Editor's note: In Pages from the Arts, we'll review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, Ritchie reviews three books about musicians and their lives with various instruments: Andrea Avery's memoir of being a piano prodigy with RA; Min Kym's trauma with a violin and an accident; and Marcia Butler's life with the oboe.
Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano
By Andrea Avery
Pegasus Books, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I am not a pianist, but this remarkable book resonated with me in other ways.
Twelve-year-old Andrea Avery was an enthusiastic piano student in love with music when she was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 1989. As her constantly-morphing physical condition began to pose immense challenges to her “activities of daily living,” she nevertheless resolved to continue her musical training with whatever adjustments were necessary.
In the early 1950s, my 30-year-old athletic father was also diagnosed with RA. I came along several years later and thus never knew him when he wasn’t limping, unable to climb stairs, or accommodating severely deformed hands and feet. My parents largely sheltered me from the worst of his condition, but there was no escaping the reality of life with a chronically-ill head of household, even while he steadfastly pursued his legal career until retiring in his 40s by necessity.
His functionality in the world was only possible thanks to massive daily doses of cortisone. That miracle drug kept him reasonably mobile until he was unable to walk at all, but its long-term use gradually destroyed his other vital organs, leading to his death at age 55, shortly before my college graduation.
Therefore, Avery’s graphic descriptions of the effects of RA and her determination to maintain an active lifestyle—albeit with the help of drugs and treatments my father never lived to experience himself—were both eloquent and sadly revelatory to me. RA may not be a “terminal” disease per se, but the disease’s cumulative impact on its victims’ lives is visceral and undeniable.
Before her diagnosis, Avery’s passion for the piano in general and for one composition in particular was absolute: her musical “soundtrack,” so to speak, was Franz Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat, D 960. As she grew older and was forced to drastically rearrange her life in deference to her disability, she also took strength in the legends of one-armed Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who continued to perform pieces specially commissioned for his left hand; of Schubert himself who created Avery’s beloved sonata while suffering from syphilis; and of 20th-century American piano virtuoso Byron Janis, who continued his international career while coping with his own crippling RA.
Avery movingly recalls her illness’s challenges while navigating through the normal life passages of puberty, college, and relationships. Her physical setbacks along the way, including incapacitating breakdowns and numerous reparative surgeries, are depicted unflinchingly, in the most candid descriptions of the ravages of RA I hope ever to read. But just as my father relied on the need to support his family to carry him through, so Andrea Avery leaned on music in her darkest times.
Might she have become a famous concert pianist if not for her disease? Hard to say. She reflects at one point: “In all likelihood, I would not have been good enough…But the cruel synchrony, to be gifted with music and arthritis simultaneously, is at times almost unbearable…If I failed, at least it would have been on my own terms. I know I am a better musician than my body will let me be.”
Today, Andrea Avery is a high school English teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, and still playing piano. In the book’s final pages, she summarizes: “If I was going to have a life with arthritis in it, I am so glad I have had the piano as my companion. Piano has given me something to reach for with my arthritic hand, some reason not to give up on my fingers…Music has made my arthritic life better. Perhaps I am a better musician than I was or would have been—not despite my arthritis, but because of it. Maybe it takes scars to play Schubert and Chopin correctly.”
By so eloquently sharing her own “scars,” Andrea Avery enriches us all.
Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung
By Min Kym
Crown Publishers, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Disclaimer: I confess, with regret, that I play no instrument. Thus, I had to suspend my disbelief to an extent while reading this book, as I frankly couldn’t grasp how the loss of an admittedly expensive but presumably fully insured musical instrument could possibly have decimated its owner’s life to such a marked degree. All that said, Min Kym’s memoir is nevertheless fascinating, if at times voyeuristically so. And I sincerely apologize in advance to all musicians who would probably conclude that I simply don’t “get it.”
When I first heard the basic facts surrounding the theft of Kym’s violin, I immediately recalled another performer who endured instrument-related trauma—Rachel Barton Pine, who lost her leg in a Chicago commuter train accident in 1995 when, according to the transit company she later sued, she refused to separate herself from her violin when its case’s strap became caught in a train door. She and violin were instead dragged and thrown onto the tracks, where she sustained her devastating injury.
