I had long been in search of a pretext for writing a column on sex, drugs, and classical music when I discovered that, by extraordinary coincidence, just such a subtitle adorned Blair Tindall’s memoir, Mozart in the Jungle (2005). The televised series of the same name seemed also to feature much sex, drugs, and classical music, though my brief viewing was curtailed by an indignant hand (mine) on the remote control—one which refused to tolerate more than a few minutes of the show. I had learned the lesson: If you want to attract readers and viewers both, sex and drugs can indeed draw the attentions of those readers and viewers to classical music, though sex and drugs cannot sustain them. And if you are with me so far, then perhaps the point is made.
But there are notable points made about the status of classical music today in Blair Tindall’s book. One of them is about the disconnect between musical education and jobs in the music establishment. If the young musician cannot succeed in musical life as it is (with possibly a subsidized appointment to an orchestra, and gigs on the side), then that same person is inadequately educated in much else, as far as job skills go. There are many more trained musicians than there are places for them, and their own education actually penalizes them by its emphases. But I believe that this point can be looked at again, without questioning its truth as far as it goes.
And it does not go very far, in this day and age, in spite of a certain limited truth about the industrial implications—if we can call them such. Blair Tindall has overlooked a major consideration, which is the inadequacy or programmed failure of education in these disunited states. If we follow her argument otherwise, we would say that physical education and sports have no place in education, because not everyone can be a star, nor can everyone be taken up by professional sports. A look at the economics of stadiums and their ticket prices says something about the context in which classical music exists. I might add that in large part, professional sports are exempt from competing among themselves, as the symphonic entities do, when they record the obvious repertory. After all, it’s much more convenient to play a CD than it is to attend a concert with some—or even any—attention to the amenities.
Is it necessary that music instruction should be so intrusive on precious time? The first answer is yes; the second answer is, take a look at European practices, or standards and distinctions in education. The Europeans have not tried to conceal the truth about musical instruction, nor about other instruction, either. They make room for apprenticeships, as an alternative to higher education. A young person who doesn’t want more schooling is provided for, so that he has a future; and a serious student of a musical instrument is not held back by “equality.” Rather, her elite status is supported—if she can cut the mustard. As the population of Europe is shuffled, there will be, no doubt, some changes. But at least there was some truth to know, even as it evaporates.
That truth took the form of a recognition of the demands of musical instruction and engagement. This truth encompassed a commitment to solfège and to the demands of adequacy, as far as instruments go. Americans prefer the Suzuki method, wrongly. But then again, Americans have allowed and have even subsidized grammar-school and high-school education to be distorted by “democracy” as instruments of social rearrangement. (Isn’t everything, including immigration and citizenship, distorted thusly?) But a violin or viola or cello or double-bass student must cope with a fretless instrument: As a great violinist once observed, “There is no substitute for perfect intonation.” (If he had been a pianist, he might have said, “There is no substitution for a good piano tuner.”) It’s clear that music education involves much time and commitment, and that it displaces a certain amount of energy.
But that’s far from saying that musical education isn’t worth the trouble, or that it isn’t justifiable. In the enveloping circumstance of a complex educational collapse—related to political and ideological perversity as well as the damaging, addicting confusion caused by technological revolutions such as the iPhone—the discipline and devotion which music education demands is a highly valuable resource, and indeed an education in itself. Instrumental mastery involves not only an integration of bodily and mental faculties but also a sense of history, culture, imagination, and even languages. Nothing could be better for young people, especially since “school” has walked away from its essential function.
We could compare musical instruction with a related field: foreign-language study. The benefits of learning languages are much more than the obvious and utilitarian. In the first place, other languages are the best way to learn English grammar and syntax, and in the cases of Greek, Latin, French, and even German, they are instructive as well about vocabulary, diction, and so on. Let’s put it this way: If Julius Caesar was fond of the ablative absolute—and he was—you should be also. And if you liked Madame Bovary in translation, you will love it in the original. Stuff happens: A certain novel by André Gide consumed en Français convinced me that Graham Greene had taken a bit too much of it for his novel The End of the Affair. That was a no-no, Graham!
But to return to the point. Like musical engagement, language study is lavishly rewarding for many reasons. And when we consider just how music and languages are treated in the public schools, we begin to understand that the public schools are the problem—not the best topics of the liberal and other arts. That is why the homeschooling movement is spreading across the country—because the public schools actually prevent learning from happening.
But that is not the only prevention that is going on. Blair Tindall’s book, as it seems to me, was a prevention of enlightenment to the reader. The author has written a memoir, itself a strategic error, and the results are questionable, to say the least. Tindall’s accounts of her disordered sexual encounters somehow do not speak to the subject of musical education. Though it is true that Tindall has played the oboe in respected musical institutions such as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, she has pulled her narrative away from “classical music” toward “sex and drugs.” Is it possible that she calculated how to make even more money from her commercial exploitation of her own life?
There was a time early in the history of the novel when such tales as these were presented as fiction—Moll Flanders fits in here, and so do others in the 18th century. Later on, it seemed that the greatest English novelists were female, but we notice also that such writers were self-conscious fictionists. They did not write memoirs, as is the mode of today. I think the memoir-trend and the turning away from fiction is a sure sign of cultural decline. The story is judged by its confessional apparatus, and the worse the better. This sort of thing—the first part of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr—has had some success.
But in no sense is Blair Tindall a writer in the league of such accomplished performers. And probably that is not such a bad thing. Perhaps she should go back to the oboe, if she could finally master the art of cutting her own reeds. After all, anyone can “write” a “book”—her talent was bigger and more focused than that, and I think she should stick to it. The same passages of disordered and unacquainted erotic encounters do turn stale, try as she may. Tindall’s readers will soon be looking for another presentation of the usual.
Some of these fans know that you read what has been written, and not much later it is on television so that you can record it. Performing sexual congress on TV seemed once to have been thought of as crass, but now is a career foundation. And how, you ask, does classical music fit in here? There is a relationship between conductors and the hirelings and the politics of music, like that of other fields that have been corrupted by abuse. Tindall seems to have enjoyed much of that, however, so in her work you have a blend of outrage and ecstasy. But in New York, people talked about the misbehavior of James Levine for years. The recent lawsuits took no one by surprise because Levine’s misbehavior had been a matter of public remark for decades.
So yes, musical life in New York and elsewhere has its troubles and challenges. But a memoir can be shaped into porn, indeed leading to new money-making opportunities hitherto unknown to oboists. The cultural vista has been shaped and reshaped as our politicians write their memoirs; and those of less note reinforce their memoirs with accounts of sexual adventures. But even so, there are good books in the libraries and book stores, and feeling benign these days, I wish for aspiring readers all the best there is.