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A Fake Orchestra Performance In 'Sounds Like Titanic'


Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman has written a memoir about playing the violin for an orchestra that tours and performs but has never really heard led by a man she calls the composer, who was really more of a musical charlatan, to play before audiences that don't seem to know but love the orchestra they see in the music they hear whatever it is. And it all makes Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman question who we are. "Sounds Like Titanic" is her memoir. She's been a professional violinist and is now a professor of creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman joins us from just across the Ohio River at Cincinnati Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSICA CHICCEHITTO HINDMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Let me get you to explain this because I don't want to miss a note, so to speak.

HINDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: You were in an orchestra that played music on tour 2002 to 2006, but the music you played was not what the audience heard.

HINDMAN: That's right. I am a pretty good, amateur high school violinist. But when I performed for this orchestra, the microphone in front of me was off and a CD recording of a much more talented violinist was being blasted towards unsuspecting audiences.

SIMON: "Sounds Like Titanic" because the music sounded like...

HINDMAN: "Titanic" (laughter).

SIMON: ...Like the theme from the film "Titanic," right?

HINDMAN: Yes, absolutely - the 1997 film. Yes.

SIMON: But it wasn't that music.

HINDMAN: Yes, I think a few notes shy of whatever copyright infringement that would be.

SIMON: And you identify this person always as a composer. And I guarantee you, I have been all over the Web trying to figure out who this is, as I'm sure any reader would, because this - you guys performed a series of concerts for PBS over the years.

HINDMAN: Yes, that's correct. Yeah.

SIMON: So why do you keep it as just the composer in this memoir?

HINDMAN: You know, I - it took me many years to write this book, and as I was writing, I really realized that this was not an expose. It's not a work of investigative journalism. It's really meant to be a work of literature. And while I write a lot about the composer and music and these performances, all of that is is really scaffolding to launch bigger questions for me in terms of class and gender and geography - the college tuition crisis for people my age. And so once I started realizing that the book was much bigger than one goofy guy and his goofy orchestra and one goofy job, I decided that, you know, it really wasn't the point to out him. I hope that no one does. I'm - you know, I understand if people want to. But it's my hope that the bigger themes of the book will shine through.

SIMON: Can I get you to talk about - well, you certainly do in the book - the emotional challenges that you were living through at this time?

HINDMAN: Sure. So at some point during our tour, the main tour that kind of comprises a lot of the book - in the book it's called the God Bless America tour. I began to have panic attacks. And at first, I thought that they were just stage fright, but they escalated to the point where they became debilitating. And after the tour, I had to move home with my parents for over six months. And there was a parallel between losing my own grip on reality - what was real, what's not real - and the parallel between audiences who were not able to tell the difference between real music and fake music and how even further I was - felt like I was increasingly living in a society that was no longer able to tell real from fake. This was during the very beginning of the Iraq War, the years immediately following 9/11, the rise of reality television. It just seemed like that barrier was starting to break down.

SIMON: Are you trying to politicize your personal crisis and therefore, if I might say, not really wrestling with it as a personal crisis?

HINDMAN: Well, I think I do have to wrestle with it as a personal crisis. I did have to wrestle with it. I had to just do what people do when they're kind of debilitated by panic attacks, which is figure out how to make them stop or at least somewhat subside.

SIMON: No, I know you deal with it in a personal way, but it sounds like you're blaming, you know, George Bush for your problems.

HINDMAN: Yeah (laughter). Well, in some ways I felt - at that time at least - that my problems were caused by George Bush. So, I mean, another thread of this book is that, you know, once I realized I wasn't going to cut it as a music major, I switched my major to Middle Eastern studies. And I took that very seriously. It was my plan to try to become a reporter in the Middle East. And I started to begin to learn Arabic. I spent years studying Islamic literature and art and religion.

And I left to go do my study abroad in Cairo, Egypt. And, of course, we started out that time, just as study abroad students do, learning the new currency, people in Egypt and then two weeks in, 9/11 happened. And it completely changed obviously the course of everything. And a lot of Americans fled the Middle East at that point. You couldn't go back to the states because the airports were closed. But I stayed along with a small group of other American students, and I really thought that this was going to be so crucial to me and being a bridge of understanding between our country and that region.

Of course, after I graduated, it was almost impossible to find any job that used those skills. It seemed to me that our country didn't want that expertise. They didn't want to know anything real about what was going on in Iraq. You know, it was, I'm sure you remember, a really, really difficult time when it was really hard to determine what was true and what was not.

And so I really started - you know, what was not hard was getting this job as a fake violinist with this orchestra playing music about a disaster. So I started to see those things as connected - that we had never really dealt with the national trauma of 9/11, that people were looking for music that reminded them of another previous disaster - music that they found was soothing in some way.

SIMON: Did you feel this orchestry (ph) of which you were a part was an oddity or a scam?

HINDMAN: That's a great question. You know, I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of, like, if scam is the right word. It's certainly artifice. When people go to a live performance of an orchestra, you hear violin music, and you see a violinist playing in front of you, you assume that those two are related phenomena, right? At the same time, people went away from those concerts loving the music. And music is all about listening at the end of the day. And it would...

SIMON: They would even become teary and come up to the composer.

HINDMAN: Oh, my goodness, yes. They came and relaxed and loved that music. And to his credit, he would stay for hours after these concerts talking to every single audience member, talking to children, to people who are ill. In some ways, that made him a lot more approachable than some of the other figures in the classical music world - right? - who are a little bit harder to assess.

SIMON: You still play the violin?

HINDMAN: I do occasionally, not as much as I used to. But every once in a while, someone who is desperate for a wedding violinist will call me up (laughter).

SIMON: So this is you and not some CD, right?

HINDMAN: Yes (laughter). I did not get a recording of a better NPR guest and play it in the studio (laughter).

SIMON: Well, you're a pretty good one so.

HINDMAN: (Laughter) Thank you.

SIMON: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman - her memoir, "Sounds Like Titanic" - thanks so much for being with us.

HINDMAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.