Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Pianos, Sharks and Nazis: James Rhodes at TEDxOxford

Pianos, Sharks and Nazis: James Rhodes at TEDxOxford

Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Maria Pericleous (Piano) (Applause) Thank you. That was a piece written
by Sergei Rachmaninov. He’s one of my favorite composers. He’s a composer I love so much, I’ve had his name tattooed
on my arm in Russian. (Laughter) Funny thing is, I don’t speak Russian, so it could actually say,
“Elton John” for all I know. (Laughter) He wrote that piece
when he was a teenager. What have you guys done recently, huh? (Laughter) Seriously, when I was a teenager,
I was shoplifting and getting high. He wrote that. (Laughter) I thought it was appropriate to play
something by Rachmaninov because he was once referred
to as “a six-foot scowl.” That’s quite an impressive
description, I think. But classical music
is a very scowl-y profession. You know, normally the pianist
will walk on wearing a ridiculous outfit, white tie and tails
and he’ll scowl at the audience, and he’ll sit and he’ll play,
and he’ll scowl a bit more. And of course, the audience scowls too. God forbid if you clap in the wrong place. (Laughter) If you don’t know how to pronounce
the name of the composers. It’s a very scowl-y business. So, I am going to be talking
a bit about classical music. This is normally when I wait
to see who leaves. Well, this is impressive. And the talk, “Pianos, Sharks, and Nazis,” I may have misled you
slightly with that title. A little while ago,
I did a TV series for Sky Arts. Because it was for Sky Arts,
about 64 people saw it. But I was chatting with the boss
of the station and he said on the EPG, the program guide
that comes up on your SKY box, the programs which were the most popular
and the most successful, had either the words “sharks”
or “Nazis” in the titles. It’s a true story (Laughter) So, I figured, you know, fucking hell, classical music needs
all the help it can get; let’s shove those in the title. (Laughter) I’m thinking of using that
on as well and seeing… (Laughter) Talks like this, I think, need to ask
more questions than they try and answer. I always like to think that it’s a bit
like a bucket full of sand and water, and every so often, we need
to stir up the sand a little bit, and get people talking. The overall theme for this series of talks
when I was asked to speak here was “Things Unseen.” And again, what could be more appropriate
than classical music? Supposing you could even find an HMV
on your local high street, try going in and asking
the spotty guy behind the till, “Do you have a classical section?” He will look at you as if you have asked
if there’s a Jimmy Saville fan club, or something. (Laughter) Just horrified. And if there is one, it’ll be
as if you’re pushed down to the basement like you’re trying
to find black midget pornography, hidden away. (Laughter) Don’t judge me, it was one time. (Laughter) There may be two
or three CDs for £15 each, “Classic FM; Best TV Adverts Ever,”
which breaks my heart. The problem with classical music,
I’ve thought a lot about this, is that it has to stop
apologizing for what it is. Because what happens
when it goes down that road is we end up with this polarization
of classical music. On the one hand, we have the sharks. Which, the best example of this
is the classic Brit awards. The most fettered, stinking heap of shit
I have ever seen in my life. Genuinely, I would rather rim a tramp
than go and watch that. (Laughter) Because what it is,
the organizers, they think: “Really, really sorry guys. It’s classical so we’ll get
Katherine Jenkins singing “Phantom of the Opera,” we’ll have someone on a guitar
playing “Waltzing Matilda,” we’ll have Alfie Boe singing
something from “Les Misérables,” and we’ll call it ‘classical.’ And all they want to do is make money. And at the other end of the extreme,
you get the Nazis. The Gramophone Awards, for example. Where we love Stockhausen
and Hindemith and Wagner. It’s all fantastic. And if you don’t like it,
if you don’t understand it, screw you. And we need to find a middle ground. In a way, perhaps, it’s endemic
of our culture in general. Sad to say but things have got faster,
stupider, more immediate. Even Radio 3, even the BBC. I say that as if the BBC is amazing. In light of recent events… Radio 3 called me up about
three weeks ago and said, “Would you call in in the morning,
something called ‘Your Call,’ and what you do is you talk about
your favorite piece of music, and then we discuss it
and then we play the piece?” Great idea. I said, “OK, I’ve got this perfect piece. It’s an overture by Wagner, but instead of for orchestra,
it’s a transcription for piano, by Glenn Gould. If you don’t know Glenn Gould, for me,
greatest pianist who ever lived. Total lunatic, rock star pianist,
died a few years ago. I said, “It’s nine minutes
and it’s really exciting.” The producer stopped me, interrupted
and said, “Sorry, how long is it?” I said, “It’s nine minutes.” She said, “No, it has to be between
three and four minutes long.” This is going out at seven thirty
in the morning, okay? I said, “This isn’t Classic FM,
is it? This is Radio 3.” They said, “Yep, but it’s too long,
we can’t have a nine minute thing.” And of course, music is the one thing
that doesn’t need to become faster. Or stupider. Or be dumbed down. We need to lose the pomp and the bullshit and the pretentiousness
around it for sure. And what we need to do
