Memory Slips: A Memoir of Music and Healingby Linda K. Cutting
"There are three kinds of memory slips, I tell my students. One, when Memory slips but you find your way back without losing a beat. Two, when you don't find your way back until the downbeat. Three, when you don't find your way back in time and must stop and restart the music. I don't tell them about a fourth possibility , when one memory
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"There are three kinds of memory slips, I tell my students. One, when Memory slips but you find your way back without losing a beat. Two, when you don't find your way back until the downbeat. Three, when you don't find your way back in time and must stop and restart the music. I don't tell them about a fourth possibility , when one memory slips, another intrudes and you don't find your way back for a very long time." from Memory Slips
Linda Katherine Cutting's memoir of family and music movingly portrays the trauma and recovery of a woman whose childhood was betrayed by those who were supposed to protect her. In exquisite prose she illuminates the inner life of a child for whom the gift of music was the only refuge, a refuge that protected her as long as it could. For when Linda began to remember what her father had done to her and her brothers both eventual suicides she stopped being able to remember Beethoven's notes.
Linda Cutting's writing bears witness to what had occurred. Her stunning "Hers" column, originally printed in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in October 1993, was clipped and carried in wallets and pocketbooks and reprinted around the world. Now, her memoir Memory Slips, will not only reach out and give voice to victims of abuse but also move anyone who cares about the power of writing, the beauty of music and the innocence of children.
"In her writing, Linda Cutting displays the same grace, thoughtfulness and talent that she's always brought to her music-making. With courageous candor, Linda has shone light into the darker corners of her own compelling life, and we, the readers, are richer for it." John Williams, Academy Award-winning composer and conductor laureate, The Boston Pops Orchestra
"This is a mesmerizing story about the loss of music and innocence and very nearly the self; and the subsequent recovery of all those things. It is testimony to the power of Linda Cutting's writing that the same book that tears at your heart can, in the end, make it rise up with gladness." Elizabeth Berg, author of Talk Before Sleep, Range of Motion and The Pull of the Moon
Cutting's father was a minister who crept into her bedroom while her mother was typing his Sunday sermons. He began his forays (which even took place in his office) at about the same time she began to study the pianowhen she was six. Cutting learned to bury her anguish in her music. Her brothers were beaten and abused as well; it was only many years later, after a second brother shot himself and the family publicly reported his death as a car accident, that the extent of her childhood abuse began to surfaceand that she began to forget passages of music in long-familiar pieces. Chapters alternate between the 1980s, when she was developing a successful career playing concerts with major orchestras, and the 1990s, when she hospitalized herself as a result of dreams and the "memory slips" that interfered with her performances. Cutting kept a journal by her keyboard through the years of her practice; the journal was to record not her musical notes but the thoughts that distracted her from music. Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart play as prominent a part in this memoir as father, mother, brothers, husbands, and therapists. To "bear witness" on behalf of her brothers, she confronted her mother, her father, and ultimately the National Congregation of Churches. In some ways, the saddest partas it often is with stories of incest and abuseis that no one believed her. And the story that draws quickest sympathy is that of the church janitor who did understand what was happening in the minister's office.
Not an expression of outrage or revelation as much as of pain mirrored by detachment, both finding their language in the sharps and flats of the piano keyboard.
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As a concert pianist, I've spent years memorizing thousands of pages of music. While the metronome's pendulum swung its beat, the clock's second hand inched away moments. There were moments when music blotted out the rest of my life, but eventually music had to give way to that life, to remembering.
Memory Slips is a memoir of a life lived in music and a life lived between the notes. It includes memories of hundreds of hours of making music. It also includes memories of family violence, incest, and suicide.
The movement from music to writing has been as habitual as daily practicing. While trying to memorize a difficult passage in a Beethoven sonata my mind may suddenly wander to the coffee filters I left off the grocery list, or to the last phone call I had from my sister, or to the long-ago sound of my brother's trumpet. I have always practiced with a notebook next to the piano, not to remember the music, but to remember the distractions. I have written daily in these notebooks for more than twenty years. They contain much of the remembrance of my life.
When I first began writing Memory Slips I passed by an old stone church in Needham, Massachusetts. The sign in front read, "Memory is where the proof of life is stored." I looked for the author's name. There was none. Perhaps it was intended that way, so that those passing by would meditate on the words alone, understanding that we each author our own lives.
So much has been done to discredit the memories, and silence the voices of those who have struggled against great odds to be heard. Survivors of atrocities, whether they were at the hands of strangers, trusted clerics, or inthe private sanctum of family, do not speak easily of their experiences. They "long to forget," as Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, put it. "But healing requires the reconstruction of memory; the unspeakable must be spoken and heard."
Survivors don't only forget because of the trauma, though that in itself would be enough. They forget because they were told to forget. Whether by threats ("if you tell, I'll kill you") or by edict ("this did not happen"), reality gets reshaped.
For me, this reshaping of reality, which began in childhood, continued into adulthood. When I was twenty-seven, my brother, David, who could no longer fight his own memories of our violent family, shot himself. My parents told the newspapers he'd died in a car accident, and asked me to tell the same story. I refused. I had already lost my oldest brother, Paul, to suicide, and the lie would have made this second grief unbearable. I also promised myself that someday I would write my own story.
In 1992, at a time of deep personal crisis, I met a psychiatrist who had lost most of his family during the Holocaust. He spoke to me of the importance of bearing witness, especially in the face of my brothers' deaths. He then wrote something on a slip of paper, which I have taped above my writing desk: "Stay alive so you can tell." At times, those words have provided the courage to keep on living and writing.
