Writer and professor Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman just published a moving debut memoir focused on her early 20s. Sounds Like Titanic (out from W. W. Norton this week) details Hindman’s time struggling to pay for her Columbia education, her experience studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt, during 9/11, and her childhood in Appalachia. But it also involves that time she toured the country as a “fake violinist” with a group, unnamed in the book, that was very likely the Tim Janis Ensemble.
In the memoir, Hindman identifies the person who is almost definitely Janis only as “The Composer.” As she grapples with her sense of reality — and post-9/11 America’s sense of unreality — Hindman travels widely in an RV with The Composer and other musicians as they “perform” at different venues in the early aughts. When it’s time for the musicians to start playing, The Composer presses play on a CD player he purchased from Walmart for $14.95, and the musicians “play” along. Like Milli Vanilli, except “Milli Violini,” as Hindman puts it.
Contextual clues point to Janis. Most glaringly, Hindman describes a PBS special she refers to as “God Bless America” that The Composer has done in collaboration with “The Hollywood Celebrity.” Janis has made two PBS specials narrated by George Clooney, called “Beautiful America” and “Coastal America.” Hindman notes, at the end of the book, that she sees a photo of The Composer and Kate Winslet on the internet. Janis worked on a concert for Kate Winslet’s foundation. The theory that The Composer and Janis are one and the same is hardly the stuff of QAnon.
Janis has sold millions of records, performed at Carnegie Hall, and worked with Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. Last year, he directed a movie starring Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. If he is The Composer, he certainly wouldn’t be the first performer to rely on syncing. The practice is common enough at live performances, ranging from the Thanksgiving Day Parade to Mariah Carey’s infamous sendoff of 2016, that it’s no longer shocking, or even quite so disreputable, at least among pop stars at messy outdoor venues. But playing air strings in sync with a CD player at malls and PBS concerts would be taking things to a new level.
We asked our classical-music critic, Justin Davidson, what he thought of Janis’s possible transgression. “Wtf?,” he responded by email. “How could audiences not see nobody was really playing? If you crash cymbals together at the wrong time it shows! I mean, if fake musicians were trained well enough to make it look real why not just hire real musicians?” He added that it would seem impossible not to notice in a traditional venue, though perhaps not “in a stadium or arena setting where I guess anything goes.” Hindman’s memoir does register a range of responses from attendees — the most skeptical being at smaller venues like crafts fairs, while those at the PBS shows never asked: “The idea of sitting through an hour-long ‘concert’ that is mostly a CD recording is likely too embarrassing to even contemplate, let alone ask one of us about.”
The Composer’s music moves people, and he is not characterized in the book as necessarily a bad person; he meets with every fan who stays after the concert to chat with him, and he knows his work provides comfort to people going through the hard years after September 11. And his CDs are his own compositions. It’s just that if you were to pay to see a performance by the Composer’s ensemble, it might not necessarily be a “live” rendition by the musicians on the stage in front of you.
There’s no denying the literary world is having a time with scammers right now (from Dan Mallory to Jill Abramson). But does this fit the classic scam mold? Speaking to NPR, Hindman was reluctant to call the Composer’s scheme a “scam,” choosing instead to label it “artifice.” She also said she hoped no one would out the Composer, but understood that it might happen.
Vulture called a number listed for the Tim Janis Ensemble, located in Janis’s hometown of York, Maine. A man who answered, when asked for comment about whether Janis was the composer in Jessica Hindman’s memoir, said, “I have nothing to say.” Pressed further, he added, “Never saw it, don’t know what you’re talking about, can’t help you, sorry.” Repeated calls requesting more details were not returned.
Hindman’s publisher responded to requests for comment with the following statement: “Jessica Hindman chose not to identify The Composer in the book. Ultimately his identity is not what the book is about. SOUNDS LIKE TITANIC isn’t an exposé. The memoir is intended to be a work of literature, telling the story of Jessica’s experience in that time, and expressing her ideas about music, work, gender, and American culture.”
It’s true that Hindman’s larger point is a personal and cultural one — that in the run-up to the Iraq War, the boundaries between real and fake had begun to break down across society, from the Composer’s nostalgic prerecorded music, which sounded distinctly similar to the Titanic theme, on up to the people who cooked up WMD intelligence. Fifteen years after the events described, deep into our unending season of scam, all of it still feels perfectly relevant.