe if I get a bit more comfortable I’d consider it, but at the moment I’m just so hard at work learning all these incredible pieces by other composers.

I suppose you could write a piece along a specific theme and give it an educational twist to help teach people in the audience about different techniques and conventions.

Yeah, or the difference between classical or romantic. That’s a nice idea. I’m going to scribble that down actually. I won’t credit you though.

James will appear as part of Doc/Fest on Friday 14th June at the Crucible. Tickets are priced at £15 and are available from sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

jamesrhodes.tv
@JRhodesPianist

Interview by Sam Walby.