tue 30/11/2021

Interview: Pianist Nick Van Bloss | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Pianist Nick Van Bloss

Interview: Pianist Nick Van Bloss

Anatomy of a musical talent: a British pianist rises again

A new recording of The Goldberg Variations is now available, by Nick Van Bloss. In the annals of British pianism, it’s not quite a name to be conjured with. Or not yet. Until he performed at Cadogan Hall in 2009, he had not visited the concert platform in 15 years. After a promising early career, he retired at the age of 26. It’s not as if he didn’t play the piano at all in the interim. He just didn't play to anyone but himself. The reason why he gave up performing is simple. Van Bloss suffers severely from Tourette’s syndrome.

It’s not a condition that you imagine would sit well with piano-playing. He might not have the version of Tourette’s that was brought to national attention on Big Brother in 2006 by Pete Bennett. Only about 10 per cent of Tourette’s sufferers are involuntary swearers. But Van Bloss's body is prey to ceaseless convulsions, or tics. He estimates that he tics at a debilitating rate of nearly 40,000 a day. And yet the remarkable truth is that when he sits down at a piano, his symptoms all but vanish.

“I remember from the earliest days of playing it was a cure within myself,” says Van Bloss. “I touched a piano and my brain was saying, ‘My God, you’re giving us something we love.’ And the Tourette’s would sit back and let me do something that seemed to satisfy the Tourette’s and give me that release.” And when he would step away from the piano the symptoms would return. They still do. When I meet him, his upper body seems reasonably under control, but only because the symptoms have all migrated below his waist. The ability to focus the tics out of sight was picked up when he was bullied at school.

dire_15653144_56550“You try and hide everything,” he explains. “There is not a moment when something isn't going at the motor rhythm.” But at the piano there is no such problem. It has all the hallmarks of a baffling medical mystery. What on earth is it about the act of making music that has such a healing effect on his unruly body?

There are many examples of brilliant pianists who have paid a high tariff in exchange for their talent. After his death, it was suggested Glenn Gould’s many eccentricities might have been the product of Asperger’s syndrome. John Ogdon’s ability to commit vast amounts of music to memory came with a side order of manic depression, possibly schizophrenia. The mental illness of David Helfgott, played by the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush in Shine, was diagnosed as acute anxiety neurosis. And then there is even the theory that Mozart had Tourette’s, based spuriously on the potty-mouthed content of his letters.

But the relationship between music and the brain is a neglected area of study. In this country, none of the various neurologists who Van Bloss consulted ever showed an interest in a possible connection between his ability and his affliction. Indeed, he didn’t even find out he had Tourette’s till he was 21, 10 years after he took up the piano. So for many years he was left to do empirical research on himself. He came up with a theory that his body and his piano found an instant physical harmony.

Nick Van Bloss's recording of the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations

“Tourette’s basically constitutes an energy within that forces its way out,” he explains. “The energy is very rhythmic. All this translates well to music because the pulse of music is satisfying Tourette’s. It hasn’t disappeared, and it will rev up as soon as I step away from the piano. So what’s it doing? For want of a better word, it’s obviously being titillated while I’m playing the piano.”

But it’s not only a craving for rhythm that is being satisfied. “With Tourette’s”, he continues, “one of the many tics is to touch things. But it has to be a very regimented touch. The piano has 88 keys. So it’s tactile heaven. It’s not just like touching an old piece of wood. It’s like an electric energy at the tip of the fingers.”

The piano has 88 keys. So it’s tactile heaven. It’s like an electric energy at the tip of the fingers

When he was younger he thought this sensation was normal for all pianists. Then he went to the Royal College of Music and compared notes with other students. None of them felt the same charge when touching the keyboard. Van Bloss discovered his strange musical cure quite by chance at the age of 11. “We saw a piano in the street saying ‘Good home wanted’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I want that.’ I had heard the piano but never played it and then when I saw one I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to play it? I’d never had the inclination before. I was this boy who was really out of control, not in a behavioural way but with his body. It wasn’t a question of ‘anything to shut him up’. It was just a question of ‘maybe it’ll give him a hobby’.”

