In 18 months spanning 2010 and 2011, Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger decided to conquer Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, a notoriously difficult, 264-measure piece. His original goal was to have the piece performance-ready in a year, but it ended up coinciding with one of the craziest news cycles of his career: Wikileaks and the British media phone-hacking scandal both broke during that period, and The Guardian was at the forefront of covering both. Play it Again (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 17), a new memoir, chronicles his determination to practice piano in the face of bad timing.
It’s an overall pleasant book and, along with Rusbridger’s recent Reddit AMA, depicts a man that is likely an erudite and entertaining drinking buddy. But reading Play it Again reminded me of watching Julie and Julia, which flashed back and forth between Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as a modern-day woman trying to master Mastering the Art of French Cooking; the “Julie” parts of the movie felt like an obligatory slog endured to earn the Meryl parts. The piano sections of Play it Again felt similar.
I enjoy memoirs where people recount their #firstworldproblems, devouring yoga-transformation books like Eat, Pray, Love and May I Be Happy (and I’m not ashamed to admit it). But there is an unbridgeable dissonance between Rusbridger’s journalism anecdotes and his piano-playing ones. He offers a courtside view to events that remain major news three years later—Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning, the Wikileaks source, was sentenced just last month. Then, immediately after each engrossing tale, Rusbridger chronicles midlife angst over how hard it is to memorize piano fingerings. Here’s one example:
Though [Julian] Assange was on his best behavior on Thursday, communications with him and his team remain difficult; he’s decamped to his own ‘bunker’—location currently unknown—and is increasingly paranoid about using conventional communication methods. So we now find ourselves communicating through the encrypted instant-messaging systems on which he insists. The paranoia is contagious. Now nobody involved is using phone or email when talking about specific cables. Despite these complications and obstacles, we are still managing to process around 200 cables a day.
But the upshot of all this is that by working fourteen- or fifteen-hour days I’ve managed to get just an hour this week for practice. I did make time for a lesson Wednesday morning, though.
Wikileaks is one of the Biggest Stories Ever at a newspaper that jumped to international prominence in the US mediaverse this year with its NSA surveillance coverage and forward-thinking digital presence. The Guardian is expanding its US presence and just launched an Australian one. And its top editor is intent to discuss how he squeezes in his piano lessons. He also tries, in the middle of all this, to build a case for reigniting a culture of amateur musicianhood; he claims, along with New Yorker critic Alex Ross, that flawless, recorded performances have made it less acceptable for diverse interpretations of pieces and for fallible performances—and that the tendency should be resisted. It was an interesting argument, but it was scattered throughout the piano sections of Play it Again and failed to cohere.
Rusbridger does succeed at performing the piece, coming to terms with the fact that it would never sound as perfect as on those flawless recordings or in his mind: “[B]y the time I sit down at the keyboard, I’m strangely calm. There’s no way on earth I am about to play a perfect performance of the Ballade, but I understand that I want to tell a story and I want to share with friends the result of the private expedition I’ve been on.”
Publicly, Rusbridger is in the thick of the most important issues facing democratic societies today, and he writes about them in The Guardian with clarity and courage. I’d love to read a fleshed out, behind-the-scenes version of grappling with government snoops, coordinating with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, negotiating with shady characters like Assange—the tidbits he offers about the Wikileaks mastermind in Play it Again are by far the most entertaining bits of the book. It’s great that he loves the piano, but that’s not what makes Rusbridger a voice worth reading.