An Amateur Against The Impossible
The Guardian editor's account of a remarkable musical challenge during an extraordinary year for news.
In 2010, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, set himself an almost impossible task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 – a piece that inspires dread in many professional pianists.
His timing could have been better.
The next twelve months were to witness the Arab Spring, the Japanese tsunami, the English riots, and the Guardian’s breaking of both WikiLeaks and the News of the World hacking scandal.
In the midst of this he carved out twenty minutes’ practice a day – even if that meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution as well as gaining insights and advice from an array of legendary pianists, theorists, historians and neuroscientists, and even occasionally from secretaries of state.
But was he able to play the piece in time?
“Extraordinary... Prepare to be inspired”
“Bernard Levin once told me that journalism was "half gossip, half obsession, half slog and half madness". If that's true Play it Again is a minor classic from a major hack...it's about a stressed, insanely busy middle-aged person finding time to cultivate a hobby and discovering that his inner fire has been rekindled. That's a lesson we all need.”
Richard Morrison, The Times
“As soon as you enter the pages you are hooked, not just by the efforts to overcome this elusive piece through curiousity and courage, but by the clear way in which the diary takes the reader into the murky world of WikiLeaks and the still more polluted waters of phone hacking by News International... Riveting stuff... Play It Again is a hugely enjoyable, touching and informative volume”
“An absorbing and technically detailed book… Rusbridger is a vivid writer who is able to make the physical experience of playing the piano…very gripping.”
Nicholas Kenyon, Times Literary Supplement
“In his page-turning diary, Chopin has to make room for Julian Assange, Leveson and the hacking scandal… This charming, nimble, book argues that a life cannot be too rounded nor a day too full.”
“In this dazzling, dizzying memoir, one of the world's leading newspaper editors tells of learning to play Chopin's formidable Ballade in G Minor against a backdrop of phone hacking and Wikileaks espionage. The day-to-day counterpoint of piano practice and breaking news is a compositional feat in itself: you have the impression of a wide-awake, fearless mind.”
“Extraordinary... Simply looked at as a repository of information on how to perform Chopin, the book is invaluable... Much the most interesting aspect of the book, however is in the main intellectual investigation and defence of the amateur...prepare to be inspired.”
Igor Toronyi-Lalic, Sunday Telegraph
“Play It Again is based on Rusbridger’s diaries and in pianistic terms is a two-handed one, one part being an account of the travails of learning the Ballade, the other chronicling a feverish journalistic year... The point of the exercise was never to play like a professional but to relish being an amateur. In this sense his book is affirmatory... 4 stars”
Michael Prodger, Mail on Sunday
“Play It Again turns out to be surprisingly pleasing, not only to the mind’s ear but to the heart and even, at a pinch, to the soul...it is about determination – determination to do something fiendishly hard and almost entirely pointless, and having the courage to stare down failure every day... His obsession is both charming and infectious.”
Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times
“The two really appealing things about this book are Rusbridger’s deep love of music and his dogged belief that it is possible to find time for things such as piano practice, even for the most frenetically busy.”
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times
“What could be a navel-gazing study of self-growth emerges as a much more intriguing story about the value of amateurism... While the diary format can make for a fragmented narrative it also allows the tensions of Wikileaks, the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent investigation to build as if in real time.”
Alexandra Colghan, New Statesmen
“Reading music is not an essential requirement for enjoying this book, but getting to the Ballade will make Play It Again infinitely more enjoyable... As soon as you enter the pages you are hooked, not just by the efforts to overcome this elusive piece through curiousity and courage, but by the clear way in which the diary takes the reader into the murky world of WikiLeaks and the still more polluted waters of phone hacking by News International... Riveting stuff... Play It Again is a hugely enjoyable, touching and informative volume.”
Michael Berkeley, Literary Review
“Any amateur musician will find bells ringing through Rusbridger’s eloquent pages… The Chopin becomes a tantalizing entity that temps him on to better himself. And this makes the book rewarding at a deeper level than its already enticing surface.”
Jessica Duchan, BBC Music Magazine
“This is a journal of [a] year: part piano diary, party day-by-day breakdown of what a 21st-century editor actually does. The result is a unique melange of political and musical reportage, meditations on music-making deftly interwoven with reflections on the ever-changing newspaper industry... The book is handsomely produced, rich in both musical and photographic illustrations. At the end, delightfully, sits Rusbridger’s own annotated score... Enjoyment may not be the word, but Rusbridger emerges unscathed and quietly triumphant, older and wiser. The Matterhorn has been scaled, his epiphany rewarded.”
Iain Burnside, Observer
“It is...an impressive, even inspiring record of one man’s mountaineering exploit in the realm of music. Rusbridger set himself an ‘impossible’ goal, and then more or less achieved it. There is something admirable, even heroic, about that.”
Alexander Chancellor, Spectator
“This book is an inspiration...funny, humble and realistic: this is a wonderfully rich read.”
“The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined 'amateur' (in the French sense of the word – "a lover of…"), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.”
“A bravura performance of dedication undeterred by disctraction.”
Iain Finlayson, Saga Magazine
“I can’t remember a music journal that I enjoyed reading more. One comes away full of admiration for Rusbridger’s ambition and determination.”
Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone
O, The Oprah Magazine
“Read about Rusbridger's obsession in his inspiring, diary-like new book.”
“A wonderful account of trying to learn a complex piano piece while running the Guardian at the time of Wikileaks and phone hacking.”
Susie Orbach, Guardian
“Rusbridger’s book is fascinating because you see him visibly struggling to keep up with the complexities of the Chopin piece along with everything else that’s going on in his life”
Jim Carroll, Irish Times