What do you do?” The Outline asked in 2019. “I’m a podcaster–vlogger–model–DJ,” they replied, rhetorically and hyphenatedly. The gig economy has brought with it a host of new containers (like the egregious “multi-hyphenate”) to describe artists who traverse multiple creative pursuits—artists who a generation ago might have been called a dandy, a flâneur, or, more cuttingly, a dilettante.
Even the classical music publishing world seems to be catching on to that shift. But there’s little sense of pianist Jeremy Denk strolling nonchalantly towards last year’s excellent Every Good Boy Does Fine, nor does fellow writer-pianist Stephen Hough’s Enough: Scenes from Childhood (out in the U.S. in April) have much of dandy-ish floatiness to it either, as Hough is a lifelong creative writing fan. And in Let Your Heart Be Broken: Life and Music from a Classical Composer, Tina Davidson draws on her own journaling history—an activity which predates her composing—to offer an unequivocally poetic memoir on love, loss, and music.
At a time when composers need words more than ever —the tyranny of the program note, the necessity of the funding application—it’s easy to forget just how difficult, futile even, some composers find describing what it is they do: “It’s an impossible question to answer,” Harrison Birtwistle told The Guardian in 2003; the 1957 wind quartet, “Refrains and Choruses,” was a piece Birtwistle wrote “completely off the top of my head. I can’t justify a single note.” Davidson is not quite Birtwistle’s antithesis—“like a transparent ghost,” she says, “music moves our hearts with its lack of tangible substance”—but she’s pretty close. Her music “springs from an idea first formulated in words.” Titles come first, guiding her through the course of her work. And even if the music that springs forth is incorporeal, it’s an apparition that Davidson is willing to believe in.
Keeping musical and personal journals is something Davidson has done since her youth. Diaries from a key period in her life—1986, from the moment she decided to find the Swedish foster family that raised her for the first three years of her life, to 1997, and the lead-up to her opera “Billy and Zelda”—form the skeleton of Let Your Heart Be Broken. These events are interspersed with childhood memories she returns to in exacting detail, along with a good deal of evocative travel writing. Davidson’s mother and stepfather were “adventurers masquerading as literature professors,” and it was normal to spend a year in Israel, or three in Istanbul, with Tina in tow. Descriptions of food jump off the page: “While the fruit bowl was always full, there never seemed to be enough,” Davidson says of home life with her mother after they eventually settled in America, perhaps one reason why descriptions of fruit trees in Let Your Heart Be Broken seem especially mouthwatering.
These are rare moments where the everyday is elevated—none of Davidson’s diaries really touch on life’s mundanities, an approach that marks out other memoirs like Denk’s—and the same can be said for her art. Her work with community groups—including the Young Composer sessions for kids in Philadelphia, and the Meet the Composer residencies in Delaware— formed a key part of her work in the mid ‘90s, but they failed to elicit a utilitarian turn in Davidson: “It was there that I truly saw the raw power of art for the first time,” she says, “the ability to transform, to reach beyond the ‘dailyness’ of living to the reinvention of self.” Her diaries follow that same aesthetic mantra, engaged constantly with the joy, sorrow, self-discovery and endless wonder of being a composer, which admittedly comes with a fair deal of soul-searching; and with her complicated family history. But with Cassie, her daughter and muse (whose birth begins the story), there’s a sense that Davidson has tried to build a cocoon of art and circumstance, that shields them both from the difficulties of the outside world.
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It’s a gorgeous bubble, a membrane sculpted from endlessly poetic turns of phrase. But that makes it fragile too, and the bubble bursts from time to time, pricked by real life’s safety pin. Watching those two worlds collide can be tense. “The Gulf War rages,” Davidson writes in January 1991. “I am heartbroken at the lives lost with the invasion of Kuwait and aerial bombardment.” Davidson’s response? “Drinking a cup of tea, I stop the war… / writing music, I stop the war / healing, I stop the war.” It’s a sentiment that’s common among more sensitive creative types: Doing exactly what I was doing before, I will take credit for something that had nothing to do with me.
The aesthetic climax comes on a night in Stockholm in August 1994, a city where “the tall buildings are softly curved and colored, stately but sumptuous,” and “gold leaf gleams from cornices, green from copper roofs, and ornate stones decorate the facades.” So far, so pleasant. “If we humans can design such wonderful sights,” Davidson says, “certainly world peace is only a step away.” Given that the months surrounding that entry saw some of the most destructive acts in human history, it’s a crushingly obtuse statement in hindsight.
Then again, there is ample room for both growth and forgiveness in Davidson’s story. (“We want to attach meaning, to understand, to pin the moment down when it is, at best, a transitory happening… My journals are truthful and honest, but they are only intermittently accurate,” she writes. Both are fair assessments, and also handy get-out-of-jail-free cards.) Davidson has a big heart with lots of love to give, and putting that energy into causes outside of her own—the New Music Across America festival, her work in Philadelphia and Delaware communities—seems to bring out the best in her, in turn bringing her closer to herself. These are not memoirs that stress the intricacies of composing, but instead speak for an individual traveling to a greater understanding of herself, through her family, sexuality, and art.
Therein lies a tricky conundrum. “Composing is in a world of its own—both emotion and energy,” she says. “I camouflage myself, wrap myself in a language that has no direct translation. Writing reveals me naked.” If composing is clothed, and writing is naked, then writing about composing is surely the act of undressing. And though writing might reveal Davidson naked, it doesn’t really reveal her art as such. As a result, we get a lot of what’s behind the music—what’s going through the mind of the composer as she creates “Lullaby (from Descending Figure),” “Dark Child Sings” or “Cassandra Sings”—but not much of what’s inside it. Davidson’s aim in her outreach work was “to demystify the role of the composer,” but there’s still enough mystery in the art itself that Davidson’s descriptions of her music were completely different to what I heard.
Perhaps that’s a reassuring thing: that Davidson, a skilled and lyrical writer, can write and write and write and still can’t quite grasp music. And, while the art surprises, the writing inspires: to blow the biggest bubbles possible, and delight in watching them waft around, caring not that one day they’ll inevitably pop.
Tina Davidson’s Let Your Heart Be Broken: Life and Music from a Classical Composer is published on March 14 by Boyle & Dalton.
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