Within a year Van Bloss had passed his grade eight exam. “I was desperate to play the thing,” he recalls. “It was a safe haven for me because in the outside world I was the ticking freak being bullied at school mercilessly. And I found something I could do well and I got this cure within myself as well. So it was perfect.”

At 15 he went to the Royal College of Music. In due course he embarked on a professional career. In fact it wasn’t specifically the Tourette’s which forced him to give up. But the exhaustion of promoting himself took its toll. “I couldn’t balance this fighting for a career with the exhaustion I was suffering from this condition.” So he stopped performing for anyone but himself.

05“It sounds sad, but I would sometimes imagine that I had just played to an audience if I thought I’d played well.” Eventually, after years of playing the piano to the four bare walls of his room at home, he decided to write a book about his experiences. Busy Body was published in 2006. The following year he was the focus of "Mad But Glad", a Horizon documentary for the BBC which investigated the links between genius and madness.

It was in the course of making this film that he was finally introduced to a medical expert who took an interest in the neurological implications of his talent. Oliver Sacks is best known for his books The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was made into a film starring Robert de Niro. But he also has a lifelong interest in music and the brain. For Van Bloss it was a relief to meet him. “He confirmed the connection that I’ve always believed is there between the Tourette’s and the creative musical drive. He certainly saw the tactile connection.”

After meeting Van Bloss, Sacks included his story in a chapter on Tourette’s in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. “Tourette’s brings out in stark forms questions of will and determination,” Sacks says. “Who orders what, who pushes whom around? To what extent are people with Tourette’s controlled by a complex, self-aware, intentional self, or by impulses and feelings and lower levels in the brain-mind?” Sacks doesn’t profess to know the answer, but he concludes that sufferers can find a way of harnessing it.

And that is finally what Van Bloss is still doing, nearly two decades after he had to give up on a promising career. His documentary provoked interest from record companies, producers and promoters. The Goldberg Variations was actually recorded two years ago. He has since toured the world and been on Good Morning America and CNN. The wait is explained largely by an anxiety to ensure that the condition did not become the whole story, that he was not, in his words, “portrayed as some kind of freaky circus act who performs".

Bach is almost like an intravenous drip that’s feeding me intellectual stimulation

“I needed to concentrate on making a stamp as a musician as opposed to exploiting the condition. I was in negotiations with a lot of the big companies and of course one of the things in media these days is the big splash of the story and having a big tagline. There I was coming out as someone with Tourette’s and it was very difficult for the big companies to see past there. It was clear that that was a route they would want to explore. I would have probably ended up doing things I didn’t want to do. I’m not going to abuse the audience onstage or gyrate because I’ve got Tourette’s, so, alas, I had to pull back from a lot of things. The ironic thing in my story is that when I’m performing Tourette’s is completely absent so there is nothing to see.”

340xThat was certainly the case at his return to performance at Cadogan Hall in April 2009. The audience may have contained a larger than usual sprinkling of ticking Tourette's sufferers, but Van Bloss himself, dressed down in dark casuals, gave an increasingly nerveless performance of Bach's G-minor concerto and Beethoven's Emperor concerto. After The Goldberg Variations there will be more Bach, the complete concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, then a CD of solo pieces. Further on there are plans to record all five Beethoven concertos. But Bach remains the composer with whom Van Bloss feels the most intimate connection.

“The thing that I keep saying to myself is that Bach is almost like an intravenous drip that’s feeding me intellectual stimulation. There is always a challenge in Bach. Yes, there is always something new to discover but I feel absolutely comfortable and content with it. A lot of people get scared of this music. They see the empty scores, no heavy editorial markings. They think it’s Baroque and think we have to be careful with it. Ultimately it’s great music and audiences do love it and you’ve got to sell it to them.”

  • Find Nick Van Bloss’s Goldberg Variations (Nimbus Alliance) on Amazon
  • Find Busy Body: My Life with Tourette’s Syndrome by Nick Van Bloss on Amazon

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This is inspiring and very good news. Love the Goldberg recording, and glad a Brit pianist is excelling at Bach.

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