Art during Austerity: On "Mozart in the Jungle"

By Aaron BadyJanuary 22, 2016

Art during Austerity: On "Mozart in the Jungle"

DearTVlogoDear Television,

MOZART IN THE JUNGLE just won the Golden Globes, and I was happy. I love this show. I probably shouldn’t.

You might know that Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle gets its title from Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir, a book that reveals that classical musicians have sex and take drugs and that the music industry is horrible and corrupt. Or at least that’s what the title leads you to expect. Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, an exposé of the symphonic heart of darkness: Mozart… but in the jungle. Sex, drugs, and… classical music. Get it?

Of course, other than the title and a tiny handful of scenes and characters — and the fact that our protagonist plays the oboe — the Amazon “adaptation” of Tindall’s memoir is a very different beast, in a much more benign and optimistic jungle. It’s worth thinking about what a difference this difference makes. Tindall’s book is a survivor’s story: she is no longer a professional musician and has no nostalgia for the days when she was. Her story is about how she fell into music, how she struggled through it, and how she escaped by becoming a writer instead (mostly writing about the music industry; her first major stories were about the finances of top-heavy arts and culture non-profits and musicians who use drugs to fight stage-fright). If the book has a structure, then — other than the simple chronological — it’s a portrait of the writer as a young musician. If her book is about music, it’s much more about being about music (and why not to be). It is not an inspirational text, in other words. The last thing her book does is make you want to buy season tickets, or take up the oboe.

Interspersed with her own memories and autobiography, her historical account of American classical music’s rise and fall is relatively straightforward: like so many other apparently permanent features of American life (that are now in various states of free-fall and collapse), she argues, the mid-century boom in post-war government funding for arts and culture was a temporary and disastrous bubble. During that period of prosperity, many new groups were formed and American symphonies reached heights from which they could only fall and have fallen. She goes into great detail about how and why this happened — and places herself, a teenager in the 1970’s, as one of the young musicians who got pulled in — but you can read the book if you want those details. For me, the interesting thing is the feeling of it: it feels right that her book was published in 2005, the same year as Tony Soprano’s famous lament that he came in at the end, after the best was already over.

Beyond all the statistics and facts and figures (and anecdotes and names and stories) Tindall describes generational disillusionment and ennui, the depression of those who expected to get what their parents’ generation got, but haven’t and won’t. 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.

It’s not surprising that when the book came out, Tindall was accused of sour grapes. This is an easy charge to make, and a hard charge to rebut: she had some small successes as a musician, but she was never a star (oboists rarely are). This is also why the book maintains such a dispassionate tone, I suspect, carefully scrubbing away as much of the bitterness as she can. Aside from occasional flashes of anger at exploitation or grief at fallen comrades, the rage and resentment she must have felt is overwhelmed by her relief at having found a way out. Her dominant theme ends up being a fairly familiar story: 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).

Much of this feels familiar to me. To us, Dear Television. I don’t need to draw the parallels between the world of classical music and the academic milieu many of us are either escaping from or struggling to make livable. Those parallels leap off the page; the details are different, but the big picture is the same: Institutions whose star-systems depend on harnessing the passion of their least privileged workers, top-heavy administrative hierarchies that cling to the status quo, aging, tired, and unhealthy bodies that carry their scars in necessarily smiling silence, and the terrible moment when someone asks you: should I, also, follow you into your dream?

When I first saw the TV show, I loved it. The first season is perfectly balanced between individual stories (the story of Hailey, the young oboe player who gets her shot at the big time; the story of Gael Garcia Bernal’s hotshot conductor Rodrigo, brought in to save the NYSO) and the story of the larger thing of which they are all a part: the orchestra, the music. As Hailey and Rodrigo enter the orchestra from opposite ends — the bottom and the top — we get an upstairs-downstairs picture of the institution, and at the same time, we are invited to consider the value of an undervalued art. In its first season, Mozart was essentially Slings and Arrows, the story of a group of players who must constantly, loudly, and insistently declare that the show must go on, because the people they must convince are themselves, because it’s anything but clear that it can, and because they are the ones who must put their asses and livelihoods on the line, day after day, night after night. Their belief, their faith, and their gamble are the only things that make the show go on: the only certainty is that if they stopped saying it, it wouldn’t. And so, the conductor, musicians, and staff of the orchestra all have to keep insisting that they are New York’s orchestra — that they are our orchestra, your orchestra to keep the ship above water, and to counteract the worrying realization that no one seems to want them very much. Their audience is aging and dying, their patrons are more interested in cultural capital than in the music, and true lovers of their art are few and far between (and usually broke). Orchestras are expensive and tickets are hard to sell; the orchestra’s main audience seems to be itself while Roderigo DeSouza struggles to live up to the expectations of the ghost of Mozart.

The conclusion to the first season is superbly and powerfully crafted: the show, it turns out, goes on, but only once a few illusions are shed. The conductor must become a member of the orchestra; individual themes must be subordinated for the good of the music. At its best, it turns out, it isn’t about you. It’s about the music.

But the more I think about Tindall’s book, the more I realize how rose-colored that idealism ultimately is. The show not only makes classical music seem fun and sexy, and occasionally dangerous, but it draws you into its idealism, the abiding faith of its musicians that the thing itself is not only enough, on its own, but that it’s the only thing that matters. And this is exactly the passion for the music that the industry uses to keep itself going, and which keeps, in turn, its most exploited workers and musicians in their place.

