By turns touching, enlightening, and maddening, Let Your Heart Be Broken is a poetic and soul-baring memoir by composer Tina Davidson. Now in her early 70s, Davidson has attained high status among contemporary classical composers. She was the recipient of a Pew Fellowship, founded and served as director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum, and was president of the New Music Alliance. As the book shows, she has earned her kudos and respect through hard work and hard knocks alike. And through talent, of course – but that alone is never enough for artistic success, is it?
Davidson deals frankly with her own childhood and adult traumas – whisked abruptly away from the foster mother and family she loved; abused; suffering a heart condition as a still-young adult; divorce, and more. And as her career gears up she faces the conflicts that arise when a person devoted to artistic creation takes on the largely incompatible responsibility of motherhood.
In another important strand of the memoir she reveals the complex, fraught, and usually (initially) private process of germinating, developing, and shepherding into the public space serious works of original music.
Hers is a narrative of continuous questioning, searching, seldom finding. She takes in and often quotes pithy passages from a variety of spiritual gurus, aphorisms and thoughts ranging from the wise to the woo-woo. It’s equal parts frustrating and fascinating to wander with her through these dissonances of self-searching uncertainty.
A Composer’s Journey
The book is well structured. Chapters alternate between a chronological recounting of her childhood and youth, and selected journal entries from a critical period in her life and career during the 1980s and ’90s. The narrative closes its loops nicely as she reveals the answers to some of the questions that have plagued her along the way.
During that journey she questions her own creative mojo as well as her value as a human being. “Am I a fragmented person, incapable of putting together a long, unified piece of music?” “Without music I am plain and unremarkable.” But the reader can perceive a consistent outlook on her creative life, summed up at one point this way:
I have a back and forth, give and take, learning and growing relationship with my work. I dip into a sea of myself and try to capture it in music to share with others. My work and life are fluid and I experience myself through it…as I reveal myself to my music, the music reveals myself to me. The work teaches me where to go and what next to learn.
The Physicality of Music
Indeed composing is a visceral experience for Davidson. Speaking of a piece she’s working on: “My palms itch when I sing it, as if the melodies were coming out of my flesh.” As another new piece germinates, “I feel it in my stomach. It twists and wrenches.”
At other times vagueness overcomes her prose. Unlike the “circular and contained” work of other composers, hers, she writes, “is languid and rests on its elbows like a horizon. I create a linear shape where the music evolves, transforms, and becomes.” I’m not sure how that imagery is incompatible with giving a piece of music some structure.
Still, her phrasing can be clarifying, highlighting deep truths: “Music, like life, is no more than itself. There is no implicit reason to it except that it is.” And if she contradicts herself, well then she contradicts herself, and in ways that can move her to poetry:
The journey of my music has always been to find my original face. The deeper I dig, the more upward I move…I envision it as a procession of priestesses walking slowly together through the gate of the temple. They separate at the altar.
And a bit later she describes her saxophone concerto as having “an architectural feel – with an entrance and an exit.” There’s structure for you. But the passage proceeds to fog up with talk of “forgiveness” and “blessings.” For sure, music can open a person to feelings not directly connected with the sound, but too much of this kind of talk could start to give a person the shudders.
When all is said and done, though, I get it. I’m a writer who must accomplish the impossible task of describing in words art made of abstract sounds. With this memoir Tina Davidson accomplishes something much more difficult, because it goes deeper into the soul: conveying what goes on inside when an artist – one particular artist – is creating the work, the work that both reveals herself, and escapes to become the world’s, taking on a different meaning for every listener.
As she writes, “As I go out in my work, it is all me, and at the same time not me.” That’s a good way to sum up what music – and any art, including memoir – can be and do.
Let Your Heart Be Broken: Life and Music from a Classical Composer by Tina Davidson is out now.