On Clowns and Father Figures: Once Again, Pianist James Rhodes

Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside album cover.(Photo: signum classics)
Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside album cover.(Photo: signum classics)

“The album title is a quotation from my favorite pianist, Glenn Gould,” explains pianist James Rhodes in an interview on the bonus disc of his most recent recording, Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside (Signum Records, 2010).

“He was a total nut job, total genius, one of a kind.” Rhodes goes on to remind us that the legendary Gould famously retired from the concert stage in favor of the recording studio, saying, according to Rhodes, ”‘I love the recording studio, the main reason being, and at this point I would ask all Freudians please to stand aside, because it reminds me of . . . the security of being in the womb.’” Rhodes then editorializes on Gould’s point: ”I totally get that.”

I “get” Rhodes’ affinity for Gould’s playing because, as Rhodes says, the music world hasn’t seen anything else like Gould, nor will it. And the odd-ball titles and hiply freakish design quirks of Rhodes’ two recordings can certainly be understood on the level of pure homage to Gould. What’s wrong with that? Sending a little love to the brilliant but long-gone Gould doesn’t at all miss the sanity mark for an emerging professional pianist.

But probe the recording’s homage aspect and what emerges resembles a good old-fashioned Freudian killing of the father figure, pianistically speaking. At least, we can hope that’s what Freudians will accomplish. Rhodes’ dwelling on his psychologically difficult past in his first recording, Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos and appearing as a clown (a creepy one, not a funny one) on the cover of this recording all but beg for “analysis.” So here I go, nestling into my pseudo-Freudian armchair to delve into the inner workings of this talented musician and creator of his own public persona.

In many ways, the repertory on Freudians echoes that on Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos. That recording delivered Bach (in the original and two arrangements), Beethoven and Chopin. In the same interview in which he quotes Gould’s “Freudians” reference, Rhodes says Freudians contains music of “all the Bs.” These “Bs” are not the classic triumvirate of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but rather a different Freudian trinity, if you will, of Bach, Beethoven and Busoni, the latter’s contribution being a piano arrangement of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564, originally for organ. Freudians also contains two of Alessandro Marcello’s arrangements of Bach’s music. And as on Razor Blades, Little Pills, all of this repertory is capped by Chopin: one of his preludes for piano (remember Bach’s preludes and fugues?), the other an etude (perhaps it’s stretching a bit to bring up the “didactic” keyboard works Bach composed for his ever growing family, but I’ll do it anyway). Both recordings suggest the challenge every artist faces: to absorb all the teachings of the “father figures” in his chosen art form, then think for himself, even if that means blatantly disobeying Daddy’s orders and, ultimately, strictly in a symbolic sense, silencing the paternal voice altogether.

In other words, Rhodes’ interesting recital unfolds in the cool of Bach’s long shadow, where Glenn Gould, noted for his Bach interpretations, found artistic refuge before and after his departure from the concert stage. In reaching for Bach, Rhodes must shake hands not just with the master of Mühlhausen, but also with Gould.

To say a pianist is working to master Bach’s keyboard music is to say there really is nothing new under the sun. Rhodes has set himself a more specific task: to claim Gould’s influence while asserting his own uniqueness. He accomplishes this dual task, first, by making himself seem very much like Gould the Musician in selecting repertory that tends to lead fairly straightly back to Bach and, second, by making himself out - in the design work of those CDs – to be as strange as Gould the Man.

At the same time, Rhodes also distances himself from Gould. His cultivated weirdness seems to be just that – cultivated, unlike Gould’s authentically uncultivated demeanor and eccentric (though totally brilliant) artistry. But the most important difference between the two musicians is this: Rhodes’ playing is as different from Gould’s as Smith is from Jones. It is gloriously rich and full in sound, and each phrase is sculpted in beautiful arcs with the organic, fluid to-ing and fro-ing we’ve come to associate with some of the best piano playing. Behind all the faux Gouldian bric-a-brac, Rhodes’ playing is unfettered beauty, intelligently assembled and deeply moving. It can stand on its own.

Rhodes’ openly placing himself in Gould’s lineage ultimately forces a comparison: is Rhodes the next Glenn Gould, or more bluntly put, was Glenn Gould a better pianist than James Rhodes is? Who knows, and who cares? But Glenn Gould was a better Glenn Gould than James Rhodes is, which is why, in my opinion, Rhodes would be wise to ”kill off” the visible manifestations of Gould’s influence with all the symbolic might of a veritable army of cigar-toting Freudians.

At the end of the interview Rhodes includes on Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside, the pianist gets down to brass tacks: “The title Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside, I guess it is in a way saying ‘I know I got judged for the first CD for the kind of weird autobiographical title. But it’s not an attention-seeking thing. It’s just saying, ‘let’s get the judgements out the way, let’s get the shrinks out the way, the meds out the way. Let’s just focus on the music. That’s the important thing.’”

It is. So let’s also get the clown suits and oddly struck poses “out the way.” I, for one, am eager for the real James Rhodes to step forward from behind Glenn Gould’s skirts (wonder what a genuine Freudian would do with that) once and for all.