Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic is so fabulously surreal, I checked twice to be certain it was indeed a memoir and not a work of fiction. In her debut, Hindman recounts the nearly four years she spent as a violinist in an ensemble led by an eccentric man whom she refers to only as the Composer. Hindman and the other musicians perform shows across America in performance halls, malls and at fairs, but they’re part of a bizarre deception: The musicians are barely making sounds with their instruments. The music the audience hears is coming from a hidden CD player hooked up to the speakers.
“From the very beginning of working with that group, I knew that there was a story,” Hindman says in a call to her home in Kentucky, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University.
Playing the violin professionally had been Hindman’s dream since she was a child growing up in a small West Virginia town, as her devotion to the instrument earned her peers’ awe and adults’ respect. Hindman recalls, “There was something going on in the way people would look at me when I played the violin, that I could tell even as a kid, it made them think of me as more serious.” Being a classical musician also allowed her to escape the suffocating confines of gender norms—she was a talented violinist, not a talented girl.
Determined to leave her Appalachian upbringing behind, she applied to and was accepted at Columbia. But at Columbia, she realized that while she was talented and hardworking, she was far from a spectacular violinist. Tuition was also exorbitant, and when she saw a job listing for a violinist with a famous composer and his Billboard-topping ensemble, she mustered up her last dregs of optimism and sent in an audition tape.
She was stunned when she got the job. The Composer has sold millions of albums, and his uplifting, soaring music has scored numerous television specials. It also sounds just like the soundtrack for the 1997 film Titanic. “It’s as close as you can get to the Titanic soundtrack without being the Titanic soundtrack,” Hindman says. “Hours and hours and hours of instrumental music with a lot of penny whistle and violin and light piano playing.”
When she first began performing with the ensemble, the admiration on the faces of audience members listening to her “play” was like a drug. But during a seven-week cross-country tour with the ensemble in a decrepit RV, Hindman realized a few things about the Composer. His diet was seemingly composed entirely of apples and cereal. He was unable to remember Hindman’s name, and instead called her Melissa for the entire tour. He was unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and in 2004, he had no idea who John Kerry was. Before every concert, he told the ensemble that they must remember to grin throughout the entire performance because “some people out there have cancer.”
“When you look at him, he looks like a famous composer,” Hindman says. But as she stood on stage with him, faking a smile and pretending to play the violin, she began to lose touch with reality. She started having crippling panic attacks, sometimes multiple times within an hour. The violin no longer provided her with an escape.
“I think that there was something that was just plain old stage fright about it, where you’re just up on the stage and all these people are looking at you,” she says. “Because the music was prerecorded . . . all you’re doing is basically standing in front of people playing a role. You have a lot of time to think.”
Working with the Composer was a grueling, difficult time for Hindman, when her understanding of who she was and what she wanted was turned on its head. But it also forced her to inspect some of her flawed beliefs about gender and femininity, the definition of success and happiness, and the debatable merits of working yourself to near-death. “I think part of it was just growing up and realizing that the pressures that I was putting on myself at that age were just completely unreasonable and dumb,” she says. “There’s all these other aspects of life that have nothing to do with winning trophies or being the best at anything but that are just as important. Certainly, writing the book itself helped me congeal all of this in my mind.”
It’s clear that Hindman feels conflicted about the Composer, although she is generously empathetic. “Probably the biggest surprise was how I started feeling a lot more like I had so much in common with the Composer. As I was reading and revising the book, I started to feel a more profound kinship with him in terms of, like, well, what do you do if you’re not born with genius? You have to work your way around that in some way.”
Surprisingly, Hindman’s bizarre, existentially traumatic stint as a pseudo-professional violinist hasn’t spoiled classical music for her. “I listen to violin music all the time. I don’t play so much anymore,” she says. Although her violin days are over, Hindman can be assured that she’s accomplished something incredible: She has written a memoir about identity and finding a sense of self that is funny, personal, empathetic and, amazingly, true.