is just focus on the music. You know, my concerts, I started playing, I met my adorable, chubby,
Canadian manager by chance in a cafe, about four years ago, and I started giving concerts. I wear jeans and trainers, not to make a point, just because
it’s what I’m comfortable in. I can’t think of a single other genre
of music where they say, “We’d love you to give a concert but you have to wear
a white tie and tails.” Why? Who made up these rules? I don’t have program notes, mainly because
I don’t particularly want an audience who want to read about
sonata form in Beethoven’s Vienna while I’m playing the fucking thing. (Laughter) I introduce the pieces and talk about
the composers, and what they mean to me, and why I’m playing them. People love it. Some.
And some people hate it. Either way, my CDs are on sale for £12.50. (Laughter) We live in a world of distraction. 24-style, emails, tweets, Facebook likes. We’re bombarded with texts. It’s kind of unconscious multitasking. You’re going to judge me again but I sit
on my sofa on a Saturday night, eating chicken from a bucket, (Laughter) watching The X-Factor, tweeting about it, whilst checking my emails
and playing Angry Birds. (Laughter) As if it’s the most
natural thing in the world. When did that become acceptable? I’ll be chatting to a friend
and I’ll be tweeting while I’m talking. You might as well take your penis out
and put it on the table at a dinner party. (Laughter) It’s the same thing. To me. (Laughter) And the only place, the only place
where we can’t do this: theaters, concert halls, airplanes. (Laughter) Well, one time I took
my penis out on an airplane. (Laughter) And that, for me, I mean, I love flying. Especially since I’ve given up smoking. You can just relax, no one
can get in touch with you. We desperately need that peace. So, the assumption that classical music,
a bit like art, a bit like architecture, “It’s lovely, but
it’s for other people,” that has to be smashed. You know, how often to we wander around
Le Marais in Paris or Regent’s Park and we see these
beautiful buildings and we think, “They’re amazing,
but they belong to other people; the people who live in them.” Incidentally, Goethe,
one of my favorite quotes, he said, “Architecture is frozen music.” Isn’t that amazing? And this is not about taste, you know? Sometimes, only pop music will do,
sometimes only classical music will do. Any kind of snobbery,
whether it’s pop or classical, snobbery is just abhorrent
as far as I’m concerned. I have a very, very clever friend of mine who was asked to give a talk
at Durham University, and he said, “I don’t have much to say
to you guys, you’re all 18, 19. But the one thing I would say is:
Whatever you’re absolutely convinced of, whatever you love, whatever
you’re not even questioning, reverse it, just
for a short period of time. If you only eat
in Michelin-starred restaurants, go eat shit for a week. If you only read fiction,
read biographies. If you only listen to rock music,
listen to classical music.” E. M. Forster, speaking
of a Beethoven symphony, he said it was “the sublimest sound ever
to penetrate the ear of man.” And he talked about classical music as “the deepest of the arts,
deep beneath the arts.” Isn’t that worth exploring? We live in a soundbite culture, you know,
we’re talking about The X-factor; we see these people singing away, (Laughter) and when they introduce them,
they have a 40-second VT of their cat dying of leukemia
and they were raised by… (Laughter) and these terrible…
What about the real deal? What about Beethoven, almost beaten
to death twice by his alcoholic father before he was even a teenager? What about Schubert, 12th of 14 children
of whom only five survived? Died of syphilis, aged 31, five foot tall,
so ugly his nickname was “Mushroom face.” (Laughter) In the last 12 years of his life, he earned the equivalent
in today’s money of $1,000 a year. He lived in squats. What about Bach? By the age of four,
his closest siblings had died. At nine, his mother dies.
At ten, his father dies. He had 20 children, 11 of whom died
in infancy or childbirth. His wife, the love
of his life, she also died. And yet, 300 years later, we’re listening
to the most immortal, joyful, extraordinary, eternal music
that he has provided us with. Isn’t that worth exploring? I’m going to end just by saying one thing: if you have ever listened
to classical music and given up, or you hear it occasionally in a movie
or in an advert and you like it, or you’ve just never heard it before; take a chance and just try
and have a little listen. If you only buy one CD, other than mine, (Laughter) buy Glenn Gould, playing
the Goldberg Variations. Lots of “Gs” in there,
it’s easy to remember. And allow yourself to explore that,
to be taken on a journey, to see what all the fuss is about. I’m going to end just with one last piece. I did a thing with Stephen Fry
at The Barbican, and we were talking about
new names for classical music because we both hate the word ‘classical,’ and we tweeted it, and there was the obligatory
“shit music” and “up-it’s-own-arse music,” but “serious music” was the one
that kept coming back and I think it doesn’t have to be that serious. And I often wonder if Beethoven was alive
and he was hanging out with Jack Whitehall, say, or Russell Howard,
and getting high and drinking, and there was a piano there and they said,
“Go on Ludwig, give us a tune!” (Laughter) It may sound something like this. (Music) (Applause)

