Play on, players

Mozart in the Jungle: sex, drugs and classical music

Blair Tindall <em>Grove Atlantic, 318pp, £10.

This book's title rang alarm bells as loud as a Mahler horn. Would it prove to be the literary equivalent of the record industry promoting scantily clad young musicians in an attempt to convince the public that classical music is sexy? Its prelude - which portrays a group of stoned music students snorting coke and saying things like "Wagner's so out, man. What's with those Valkyries? Pointy, dude. Torpedo tits" - did little to dispel my fears. Being all too aware that "musos" drink and take drugs and have sex like everyone else, I was unconvinced that an entire book about their exploits was necessary. Besides, classical music, even if it is arguably the greatest creative achievement of mankind, is not cool, and never will be. To assert an equivalence to rock'n'roll simply because its practitioners engage in debauchery would be ludicrous.

As it happens, I am very glad that I did read on, because despite its ill-conceived title, the book proved to be a frank, moving and important work by somebody who did not put pen to paper until she was in her forties. Far from mounting a doomed case for the street cred of clas-sical music, Tindall, who used to be a professional oboist with the New York Philharmonic and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is an apologist for nothing. Not sex: this becomes a weapon that she uses and which is used against her. After a fruitful period in her early twenties when she was "hired for most of [her] gigs in bed", she finds the best freelance work mysteriously drying up, and by 40 is lonely and single after a string of unfulfilling one-night stands and affairs with married men. Not drugs, either: classical musicians are just as susceptible to temptation as any other performer, and the number whose lives have been destroyed by narcotics is shocking. Tindall writes that they rely upon drugs not only "to soothe the frustrations of spotty unemployment or to dull the repetitious nature of practising and performing the same works again and again", but to combat financial and emotional insecurity, an acute sense of personal irrelevance and the twin pressures of "trying to meet the superhuman expectations of [an] audience" and attain "perfection in an art whose quality cannot be measured".

Nor is Tindall an apologist for classical music: she is often shamelessly irreverent about the works themselves. In one year alone, she played Bach's Brandenburg I "21 times, with eight different groups, on three continents" and came "to des-pise the exposed low C ending the slow movement".

Mozart in the Jungle is a poignant and fascinating memoir, but it is also a compelling analysis of what went wrong for the arts following the short-lived boom of public and government support they enjoyed during the 1960s. As Tindall argues assiduously, the problems arising from "explosive growth without a realistic mission, few accessible resources, and the simultaneous isolation and elevation of a foreign art form above the comprehension of those who were expected to support it" have continued to plague classical music ever since. Many fundamental questions are raised here concerning the role of music and the arts in society. For anybody who cares about the answers, this is an indispensable book.