Can music save a person’s life?
For professional oboist Butler, the answer is yes. Her brutally honest memoir recounts the life of a woman who was able to overcome devastating emotional and physical pain, sometimes self-inflicted, thanks to the music she loved and performed. Her father was a creepy and violent man who once smashed her sister’s face with a brutal punch. He haunts this book, while the author’s mother comes across as weak, quiet, and passive in the background. There seemed to be little love in the household. However, there was music, and Butler grabbed on to it like a life raft. As a 4-year-old, she was mesmerized by Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and singer Kirsten Flagstad. Butler picked up the flute in fourth grade and later, when her music teacher asked for a volunteer to play a new instrument, she took on the oboe. The music and hours of practice were always there for her when her parents weren’t. The book proceeds chronologically, with many italicized chapters interspersed. These are mainly about music and performing and her favorite composers, and they’re a welcome respite from the pain of her personal story. Eventually, Butler got into a conservatory in New York City and worked odd jobs to survive. Her low self-esteem and unrelenting search for a new father figure led to a failed marriage, abusive boyfriends, drugs, and even a suicide attempt. But there was always the music, and she writes lovingly and beautifully about it. She tells us about making reeds for her oboe, why many conductors aren’t worth their salt, how difficult and “glorious” it is to work as a freelance musician with great composers (André Watts, Keith Jarrett), and the utter joy of performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which “tests the endurance of all oboists.”
The light and the dark fight it out in this fierce, fiery memoir.