78 comments on “Pianos, Sharks and Nazis: James Rhodes at TEDxOxford

  1. I can read Cyrillic and the tattoo does say Sergei Rachmaninov so you're lucky there 🙂 Great talk and I loved the piece at the end, put me in mind of Bill Bailey's Classical Cockney routine.

  2. Everyone could benefit from listening to James Rhodes – what an amazing musician and a truly inspiring man!

  3. Do you mean the whole thing, or the end of the piece? If you mean the very end, it was Moonlight Sonata he started to play just before finishing.

  4. Personally, I can't stand people trying to "rock 'n' roll-ize" classical music. It's cheesy. Yes, they were piss-artists on the quiet, but they were also transcendental connoisseurs when at work. Mozart and Bach would probably be more/equally attracted to jazz, probably not so much Stockhausen et al. I can enjoy Stockhausen, but many of his ideas don't acutally work in practice (loudness mediation for instance*) because of psychoacoustical factors (e.g. *frequency sensitivity). Beethoven maybe.

  5. Apart from the blues, Classical music is THE largest influence on Rock n Roll and Heavy Metal. It began with the Beatles, who in their English sensibilities, intuitively infused classical instruments and textures into their classic rock stylings. It was taken to the next level with Deep Purple, founded by classically trained guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and organist Jon Lord. They were the first rock group to play live with a symphony orchestra.

  6. Simultaneously, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page is a master composer, infusing their metal-roots sound with an extremely classical heritage. And the title song of the group Black Sabbath, was derived from the classical work, "Mars" by Holst. It incorporates the Tri-Tone, or "Devil's Note," forever infusing the lineage of heavy metal with its signature evil, dark tones.

  7. Cliff Burton, the original bass player for Metallica, was a classically trained pianist, and was largely responsible for turning the thrash style of the band into something much more symphony; incorporating complex dual guitar melodies and extended interludes. On every early album, they feature an 8+minute instrumental. In summary, the composers of old would VERY MUCH enjoy and perform rock and metal. One look at Mr. Rhodes' performance proves this point.

  8. Hey! I wear sneakers, get high, and think that all forms of snobbery are abhorrent. Isn't the x factor laughable? Haha, yeah, it's shit. Rim a tramp! Woah, right? Hey, we're just like you. Now, it's really important that classical musicians stop ingratiating themselves. Haha, check it out, if Beethoven got high, I reckon he'd make a mash up of his sonatas with some of Schubert's sonatas and put that River Kwai march on it. That's just the sort of gimmicky shit that'll make you like us, right?

