Tag: memoirs

Tina Davidson: Listening Through The Journey

Photo of Tina Davidson sitting at a desk with an overlay of the SoundLives logo

The story of Tina Davidson’s life, which is the basis of her newly published memoir Let Your Heart Be Broken, is extremely intense but also a rewarding reading experience just like the emotional roller coaster rides in so many of her musical compositions make for very compelling listening.

As she told Frank J. Oteri, “When you write about yourself, you really make yourself incredibly vulnerable, and hopefully you can do that without making other people vulnerable in your life.”

Several weeks ago I started reading Let Your Heart Be Broken, a memoir by the composer Tina Davidson. For many years I’ve treasured the two CDs of her intense chamber music which made me immediately intrigued to learn her biographical details. It turns out the story of her life was far more complicated that anything I could have imagined, although I probably should have imagined as much given the emotional roller coaster rides in so many of her extremely compelling musical compositions.

I shouldn’t give it all away just yet, though be forewarned that there are some spoiler alerts in the recording of my talk with her posted above and in the full transcript of it below. So if you’re worried that reading or listening to the giveaways  might ruin the experience of reading the book for you, and it is  rewarding reading, I’d strongly suggest getting the book and reading it first before engaging further here.

But my conversation with Tina also took a much deeper dive into some of her musical compositions and her writing process than she would have been able to get into in a book aimed at general readers. However, what compelled me to speak with her was a passage from that book in which she explains why she mostly eschews conventional musical development in her output:

In the classical music tradition, development is a process by which a composer uses the musical material of a piece … Many living composers use development as a chief technique in their music. They push the melodies around and rework them by directly transposing or inverting them. My ear pauses. Why do I feel they stand at the river’s edge, beating their musical material with stones until it is thin, weak, and colorless?

“Music, for me, is like bread. I define the ingredients, actively knead the dough. There is an essential part I cannot do–the rising. I provide the right size pan, large enough so the bread can expand to its fullest potential and small enough so it can use the side of a pan as support. I decide when the bread has risen enough without too much poking around. This is a judgment of my eye, heart, and mind acting together. Rising too much, it will be filled with air and collapse. Rising too little, it will be mean and hard, an impenetrable nugget.

For Tina, as she explained to me when I brought up this passage to her, “That’s the risk you take with your work. You don’t always write great music. You have flops. I have pieces where I go, ‘Oh, boy, I hope they don’t see the light of day!’ I don’t know why. It just didn’t happen. I try not to revise a lot of things. If I have a piece that I don’t love I’ll just say, ‘Okay, next piece.'”

In addition to being like bread, a piece of music is also always a journey and Tina’s hope is that she can ultimately bring the audience along with her on the trip.

It’s about me traveling and hopefully you listening with me through the journey of the piece and that wonderful sense that you can’t actually touch music, you know, it’s so ephemeral. You reconstruct that journey through memory. As you get to the end of the piece, it doesn’t make any sense unless you could remember the beginning. So it’s you as an active participant that really creates the pieces as a whole. I think that composers actually collaborate with everyone. They collaborate with the performers as the performers really inhabit your music and it has to be shaped on their body. And then the audience. You kind of collaborate with them as an extension of receiving it. … I’m not telling them; I hope that I’m eliciting from them their own response. … [W]hen I write a piece of music, I try to articulate where I am the most the best that I can. And what I’ve noticed is that when it’s out there, it’s not that people get me, but they get themselves. And that’s what I love. That it’s almost as if something about my music or that experience resonates with something in them and they can experience themselves. And that’s what I’d hope for.

The ability for people to form their own narratives when they listen to an abstract piece of instrumental music is not quite the same as being able to empathize with an author when reading the details of a first person narrative and Tina is very conscious of the difference in these modalities.

“I think in the beginning of my composing journey, as a young person what I loved about it is I could be anonymous, she acknowledged toward the beginning of our discussion. “I think that as I grew through my 30s and then 40s–I’ve been writing for 45 years–I found I resolved a lot of personal issues and had more courage to come forward and be direct, to say, ‘this is what I’m writing about.’ Certainly I suppose that the memoir is the full circle of that. When you write about yourself, you really make yourself incredibly vulnerable, and hopefully you can do that without making other people vulnerable in your life. And I worked really hard at being honest without calling people names or having judgments about their behavior necessarily.”