Mozart in the jungle

Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs, and classical music (2005) is the kind of book that I (if not my imaginary bank manager)* am glad I didn’t try and write. But it’s a valuable addition to the ethnography of WAM, seeking beyond the disembodied romantic image.

Despite its salacious subtitle, it’s of an entirely different order from fictional romps like Jilly Cooper’s Appassionata. As an insider’s account, it’s all the more revealing for being, um, “true”. The “muckraking” hype may make it seem like tabloid fodder, but I’m all for lifting the lid on the orchestral business with thick description.

Those reading it for the kiss-and-tell stories may get bogged down in the detailed accounts of arts funding—and indeed vice versa—but as one reads on, it’s well worth it. As I seek to integrate the thick description of contemporary Chinese life with the more arcane minutiae of ancient Daoist texts, I take this to heart.

While not initially sympathetic, the story later becomes a bravely candid and noble indictment. Fighting through depression. when Tindall finally escapes the twin prisons of the Allendale (graveyard of many a career—“a squalid rat-infested building where musicians lived because they had no choice”) and her stagnant orchestral life, you want to cheer. As if to explain and put in perspective the reinventions that Taruskin unpacks, she comments:

I was in a narcissistic industry that that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape. (247)

As she finally tunnels her way out of the Gulag to a journalism course in Stanford, she wonders,

How could I have allowed such an insular, incestuous business to rule me for a quarter century? (291)

***

Ethnographies are always specific to their time: for orchestral life, Vienna around 1900, 1950s’ Leeds, Dubai in 2015, and so on. Here we have New York from the eve of AIDS into the 21st century. But whatever the time and place, it’s always about real people seeking work.

Tindall argues against the kind of cloistered education she received. Soon she is plunged into the fray of the New York scene. Freelancing, all over the world, is an insecure life. She makes a terrifying debut with the NY Phil, doing Tchaik 5 with Tennstedt, soon followed by The rite of spring with Bernstein. Sounds glamorous, eh? What could possibly go wrong?

She describes the transition from the initial excitement, during a boom, to the decline of the 90s as ideals hit the rocks. Such stultifying routine is well observed by Alan Bennett in 1950s’ Leeds. After the Golden Age of the 1980s, Tindall notes the irony of the transition:

The culture boom was fizzling, yet the business of the arts were gaining momentum.

With an on-off relationship with the NY Phil, she schlepps around on out-of-town gigs with her friends. And she’s just as good at describing the life of the pit band for shows, a more dependable livelihood to which her career “descends”. Getting a regular job in Aspects of love, she

discovered an unusual skill possessed by about 10 percent of Broadway musicians. I could read a magazine while playing my part simultaneously. Those without the gift passed the time in other ways, plugging in transistors, knitting, making lists, or doing crosswords. One trumpeter studied maps.

This puts in perspective the reported churlishness of the Berlin Phil towards S-S-Simon Rattle—at least they have secure jobs, playing different masterpieces every night with a highly sympathetic conductor.

Tindall notes adverse changes in the recording industry. On an increasingly rare film session she comments:

As I watched the violinists’ bows going up and down in unison, reflected against glass beyond which sat the film’s production team, I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of people. In the booth sat men who made money out of trying a new idea, succeeding or failing and then trying another. On my side of the business, musicians returned to the same kinds of gigs, playing someone else’s music and earning a per-service wage. As the bows went up and down, I was reminded of a scene in Ben Hur in which galley slaves rowed without much idea of where they were headed. (275)

As she admits, she was proud to be unable to identify a pop song from the Beatles to Blondie (90). Indeed, she was missing out on a vibrant period for popular culture in New York—just as I would have, and indeed did in London.

A full-time symphonic job evolves into monotony for many players. Orchestra musicians saw away like factory workers, repeating the same pieces year after year. Once a player is employed in a desirable orchestra, career advancement is severely limited. Perfectionism and injuries wear musicians down. Nighttime and holiday work disconnect them from mainstream life. Players complain that they forfeit autonomy to an omnipotent conductor who works a third of their schedule, is paid as much as twenty musicians [so little?!—SJ], and gets credit for the music they make.

In a world where the livelihoods of the rank-and-file are so tenuous, Tindall attacks the grossly inflated fees of conductors, soloists, and management with detailed arguments (see also here).

