Mozart in the Jungle: Blair Tindall talks about her controversial memoir, and the new Amazon series
Blair Tindall intended to write a book about the rise of culture in late 20th-century America. Trained in journalism after she gave up her professional music career, she wanted to blow the "classical music is dying" fallacy out of the water. Doing research at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, Tindall wanted to show that, contrary to popular belief, classical music began a meteoric rise in the 1960s, which is when a lot of people think it started dying.
Instead of a dry piece of historical journalism, Tindall put her own story into the book, resulting in a salacious memoir about her life as a classical musician, called Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Lies and Classical Music (2005).
The book, which follows Tindall's story from nerdy misfit in public school to professional oboist working the freelance circuit in New York City, is a real page-turner and gives you an inside view of what goes on behind the scenes in the classical music world. Roman Coppola (nephew of Francis Ford Coppola) has now adapted the memoir into a comedic TV series for Amazon Prime starring the likes of Gael Garcia Bernal, Jason Schwartzman, and Bernadette Peters.
Tindall said it never occurred to her that her life as a musician would end up as a memoir while she was living it. As she was nearing 40, though, she decided she wanted to get out of the music business, and ended up going back to school at Stanford for journalism on a full scholarship.
In Tindall's first week of classes, her magazine writing class was given an assignment to write about an experience that had affected them emotionally in a deep way, so Tindall chose to write about the pianist Samuel Sanders, who had died a few weeks earlier and was someone Tindall really admired.
"I chose to read the story in class. Of course I had never written before, really, in my life," Tindall said. When she was done reading the story, her class went completely silent. Thinking it was a disaster, and immediately regretting quitting her music career, it took a while before anyone spoke. Finally, someone said, "Nobody knows this: you have to write a book," and soon all of her other classmates agreed. "That's how the whole thing came about," she said.
Though she hadn't kept a journal, Tindall had a huge box of ephemera from every concert she ever played. Plus, since many of the concerts had been covered by the press, she was able to piece the history together, with the help of friends and colleagues who helped jog her memory.
Though Tindall's original premise was a more academic look at high culture, she needed to make it interesting. "I decided to add a memoir component to make it more readable, because my life paralleled this whole phenomenon of funding and the rise of culture in the late 20th-century America, which started about 1976," Tindall says.
She made herself more of a character than she had actually been in real life, Tindall says. Whether exaggerated or not, Tindall's story is a fascinating one, and the pages of the book describe love affairs, hyperbolic antics, drug binges, wild parties, intrigue, back-stabbing, and more. It paints a portrait of the paycheck-to-paycheck existence many of the musicians were living, where jobs were gotten more through networking (sometimes between the sheets) than through auditions.
After the book was published, Tindall got blacklisted, she said. "It was a bumpy road for the last ten years, but I have absolutely no regrets." Despite the criticism, Tindall said she was trying to represent musicians in positive light. "I wasn't trying to 'tell-all'; that's not at all what it is. I was trying to show us as hard-working, unrecognized people who are giving you something that you are really going to love," she says.
Though she added the memoir component, Tindall says she tried to stay true to her original thesis. "I think the general idea that I was trying to get across in the book was [that] the administrations of these organizations, which are nonprofit organizations, have gotten very bloated. The salaries of some of these CEOs and such are just completely out of hand." CEOs, Tindall said, keep wanting to expand seasons, which, she argues, spreads the same audience out over twice as many performances. "So of course it looks like the audience is shrinking but it's not: it's just maybe we don't need that large of [a] season."
The book caught the eye of Roman Coppola, who tried to get a TV show made. At one point there was an HBO deal, but they dumped the show for "Girls". Then, Amazon Prime showed interest. "I think that ended up being a much better place for the show because they gave us a lot of freedom," Tindall says.
Tindall is a consultant on the show, which means that the different directors for various episodes would ask her questions about things like concert protocol and what certain words mean and how to make reeds. "I went to the writers room and showed them my oboe," she says. "Everybody took selfies with it." She also appeared in the last episode.
She said the process of watching her book be turned into a TV show has been delightful. "It's clearly had an impact on people's interest in classical music, if you look at the comments," she said. "I knew it was going to unfold this way, but the classical music press was very snarky about it."
The show has been criticized for details like how the actors hold their instruments, but Tindall said some of the criticism is unfair. "One of the things that comes up all the time that cracks me up is, 'Oh, a concert cellist would never play a Broadway show and a concert in the same day.' Well, I did — every Wednesday and Saturday, pretty much." A lot of the complaints, she said, are unwarranted because certain creative license needed to be taken. "Do you really want to watch how auditions actually happen? It's pretty boring," she said.
Tindall also feels good about how many musicians got work because of the show — including 150 on-screen musicians, other musicians that coached the actors, and a European orchestra that recorded the soundtrack. In total, said Tindall, the show employed about 350 musicians.
"I think eventually people are going to get it," she said. "I see all the reviews. People say, 'Oh, I hate classical music, but I love this. I'm gong to buy tickets to the Dallas Symphony.' And that's exactly what i was hoping for."
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.