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Lonely in LA

Memories of Lord Yehudi colour a new novel by Lionel Rolfe, musician turned journalist. In an exclusive interview, Rolfe talks about the themes in Death and Redemption in London and LA, his uncle's music and his own loneliness

Yehudi Menuhin has inspired a novel. Lionel Rolfe's Death and Redemption in London and LA is a sustained personal study of the life of the great violinist. Menuhin's active interest in world politics, and his support for causes that many in the West could barely relate to, made him, in Rolfe's words, "more than just a fiddler". India was a special favourite for Mehuhin -- he visited the country often, worked with Pandit Ravi Shankar, and spoke passionately about the tolerance that characterises this land. That monkeys and humans and bullock carts and cars could co-exist filled him with wonder. Rolfe hasn't visited India, and says he is only somewhat familiar with Indian music. The Menuhin-Ravi Shankar album East Meets West is for him an abiding favourite.

As Menuhin's nephew, Rolfe enjoyed the privilege of observing his idol from close quarters. He sets his novel in the last year of the last millennium, the year Menuhin died, and his own marriage of 25 years broke up.

Death and Redemption in London and LA looks at a musical colossus from various perspectives. Rolfe writes with love about his own unconventional mother, who always wanted to ensure that he was sexually satisfied, and didn't disapprove of the little Lionel's trips to the garage to play doctor. He feels warmly about his uncle's daring bridging of music and social activism, but is cheesed off by the great man "lecturing" the Israeli prime minister about Palestinian rights during a ceremony the head of state had hosted in his honour.

A sense of place haunts Rolfe, torn between London and Los Angeles. The first city, he feels, is still fond of classical music, and the second, the city he lives in, is given architecturally to metal and plastic and musically to pop. He hopes his book, an examination of "death, sex and love", will "resonate with those millions who are facing major transitions in their own lives".

Rolfe works as a reporter for a wire service. He has also worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor. Some years ago, he co-founded California Classics, a publishing house committed to leftist thought. In an e-mail interview, he told The Music Magazine that he felt lonely being a leftist in US.

Rolfe last saw Menuhin in 1997, and recalls a family reunion where the violinist seemed to want to talk to him. Their relationship had become strained after Rolfe published his chronicle of the Menuhin family, in which he says he had spoken some truths that didn't go down too well with his uncle.

But Rolfe was always under Menuhin's spell. "If he didnít dote on his nephew, his influence was always there. In the early '50s, Yehudi used to come to Los Angeles and he always brought something new to our lives. On one occasion he introduced us to raw fish. He cut some tuna and we ate it. He also personally introduced Yoga to us. For a while my mother was taking me to see Indra Devi, his yoga teacher who lived in the Hollywood Hills," writes Rolfe.

The interview:

You say Yehudi Menuhin was to the violin what Mozart was to composing. What impresses you about your uncle's music?

It was his interpretation, his ability to make poetry out of the music. His technique was not always as good as Heifetz's, say. But it was what he did with the music. I heard Pearlman playing the Beethoven vioin concerto, and while he played it well, it didn't sing in the way Yehudi made it sing. Understand that I say this as one who knew Yehudi in his more mundane and petty moments -- still this was something about how he transformed the music.

How close were you to him? Would you describe your book as a "true story" or a fictional recreation?

It's definitely a "true story". Sometimes I felt quite close, other times not. Yehudi gave me a lot of his time, especially when I began writing a history of the Menuhin family some years ago. The only way in which it is sometimes a fictional recreation is that I changed some names of lesser-known people. The book began after my 25-year marriage ended, and I tried to write about the perennial topic of men and women. But when Yehudi died, and a couple of other people did as well about the same time, the book moved a step forward from being just about sex and love and became more an examination of life and death for me. For me, the memorial for Yehudi at Westminster Abbey was a turning point.

Your uncle was a great lover of India and Indian music, and experimented on 'East Meets West' with Pandit Ravi Shankar. What do you think of such cross-cultural exchanges? Ustad Vilayat Khan, another great sitarist, thoroughly disapproves of such experiments.

How could I not love that album, even if there might be reasons to disapprove of such experiments? Whether we like it or not, every place in the world is becoming increasingly mulitcultural -- certainly Los Angeles is and so is London. I know that in genetics, hybrids are usually the strongest, the most beautiful, the most resistant to diseases. Obviously each culture has a unique contribution and you want to keep it unique. But that does not mean you can't and shouldn't do the other.

Do you sing or play any instrument? How do you see the future of classical music in this age of pop?

I studied the violin and piano as a youth before settling in on the classical guitar. But when I decided to write -- because I didn't want to be a second-rate Menuhin as a musician -- I never turned back. I have not kept up my instruments. I'm not sure what the future of classical music is. Television music channels and pop thoroughly depress me. They make me think that human culture is going downhill in a hurry. I mean, physics is not astrology -- and commercial pop is astrology compared to classical music.

How does it feel to be a leftist in the US? Briefly, what are the issues leftist thinkers in your country are addressing in the new millennium?

Lonely. The big issues are probably similar to the ones you have to deal with -- domination of our cultures by giant corporations, the need to rebuild the labour moment, save our culture from the decline that capitalism is putting it to. These are quick answers, but off the top, that's what I think.

S R Ramakrishna

You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street. For a hardback edition, you'll have to wait till later this year

Write to the author

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The warmth of the violin -- Read excerpt from Rolfe's book

Quick external links

You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street. For a print edition, you'll have to wait till later this year

Visit The Menuhin Foundation, Brussels

A Menuhin discography

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