10 Questions for Amateur Musician Alan Rusbridger | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Amateur Musician Alan Rusbridger
The Guardian editor's book about performing on the piano explores the missing link between Assange and Chopin
Had we but world enough and time... A new book by the editor of the Guardian makes it clear quite how many hours in the day it takes to run a national newspaper in the digital age. There is the unyielding nature of 24-hour news, while the internet relentlessly asks grave questions of print media’s business model. Some editors respond to the job's demands by keeping obsessively fit, and then there is Rusbridger’s alternative guide to stress-busting: the piano.
Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, written in diary form, is the story of Rusbridger’s attempt to grapple with Chopin’s forbidding Ballade in G minor in the crannies of time he is able to carve out at dawn and at weekends. A competent musician from his teenage years, he explains how he had fallen into lazy habits until one summer at a piano retreat, he sees someone else perform the Ballade and decides to have a crack himself. It’s a familiar narrative, the subject of two series on the BBC (also called Play It Again) and Sky (First Love). There have been other books including, I may as well say it, my own about remastering the French horn. But none of us who have been down the same path have had to grapple with quite so many distractions as Rusbridger. As he embarked on his quest, he was wrestling with the immensely slippery Julian Assange as the WikiLeaks cables prepared to go live, and then came the story of phone hacking, finally broken by the Guardian after years of attempting to make it stick. In the book’s most surreal sequence, Rusbridger has to go to wartorn Tripoli to get his journalist out of jail, and when he has two hours to kill as he waits to meet one of Gaddafi's senior henchmen sneaks a little practice in a grand but empty hotel.
But there is less focus on news in Play It Again than the story of deeply passionate engagement with the piano and all who sail in her. Rusbridger tracks down the world’s most eminent soloists, plus ardent amateurs, has lessons with at least four tutors (one loses count), buys a very expensive Steinway, has his Fazioli shipped to Italy for rebuilding, knocks up a musical outhouse in his Cotswolds garden, and obsesses minutely about fingering and pedalling and the capacity of the middle-aged brain to take it all in. At the heart of the book is the Ballade itself, a 10-minute Laocoön of riveting complexity.
I meet Rusbridger in the BBC. An interview lasting 20 minutes is normally unsatisfactory, but that is the amount of time he has between a Radio 3 interview and a live performance of a bit of Chopin on BBC World TV. And fittingly, 20 minutes is the amount of practice Rusbridger gave himself every day to knock the Ballade into some kind of shape. He talks to theartsdesk about amateur music-making and professional news-breaking.
Watch Horowitz perform Chopin's Ballade no 1 in G minor
JASPER REES: This book is a hybrid. If you love music you’ll love this book. If you love journalism you’ll love this book. Did you have a sense when embarking on it who this book, as the industry always wants to know, is for?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: There was a discussion having written it with the publishers. They said, “Is this a motivational book or is it a memoir?” And we decided it is a motivation book. And in a sense some of the memoiry bits are a bit historic now. Phone hacking feels a long time ago and there have been other books on that but I hope people will feel a little bit inspired and think all those excuses that you give to yourself for why you don’t return to music or take up a musical instrument again – if you can do it and edit a national newspaper, I’d be interested to know what your excuse is, as it were. So I hope it’s a sort of inspirational book.
I like the balance of my life in which I’m a journalist who plays a bit of music
Could you put your finger on why there is this zeitgeisty yearning to get back to musical instruments?
I would guess it’s because the crazier our lives get the more there is a wish to step off the escalator or the hamster wheel or whatever metaphor is. And I certainly feel – and I’m sure most people feel – that life is more pressing, you’re working harder, you’re never off. These devices haunt us [he points at an iPhone on the table] wherever we go and actually trying to find a bit of time where you can just carve it out and achieve some sort of stillness and some creativity – I think lives are probably much less creative than they used to be. A lot of jobs are. A lot of things have become mechanised. Or over-regulated, or the job that you do has no connection with the people who own the business. So we all feel a bit impotent. So actually finding something where you’re in control and you can reconnect with that thing that you remember used to give you such pleasure when you were young is a really important thing. That’s amateur psychology.
You talk early on in the book about the kind of pianist you were – and indeed clarinettist – as a young man. I sense as the book progressed that you were being not falsely modest but certainly modest about your actual abilities. Do you feel that that’s an incorrect interpretation?
No. I was quite a good clarinettist. I printed my grade 6 certificate in the book. I scraped through 103 marks and the examiner was incredibly unimpressed by it. He just about of his way to say how bad I was. And I gave up shortly afterwards. And I just never bothered to learn things properly. And I couldn’t memorise music. I’ve always been a good sight-reader. I can bluff my way through. But I really wasn’t a very good pianist. I would rather be a good sight-reader than a good memoriser because playing by memory – who need sit apart from performers? But being a good sight-reader is an immensely adaptable thing and means you can play anything with anybody at any time, kind of.
And you really do play with anybody. You had Imogen Cooper round to play orchestral transcriptions. You’re sitting next to people who have been to the top of the mountain.
Not everybody would do that. I doubt that I’ll ever sit down and do a piano duet with Alfred Brendel because he’s not that kind of pianist. But Imogen I’ve met through other people and she will have a couple of glasses of wine and then sit down and play. She wouldn’t play serious repertoire but she’d never played Tchaik 5 before on eight hands and she quite enjoyed it. That was the thing that Claus Moser talked about, the fact that Berlin in the 1930s everybody played music and professionals would come along and play with amateurs because it was the fun of it.
One thread running through the book is the growing divide between professional and amateur music-making. One senses that you would like that gap to narrow and, undoubtedly using your privileged position as Guardian editor to meet most of the greatest pianists in the world almost as if you’re ticking them off. Do you sense that they - if you can aggregate their view – would like the gap to be narrowed as well?
This is speaking very crudely but I think they all feel that it’s become over-professional. This point about recorded sound means that audiences expect performances to be perfect. Most of them don’t like that, perhaps for understandable reasons. And most of them wouldn’t like to be judged by whether the fact that every note is exactly in place, because that’s not what music-making is necessarily about. And in order to be “a perfect pianist” you then have to play eight hours a day, I think they think there is a generation of pianists coming through music colleges breaking pianos as they do so according to my piano tuner, because they’re playing in a different kind of way, and they come out note perfect at the end but have they allowed the music to breathe and has something been lost in the soul? That was probably a common view.
Did you find dealing with Assange a stress-buster after dealing with Chopin or the other way round?
Can I imagine a life in which music was the main thing I did? No. I like the balance of my life in which I’m a journalist who plays a bit of music. I think life for me would not be very fulfilling if I bumbled through my pieces for six or seven hours a day. I wouldn’t feel I had added much to the world by doing that. I did feel that there was an equilibrium of putting music in that balance of a very stressful life with lots of stressful things going on, it really helped in ways that the scientists couldn't really explain to me but they thought it was true.
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