Reminding me of a survey of trusted professions in China, she cites a survey of job satisfaction of workers in a variety of industries,

in which orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in overall job satisfaction than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. (215–16)

I doubt if people go into hedge-fund management, or restaurant service, burdened by particularly high spiritual ideals. So it’s the disjuncture of lofty youthful dreams of making beautiful music (and the enduring rosy public image) with the harsh mundane realities of eking a living that can make for such soul-searching. Even those aspiring to some other professions—like becoming a cook, or a teacher or nurse—are better armed with cautionary tales.

The book is full of poignant passages like

I was tired of pretending I wanted this. Tired of my hopeless reed-making. Sick of the same old excerpts. Sick of spending every cent trying to win a job that offered only a minimal salary. After twenty-five auditions, I had spent $30,000 on flights, hotels, private oboe lessons, and missed work, most of it accumulating on a credit card. Even if I had won this gig, I’d never get out of debt.
I signaled the bartender and ordered a double Dewar’s. He wiped down the bar. I swallowed the burning whiskey and cleared my throat.
“I tried out for the Nashville Symphony today,” I told the bartender. He didn’t know Nashville had an orchestra. He loved music though, playing a little guitar himself. What was my instrument?
“Oboe,” I said simply. “I play the oboe.”
Oh-boe?” he asked, and stopped wiping, rag suspended over the bar. “What the heck’s an oh-boe?”(186–7)

***

Perhaps the more deviant behaviour that Tindall describes is prompted by the mismatch between ecstasy and drudge. For London since the 1970s, the main drug of choice was alcohol—as well as the elephant in the room, beta-blockers. Tindall reflects on drug use (“substance abuse was almost a badge of honor”), and its often-tragic consequences, with elegant summaries:

There were plenty of reason for musicians to get high—to soothe the frustration of spotty employment or to dull the repetitious nature of practicing and performing the same works over and over again. For others, it was the pursuit of perfection in an art whose quality cannot be measured. (106–10)

Noting that Tindall used to sell bags of weed as a teenager to subsidize her budding career, if you don’t know the Family Guy song, then you must!

She notes gender relations, with the ratio improving more quickly than the attitudes of the still-dominant male elite (86–7). Personal life can suffer too (as in the UK musos’ motto “touring doesn’t count”). Moaning with a girlfriend about the difficulty of finding a suitable partner, she observes:

Back in my early twenties, men my age lived in squalor, and the ones I met in orchestras were either geriatric or already spoken for. By their thirties, though, responsible guys had jumped ship for a career that could support a family. That left people outside the business, who were difficult to meet and had peculiar notions about us anyway. Outsiders were forever intimidated by musicians, whom they imagined as erudite superintellects.
“Ha! Musicians are more like blue-collar workers than PhDs,” Sydney joked. She had a point. Music performance was a specific craft that was perfected more by practice than by analysis. Our colleagues’ narrow focus sometimes made for dull conversation too, centering around dirty jokes, shop talk, and expensive wining and dining that everyone pretended they could afford. (226)

***

Tindall acknowledges some positive recent changes in symphony orchestras that put the needs of their communities first (301). Yet in the end the concerts she attends leave her cold. She sums up:

The role of classical music has changed in American society since 1960. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, [“classical”—SJ] music had been a part of everyday life for Americans, many of whom played instruments or sang together as amateurs. Today, classical music has become peripheral and irrelevant to mainstream life. It is regarded as an incomprehensible art that must be performed perfectly or not at all. […]
Today, amateur musicians are conservatory-trained professionals who cannot find work. Typically, their lives are the reverse of the 1950s amateurs—highly trained in their hobby but uneducated in whatever becomes their money-making career. […] They […] may flounder through life doing non-musical work that does not use the high levels of ambition and intelligence many gifted musicians possess. […]
I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. […] What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. (306)

The book is unlikely to transform the staid image of WAM, but that’s not the point at all (she comments wryly on the rampant “sexing-up” of WAM). As Tindall herself commented on young audiences in interview,

My experience with them is that when people see live musicians wearing clothes that they wear, who look like them, they’re mesmerized by it. But when it’s presented as something very highfalutin, it’s frightening. The wall comes down right away.

