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Rough Ideas, Stephen Hough; Looker, Laura Sims

Chris Deerin gets crucial lessons in life – as well as music – from a piano-playing polymath

The life of a concert pianist is a strange one. Jetting from city to city, from hotel room to hotel room, without the companionship of a band, working temporarily with this or that orchestra, this or that conductor – it must take a certain type of personality, and a certain type of inner fortitude.

Whatever it takes, Stephen Hough has it in spades. Not only is he one of the world’s leading pianists, he is an author, a painter, and, his latest book reveals, an essayist of considerable distinction. He puts that in-between time to good use.

Hough’s playing is sublime, and over the years his insistence on seeking out lesser-performed composers has introduced me to music I might otherwise have overlooked: Mompou and Franck, to name two. That questing curiosity is reflected in his writing every bit as much as his performance at
the keyboard.

Rough Ideas is a joy, comprising mostly short pieces on music, people he has known, and thoughts on life. There is something of the mini-Montaigne about it all, the sense you are in the company of a sharp and generous mind that has thought harder about the purpose of existence than most, and that has arrived at some pretty useful and universal conclusions. The chapter headings are a treat in themselves and give an idea of the book’s scope, ranging as they do from “Stephen, that was really dreadful!’, to ‘Lonely on the Road’, to ‘Stanley Kubrick and recording’, to ‘I don’t love Bach’ (quickly followed
by ‘I don’t hate Bach’), to ‘If I ruled the world’.

In one of my favourite passages, he reflects on the musical conventions that dictate the form of a sonata, or how closely a musician must adhere to, say, Liszt’s markings. “Without structure, without rules, music’s vibrations in the air would merely buzz around as if through open windows, impossible to grasp… or enjoy. But ultimately law is about freedom. We restrict one thing so that another more important thing can flourish. Life… is an improvisation. And despite the themes given to us by nature we each have to make our own variations. That search for the perfect balance between law and freedom, rigidity and flexibility, is perhaps… a search for the Lost Chord.” An insight not just into music, but into living.

Laura Sims brings the tweezered precision of the classical musician to literature, perhaps unsurprisingly – she has previously published four collections of poetry. Looker is her first novel, and traces the abrupt psychological descent of a female academic known only as The Professor, who becomes obsessed with a famous and beautiful actress – The Actress – living on her block in New York.

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The Actress appears to have the perfect career, family, and disposition, and as, in contrast, The Professor’s marriage, job and mental health fall apart, she takes to stalking her neighbour ever more intensely. The plot moves elegantly towards its tragic end.

Looker – what a great, multi-layered title that is – isn’t always an easy read, but it is taut, compelling and packed with memorable phrases. It sings like a perfectly tuned piano.

Rough Ideas – Reflections on Music and Moreby Stephen Hough(Faber & Faber, £18.99)

Lookerby Laura Sims(Tinder Press, £8.99)

Illustration: Patrick Cullum

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