A decade ago, Tindall remarked that the problem with making a movie of her book would be that “nobody looks good playing the oboe,” and that few actresses are “likely to relish the prospect of appearing on screen with puffed-up cheeks, a red complexion and bulging eyes.” She has a point. But Amazon’s Mozart doesn’t give us that reality; it gives us this:


Dear Television, what should we make of this transformation? Hailey Rutledge resembles Blair Tindall in a few respects, but Tindall took up the oboe because it was alphabetically assigned to her before she was old enough to make her own choices; in Amazon’s version, Hailey describes hearing the sound and wanting — needing — to play it, absolutely overcome by the perfection of the sound. Tindall describes trading sex as a basic and inescapable means of climbing the ladder of success in an industry dominated by lecherous old men; in Amazon’s version, it’s very important that Hailey gets her job because she plays “with the blood,” not with the conductor. Indeed, Rodrigo seems to initially choose her simply because of the selfless romanticism of her gesture, her willingness to play, unseen, for an empty auditorium; the other oboe players are all perfect, but she has an idealism that matches his own. Of course, Tindall denounces a system which pays millions to figureheads, absentee maestros — “All that money just for waving his hands around and not making a sound” — which leaves the best musicians of her generation to be destroyed by poverty and depression. But in Amazon’s version, Gael García Bernal is the savior-hero of the orchestra’s story — and Hailey’s spiritual twin — a true musician whose orchestra loves, admires, and also needs him.

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.

Is it a coincidence that Jason Schwartzman is not only one of the show’s creators and producers but plays a star-struck classical music journalist-superfan? It is not. Tindall wrote a muckraking memoir; Schwartzman and company turned it into a love letter to classical music. For me, the most striking example of this shift is the show’s season two field trip to a home for retired musicians, for Bradford “Jason Schwartzman” Sharp’s podcast. It’s a lovely building, in which we meet an aged oboe player who seems to be an honored and revered elder statesman of music, living comfortably and telling stories to his successors, who are honored to crouch at his feet. Players and orchestras come and go, it seems, but the music abides, master of us all. It’s hard to square this cozy image with its source text: Tindall paints a different scene. Instead of a home for retired musicians, she gives us the Allendale, a squalid rat-infested building where musicians lived because they had no choice and from which they couldn’t escape. “I lived at the Allendale for 21 years,” she writes, “and was afraid I was going to become a lifer. Some people moved in and never moved out. They made just enough money from their music to survive. But that's no way to live.”

So, Dear Television, are we into this candy-colored version of a dark, depressing memoir? I’m of two minds. On the one hand, reading Tindall’s book really made me question why I liked the show so much. On the other hand, I really did like the show.

The scandals of Tindall’s book are still there, in snatches: musicians have sex and do drugs, but less because of hedonism than because they work hard and are barely scraping by. The sex is complicated and human — and often very silly — while the drugs are balms for lives filled by tendonitis and stress. But ultimately, the sex and drugs (and economics) take a back seat to the music: marijuana smoke will damage your lungs, and who has time for lovers — or a family, or a life — when you need to practice the oboe? And practice? And practice? And still more practice? When Hailey’s roommate cons an old lady out of her prescription medication, her drug of choice is Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. For every momentary glimpse of ecstatic bacchanalia, we get scene after scene of musicians just grinding out a living, working and working, growing old together wondering if they made the right choice when they chose to do one thing, and only one thing, with the one life they have. Every marriage we see on the show is broken.

It’s also very funny, because it’s built out of a hilariously unanswerable question: Why make art that no one wants to pay for?

It’s unanswerable because there is no reason; it is, literally, an irrational thing to do. And irrational people are at their funniest when they insist on continuing, and when — in order to continue — they must insist that doing so is the only reasonable thing to do. In this way, the show is a comic saga about art during our austerity, about the survival and suffering of the artistic vocation in the face of the endless and remorseless de-professionalization we are experiencing, as, year after year, it gets harder and harder to make a living doing the things you love.

There was little to none of that idealism in Tindall’s memoir, of necessity; de-romanticizing the industry means exploring its lack of love. And so, her picture of the music industry is of a cruel loveless world, in which sex is a way to get ahead, a way to get by, and a way to fight off desperate loneliness. When she remarks that she got most of her gigs in bed, she’s neither ashamed nor regretful nor even proud and defiant. She’s not even bitter, just a little sad. Sometimes these love affairs were bad, and sometimes they were good: when she tells the story of being seduced by her 43-year old music teacher — when she was 16 years old — the fact that he gave her a copy of Lolita afterwards is a bit ironic, but only in retrospect. At the time, she was quite clear that their relationship was imperfect but basically nurturing and necessary. As with most relationships that ran their course and ended, she looks back with enough distance to criticize, but no real anger or bitterness. There’s a certain muckraking vigor to her stories about how sex greased the wheels of a viciously inequitable hierarchy — a certain desire to shame the musical industry into cleaning house — but there’s no bitterness or vengeance, just relief at being gone. Once she understood how the system worked, and found a way out, she got out.

For better or for worse, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle is the story of musicians who would never try to get out. They are lifers. Hailey Rutledge has a vocation, and so does Roderigo DeSouza: she plays when no one is listening and he listens when no one is playing. Music is everything. And so, as a picture of the music industry, it’s an airbrushed fairy tale. But this is perhaps why I found the second season much less pleasurable than the first: as the show gets caught up in labor struggles, boardroom politics, and individual stories, it loses its focus on the music they play together. If the first season was about learning to make music as a group, as a community, and as an ensemble, the second season tries to cram so many soloists into the story that it becomes… well, it’s not third rate. But I miss in it what I loved in the first season, even as I’ve now learned to distrust that love: the evocation of Art at its purest, the license that the aesthetic gives us to overlook the imperfections and limitations of bodies and lives, and aspire to the divine. Of course it’s not realistic; beware anyone who tells you to do what you love because you’ll never work a day in your life. That person is trying to exploit you.

But then again, as Tindall pointed out, who would want to watch the real thing?

This orchestra is capable of doing amazing things, and we're not there yet,


LARB Contributor

Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.


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