Review of "Mozart in the Jungle"

Mozart in the Jungle: sex, drugs and classical music, by Blair Tindall. ISBN 1-84354-492-X.

Music is notoriously a lousy job: unless you're one of the very few lucky superstars, job security and pay are both miserable, and there's little of the glamour you might imagine. And it's intensely competitive, with far more players than decent jobs. So how do you get ahead in that competition, and how do you put up with the stress?

Blair Tindall is in little doubt of the answer: sex. Lots of sex. If her account of her career is to be trusted, she owed most of her successes to her willingness to sleep with anyone who offered the prospect of advancement, and most of her subsequent failures to land a good job to her having broken up with the same people. It's not very clear how typical she thinks she is in this, though I beg leave to suspect her case is extreme. (Note to the prurient or prudish: although she's plenty explicit about who and when, there's very little about the how. This is not a titillating book.)

Mozart in the Jungle isn't all about Tindall; we meet many other musicians, almost all also struggling to keep afloat financially and personally. A few appear more than briefly, their own wretched stories complementing Tindall's.

Tindall is clearly bitter about her time in the music industry; she found it demoralizing and, I think, degrading. She is angry about the thousands of musicians who face years of grind followed by an impoverished old age. She considers that the classical music industry has lost touch with the public and with financial reality. And she is understandably upset by the disparity between what rank-and-file musicians are paid and the riches that come to the superstars -- and also to the senior administrators. (This is in the USA; the situation elsewhere may be different.)

This book is trying to do two things. Firstly, it's an engaging, and shocking to those readily shocked by such things, personal memoir about life in the classical music world today. Secondly, it's an indictment of the state of that world, with some proposals for fixing it. The personal memoir is largely intended as a hook for the indictment, if subsequent interviews with Tindall are to be believed.

I found the first aspect more satisfying than the second. Tindall's personal story is well told; her arguments about the state of the industry and what needs to be done to make it better seem a bit simplistic to me, and her indignation at the salaries of "superstar conductors and soloists" might be better directed at the CD-buying and concert-going public who are so moved by name recognition. Careful, detailed analysis wouldn't have fitted well with the surrounding racy memoir, I suppose. Her most important specific proposal -- to train many fewer music students, so that there won't be so much competition for so few jobs -- seems plausible enough.