I offer my story in the hope of redemption. That word can mean many things--to recover ownership, to restore honor, to save. I'd like to believe that all of those meanings are at work here--and that as I recover ownership of my own memories, I restore honor to the memory of others who have survived as well as those who haven't.
There were times when the only way for me to stay in life was to cross a river. On the other side there were hands reaching out--friends, teachers, therapists, sisters, other survivors. At times I could have more easily chosen death than attempt that crossing. The courage came in fits and starts--sometimes in a line of music, sometimes in the arms of a loved one, other times in words. When I think of the loneliness of those first steps, a comforting Bible verse I'd memorized as a child returns to me: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you."
The river is memory. I am standing on the other side. I reach out my hand.
In music, one measure can expand to contain a lifetime. And a lifetime can disappear in just one beat.
The opening eight measures of Beethoven's Sonata in E, opus 109, take about ten seconds to play. Eight seconds if you interpret the "Vivace" to mean very fast. Twelve seconds if you interpret "ma non troppo" as not too fast. The brisk, innocently happy opening gets interrupted in the ninth measure by a menacing diminished seventh chord. By the time you've finished reading this paragraph, the Adagio espressivo should have already begun.
Unless the performer has a memory slip.
In July 1989, on stage, six and a half bars into the opening of the Beethoven, I heard footsteps. Suddenly I was in the wrong key. The footsteps got louder. I tried to go back to the tonic. I couldn't. The footsteps came nearer to the piano. Start again, start the opening, I told myself. I couldn't. Keep your hands on the keys. Impossible. I had to make sure it wasn't him. I stopped, put my hands in my lap, and looked out into the audience.
It was only a latecomer taking his seat. I started again and once I crossed over the diminished seventh chord threshold into the Adagio, I was free. My memory served me through the next seventy minutes of music--the Beethoven, the Bart¢k Sonata, and Schumann's Fantasy in C. At the end of the Schumann, the audience applauded. I bowed, grateful that the concert was over, unsure if I could ever trust memory again.
There are three kinds of memory slips, I tell my students. One, when memory slips but you find your way back without losing a beat. Two, when you don't find your way back until the downbeat. Three, when you don't find your way back in time and must stop and restart the music.
I don't tell them about a fourth possibility, when one memory slips, another intrudes, and you don't find your way back for a very long time.
It took about seventeen seconds to recover the music I forgot in the Beethoven. It has taken ten years to recover the life I forgot I had lived. The life that began before music or words.
When I sat down at the piano again after almost two years away, the most difficult passages returned--the ones I had spent the most hours practicing: the coda of the second movement of Schumann's Fantasy, with its outward leaps in opposite directions; the fast unison scales at the end of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the parallel thumb fingering I'd learned to keep the hands exactly together; the end of Bart¢k's Sonata with the right hand chord clusters bounding back and forth while the left hand marches to a relentless beating drum. Some of the accuracy is lost, and the endurance is not there, but the hours spent choreographing these movements remain in my hands. The muscles retain everything.
My fingertips hold the minutest memories. Practicing on my 1925 Steinway, touching the porous ivory, the memories have stayed in the tips of my fingers--the same way those keys have absorbed moisture. When I bought my 1986 Steinway with its impermeable plastic keys, I missed the way the ivory felt under my fingers. I can still recall the feeling. The only fingertip that doesn't have recall is the one that has lost nerves--fourth finger, left hand. I lost part of that fingertip in August 1987. I'm convinced that some tactile memory was lost with it.
From sleepless nights, I know the muscles remember, too. As a child I spent my nights in vigilance, watching the bedroom door for the crack of light or listening for the sound of footsteps. Though I know in my mind he's not coming into my bedroom tonight, that it's been decades since he last came, my muscles don't know it. Not yet. I am hoping to teach them, the same way I taught them to aim for the faraway note and strike it dead center.
Muscle memory, by itself, is not reliable. The same physical gesture can go more than one way. If you are aroused from sleep by a touch on the shoulder, the muscles may stiffen up in defense. It may take time to understand that a loving gesture in the present is not an assault from the past. By themselves, the muscles can't distinguish. And if the memory of the original gesture has been eclipsed, there is no way to understand the muscles' reactions.
This is certainly true for classical musicians. Classical sonata form demands that the same theme that appears in the opening return at the end of the first movement, but lead to a different key the second time around. A particularly good example of this is Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23 in A Major, and since it is intended for performance with orchestra, the implications of a memory slip are by definition more harrowing than in performing a solo sonata.
After a long orchestral tutti in the first movement of the Mozart concerto, the piano enters with the bright opening theme. Toward the end of the movement, the identical passage returns and is, note for note, exactly the same until the measure where the left hand plays D-natural instead of D-sharp. All it would take is one missed note--D-sharp instead of D-natural --and the pianist could be playing the beginning of the movement while the orchestra is playing the end.
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Meet the Author
Linda Katherine Cutting's "Her's" column was included in the Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women. As a pianist she has performed throughout the United States in solo and chamber music concerts and as a soloist with various orchestras. She has performed on numerous occasions with the Boston Pops Orchestra. A graduate of Whitworth College and the New England Conservatory of Music, she also attended Harvard University, the Aspen Music School, and Ernen Musikdorf. She currently teaches at the Longly School of Music in Cambridge. She has recently returned to the concert stage.
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