***

As an oboist, Tindall sprinkles the book liberally with shavings from reed-making and all its paraphernalia, reminding me of Wu Mei and Ciaran Carson:

Jimmy dug into his satchel. Oboists carry reed tool kits: knives, mandrels, pliers, sharpening stones, plus cigarette papers for leaky keys. He shook a plastic film canister filled with water for soaking reeds. He put it aside and grabbed a second canister, tapping out some pot to roll a joint. We smoked dope, got naked, and embraced. (100)

Good to find an early source for my casual reference to TFL’s use of classical music at London tube stations. As she schlepps back from a church gig in New Jersey, she passes through the bus station at Port Authority, known as a magnet for crime:

Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray”. […] The technique had first been used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. […] I thought about the message of Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime. How could we, the industry producing the stuff, demand that our fans pay top dollar for the same treatment? Ironically, the public’s distaste for classical music opened up a new market for repackaging symphonies and sonatas as cultural spinach. Mozart may be yucky and boring, went the reasoning, but it’s good for you. (205)

***

As Edward Smith notes in a finely-titled review,

the sex and drugs are peripheral to the much more important things she has to say about the music industry and the broader relationship between society, finance and the arts. […] By the time Tindall turned pro in the 1980s, the classical music industry still expected a deference that it no longer commanded. Supply outstripped demand.

Given such insights, Smith’s conclusion seems unkind:

First Tindall used sex for advancement in one profession, now she has used writing about sex for advancement in another.

Anne Midgette’s review also has some reservations:

There’s a lot wrong with the classical music business. But there is a lot wrong in other fields, too. Plenty of people in this country are stuck in dead-end jobs even more repetitive and less interesting than Ms Tindall’s. Plenty of them can’t afford health insurance. Plenty of industries need fixing. Plenty of people used a lot of drugs in the 1980’s. Plenty of workers die in car accidents during their daily commutes. So these arguments alone are not a strong indictment of classical music per se.

Of course the frustrations and injustices of other professions are indeed important topics, but ethnographers like those of Tindall are valuable partly in order to deflate a dangerous myth that is less common elsewhere.

Aaron Bady gives a fine review of the book along with the more recent, and predictably more benign, Amazon TV series:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/art-during-austerity-on-mozart-in-the-jungle/#!

She spent the first half of her life trying to be a good musician in a system that no longer had a place for her, yet a system that needed her drive and passion and desperation to keep itself viable… but that would never allow her a life in which she could thrive. Once she understood this cruel fact, she left.[Tindall describes]
how trickle-down austerity feels on the bottom of the pay-scale, how economic disparities become social exploitation, and how an appeal to idealism and doing-what-you-love becomes a ticket to poverty for those foolish enough to believe it (all against the backdrop of a data-driven journalistic analysis of how overpaid administrators have mismanaged classical music into oblivion).
[…]
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Amazon’s version is a point-by-point response to Tindall’s critique. If Tindall tries to disillusion us, Amazon gives glamorous cameos to Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, and Anton Coppola, the very same rich and famous stars who (as Tindall showed) luxuriate in a system built on bloody hands, broken lungs, and crushed ambitions. Their participation in the show is fun, perhaps because it puffs up the mythology that Tindall was trying to deflate.

 For more reviews, see here.

***

Of course, the life of a few elite orchestras doesn’t represent the totality of music-making, even in urban areas. The classic ethnography (largely free of sex and drugs) is Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians, on all kinds of musical life in Milton Keynes. Tindall’s account should also take its place alongside all the jazz biographies detailing another side to New York musical life (vibrant yet also insecure), and all the ethnographies of local music-making in world societies.

Some orchestral players, both in regular jobs and freelancers, take the rough with the smooth and find considerable fulfilment. But I suspect they are outnumbered by those who reach a point of frustration and helplessness. This book should be compulsory reading for idealistic young musicians—not necessarily to dissuade them from a musical “career”, but just to increase awareness and encourage debate.

 

* Remember them? They had bowler hats and moustaches and caught the 7.46 from Surbiton.

2 thoughts on “Mozart in the jungle

  1. Pingback: Yet more Mozart | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Performance ethnography | Stephen Jones: a blog

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