  9. Prelude in C. Missed a few and was a bit erratic. Rachmaninovs own version the best though Hough's good and Kissim's smooth.

  10. New name suggestion for Classical: Acoustic Prog. It still won't be played on the radio, but it will sound cooler.

  11. Not the most compelling Ted Talk I've ever seen, but what a wonderful person James Rhodes is, and his playing is so passionate.

  12. Yes but James Rhodes is 40, I still sometimes think Rostropovich died a few years ago, because it seems like such a recent time in the scope of things.

  13. Great talk, and for those who do not know Glenn Gould,
    Bruno Monsaingeon made quite a few films on him.Type Glenn Gould in You Tube and see for yourself.
    A Canadian genius ( well I am Canadian) 😉

  14. Shameful to not mention Dudley Moore before playing that. Fair play for promoting classical music though and I love his version of the Bach Busoni Fugue in C major.

  15. Great playing, but the child inside me still hears "COMET, IT MAKES YOUR MOUTH TURN GREEN. COMET, DOES DAMAGE TO YOUR SPLEEN. SO BUY SOME COMET, AND VOMIT, TODAYYYY!!!!!"

  16. OK, I'm sorry to Rhode's fanboys but the Rachmaninoff prelude was unlistenable. The talk was soso, funny but didn't go anywhere.

  17. Good talk, for some reason i did not like the sound of the piano…. And i love the piece at the end even if it isn't by Beethoven hahaha

  18. Black midget pornogrophy? What's weird about Black people James? And I wouldn't judge you… Not funny mate.

  19. 99 red bottles of  beer on the wall….99 red bottles of beer….take one down, pass it around, 98 red bottles of  beer on the wall….

  20. I went to his "show" yesterday, it was quite entertaining until the encore, which he also plays here at the end. I don't mind him inventing stories for daft audience like us to keep the "classical music" exciting but announcing that he would finish with Beethoven and playing Dudley Moore's parody with Piers Lane's added improvisation badly as if it were all done by him is a bit too much!

  21. James Rhodes – you are amazing because you are so real :–).  Thank you for your transparency and your love for music!  You have overcome much in life and live beautifully with all your heart and mind.  Life is full of suffering, music gives us and you the eternal voice.   Thank you for who you are!

  22. Good talk, nice playing. Just don't know why he passes off Dudley Moore's work off at the end as his own?

  23. Je suis James.
    Pianist finally allowed to tell his story of sexual abuse

    # What a difference a Gay makes
    James Rhodes’ love song to Stephen Fry

  24. Fucking traitor…
    We've all seen "BBC Chopin – Women behind the music."
    And now what?!
    Fucking traitor…

  25. This man made me love classical music ten times more than I already do. Which is..basicaly a clinical case you know..

  26. he is so charismatic and talented. I love listening to him playing and hearing his interviews on spotify over and over again.

  27. Could anybody tell me the name of the CD he recommends in minute 16:30? English isn't my mother tongue and I don't understand what he says there.

  28. Piano is a bit out of tune – and the room is acoustically dead – shame – I like his passion for Life, and music!

  29. Hi ! Could we add a french translation of the subtitles in this video ? We can send you one if you need.

  30. yep 233 sure did bight the bullet so to speek you could feel it three measures before that he was uncertain of himself. not a bad recovery though

  31. I imagine if Beethoven was hanging out and people asked him to "give us a tune" he would have told them all to f$%& off. 🙂

  32. My perspective as a recording engineer and as a keyboardist – the mics are too loud for the piano, and you can tell they didn't sound check before the recording… the audio clipping in the Rach during the fortissimo section just ruined whatever was underneath; you could barely hear the piano under the static. I do wish the engineers had their wits about them – with such an acoustically dead room, just a touch of reverb would go a long way, especially to the pianist, since it would have changed his interpretation/phrasing. While I don't really agree with some of the tempi and phrasing, I do like the imperfections in the performance, it gives the piece some added charm… it is as if you can hear both the composer and pianist both breaking down in a fit of passion.

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