Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound by James Rhodes, Illus. by Martin O’Neill

Review by Louise Brecht

Candlewick Press (Penguin Random House), October 2019

72 pages, hardcover, $36.99 CDN, 9781536212143

Ages 12+, Grades 7+

Young Adult, Non-fiction, Biography

So this is my plea: give this [classical] music a chance. Read the book, listen to the pieces in the playlist I’ve built for you (turn the page!), and then, if you want, NEVER listen to it again, safe in the knowledge that you’ve given it a go and hated it. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll blow your mind and improve your life a little bit, and you’ll want to send me a giant box of cookies as a thank-you. (I’m not even joking—send as many as you like.)

Enjoy. Take it slowly. Allow yourself to experience something magical.         

James Rhodes’ Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound is a spellbinding introduction to the rock star composers of the classical music era(s). Cleverly crafted to resonate with teen readers unfamiliar with this genre, its message that our current tunesmiths are born from classical roots is potent for lapsed fans or music aficionados, regardless of age. Old or new, music has always textured the world in which we all laugh and cry, love and live—if only we listen.

The book’s text is adroitly designed to support this argument. The immediate availability of Rhodes’ playlist (accessible on Spotify or Apple Music) allows readers to fill their ears with snippets of the gorgeous compositions he orders in evolutionary fashion. With the music as a soundtrack to my reading, I was as entranced by the silken sonority of Bach’s “Prelude” in his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major as I was captivated by Rhodes’ telling of Pablo Casals’ recent discovery of the song’s unknown score. From Bach through Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel, Rhodes dishes on seven composers, the facts of their lives and their music.

But it is the way that he contextualizes their accomplishments in contemporary terms that brings them to life. Bach is likened to Lil Wayne, Mozart to a magician, and Beethoven to Freddie Mercury. Chopin is a “twenty-year-old punk pianist—a revolutionary who was intent on making the piano do things it had never had to do before and pushing it in new directions.” The analogies are eclectic oddities that, echoed in the book’s vibrant illustrations, speak volumes about classical music’s ageless appeal.

The allusion that its composers are the original rock stars begins with the book’s own physicality. Its size and thinness are slyly suggestive of a very long-playing vinyl record, while the artwork on its sleeve—a fantastical combination of surrealism, portraiture, and found ephemera—is captivating. Rhodes’ love and knowledge of the art form is apparent in the intimately conversational way he details each of his curated selections. It is particularly telling that the author, a concert pianist in his own right, chooses to close his playlist with a solo performance of the “Toccata” in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. It is a tacit but telling affirmation of the motifs that resonate through this writing. Dare to be different. Find your passion; be your own rock star.

By the time I turned the last page, my head was thrumming with possibilities, most of them musical, others self-educational. I have the playlist saved on my computer, and a separate (and growing) list of songs and performers to explore further. The historied contributions of female composers and people of colour, and their roles in the evolution of classical music are missing from this overview, but Rhodes includes a list of artists who fill that void, and I am eager to investigate their contributions to the art form.  

The author’s target audience is younger than I am and has an entirely different frame of musical reference, so I decided to gift the book to a pair of dear young friends who agreed to read it, listen to the pieces, and give me the straight goods. Rather than take it slow, as Rhodes suggests, both of them finished it within a week. The perfection of Mozart’s music thrilled the twelve-year-old—even more than a penchant for scatological (poop) humour that he shares with the maestro. The rebel composers, for him, became real people. His fifteen-year-old sister could easily have written this review. The book’s modern language, its mashup of facts and interesting anecdotes, accompanied by its carefully chosen playlist drew her into and through the text. Sarcasm, humour, and allusions to current movies and stars didn’t hurt, but the exquisite imagery that denotes the emotional essence of the classical pieces made her listening experience come alive. Mr. Rhodes, if you send me your address, I will forward a box of cookies to thank you!

Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestionsPearlsCollage, and Sweatink.

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