While juries ultimately found in Pine’s favor and against the transit company vis-a-vis the train’s faulty operation, I have to wonder why and how musical instrument ownership, and the supposed need to keep those instruments close at hand seemingly 24/7, can sometimes inspire such disregard of personal safety. But thanks to this book, I’m now somewhat more enlightened, and that’s probably a good thing.
Min Kym was raised in London by Korean parents and soon revealed herself as a child violin prodigy. As she recalls: “It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment…but I knew right away that holding a violin, playing a violin, was not simply for me, but it was me.” Even before the age of ten, Kym attended top-flight music schools and won prizes, alerting the world music community to a potential star in their midst.
At age 21, Kym found the instrument she would always consider “the one,” a rare 1696 Stradivarius that became her musical soulmate: “I had my Strad for ten years….A good addiction…When I think about it, it all rolls into one: the violin, me, our life together…The violin became part of me. That’s the nub of it.” The instrument was valued at 1.2 million pounds.
But in 2010, Kym’s world shifted forever when the violin was stolen as she sat with her boyfriend in a British Railways station café. Kym normally kept the instrument strapped to her body at all times when out in public, but, upon her companion’s urging, she briefly gave him the case instead, not realizing the couple was being stalked by a professional team of thieves in the vicinity. Within seconds, the Strad was gone.
While police were summoned and insurance payments eventually made, Kym’s very existence shattered as she literally and figuratively took to her bed after the theft. Her road back to finding a new violin and resuming a public career was long and tortuous. Though the thieves were apprehended in 2011 and the Strad recovered in 2013, Kym would never again actually own “her” violin, as she had already purchased a new instrument with her insurance money, and other financial issues prevented their reunion.
Today, Min Kym’s career rebounds thanks to concerts, a new CD recording, and the catharsis achieved via producing this memoir. While portions of it may frankly seem hard to fathom, her tale’s confessional quality is compelling, as she eventually achieved emotional fulfillment within her own self, eschewing dependence on an inanimate instrument. Both professional musicians and arts aficionados will likely find value in her sobering story.
The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir
By Marcia Butler
Little Brown & Co., Inc. Publishers
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
In the spirit of Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir/expose Mozart in the Jungle, retired oboist Butler offers a keen-eyed look at the world of freelance music-making circa 1970s New York City, and how she sustained passion for her chosen profession even in the midst of a tumultuous personal life. In Butler’s case, childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father planted seeds sporadically manifesting themselves for years to come.
One of Butler’s earliest memories was hearing recordings of Kirsten Flagstad singing Isolde, leading to a lifetime’s devotion to the soprano as a musical touchstone. As she described it: “Kirsten shook me awake. With the distance of time, I suppose it was love. . . . I was hooked.”
Her first instrument was the flute, but she switched to the oboe at age 12. Her father was happy to drive her to lessons 30 minutes each way, but expected a quid pro quo reward for his generosity once they returned home. His abuse was subtle, but Butler had “mixed feelings” as she sensed its inappropriateness. However, the music lessons were too important to risk, and her aloof mother was unapproachable for help or support.
After high school, Butler’s discipline and devotion to the oboe paid off in acceptance to several top-rated music institutions, including New York’s Mannes College. Upon moving to the city, she became another starving student and hand-to-mouth freelance instrumentalist. However, her professional reputation grew through the years, as she performed in both Broadway and classical orchestras, often supporting top-ranked instrumental soloists.
Butler alternates “personal life” chapters with sections delineating the uncertainties and catch-as-catch-can existence of freelance artists, and the latter portions are both fascinating and somewhat of a respite from the far sadder descriptions of her emotional struggles during those times. While still managing to focus well enough to produce the music she always loved, Butler found herself enmeshed in drugs and a series of abusive relationships.
Her romantic dealings with other men were often troubled, a likely result of the early abuse she had largely sublimated in her adult life. In later years, Butler would also survive breast cancer, eventually retiring from professional musicianship in 2009. At one point, she states that the most difficult part of dealing with her cancer was “how I saw myself as a woman, the need to finally acknowledge the iceberg I had been living inside of for most of my life, and the awareness of who had embedded me there.”
This book provides no easy reading, but it flows compellingly and inspirationally, and readers will admire how “Art” in general and “Music” in particular kept Marcia Butler sane and productive despite indescribable trauma and psychological upheaval. It is a tale deserving to be told.
» Pages from the Arts will appear on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.