Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle.
Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle.
Christopher Raphael / ©Amazon / courtesy Everett Collection

The Sounds of 'Mozart' Season 3

by Chris Willman
December 12, 2016, 5:16pm EST

Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle" is finally back for a third season, but according to the show's music supervisors, fans may be surprised by the mix of classical and modern genres in the scoring of each episode.

For its first two seasons, the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle was essentially pop-free and proud. Set in the modern classical music world, it was a show with a rock & roll attitude that didn’t feel the need to convince anyone of that by including actual rock & roll. “It was a breath of fresh air precisely because it wasn’t the most buzzy indie band played in a montage,” says Frankie Pine, one of the music supervisors. Even the youngest and least musically educated viewers got off on the idea of “going completely off the map to hear something they’d never heard before.” Tired of hearing another familiar acoustic guitar strum created 10 minutes earlier just to get a synch license? Nothing says “welcome to the jungle” quite like a Tchaikovsky needle drop.

But season 3 of Mozart in the Jungle is a different animal, musically. No one need worry that Schubert won’t make a showing, or that the series is suddenly forsaking Moszowski for Morrissey. But for the first time, it’s not just the existing canon of classical music being celebrated but also a raft of freshly written material that’s an integral part of the season’s storylines. The creators of these new pieces are all well-known figures in the boundary-defying movement of young composers and arrangers who are equally at home in symphony halls or collaborating on genre-crossing projects with the likes of Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, or the National. This influx of fresh blood in Mozart is hardly just for television novelty value, either: It’s a realistic reflection of the embrace of the new in the symphonic world, where classical is no longer synonymous just with the classics.

“Mozart and Mos Def are together on everyone’s playlists,” says Ryan Lott, one of this season’s musical contributors, who founded the electronically inclined rock band Son Lux, writes film scores (Paper Towns), and recently got a commission to compose for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious philharmonics, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. “So I think there’s a certain flattening out of the musical worlds.” That this would invade the world of Mozart in the Jungle shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, Lott says: “We saw instances of a broad embrace of music among some of the lead characters in the very first episodes, so we already know that these people aren’t all completely stuck inside their own bottles.”

Nico Muhly is one of the orchestral world’s most celebrated young composers… and he just happens to have an active career moonlighting as an arranger, conductor, and/or co-writer with the likes of Glen Hansard, Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, Bjork, the National, and even Usher. He’s the kind of guy who’s working with the Metropolitan Opera one day and writing a critical essay about his love of Madonna the next. Muhly believes that what some might consider to be envelope-pushing in this Mozart season “is less of an outlier” nowadays than outsiders might think. “You had the pioneers who were playing at the borders, like the Kronos Quartet and that generation. But now I think that it just comes built-in with a lot of young musicians, people 10 years younger than I am” — Muhly is an elderly 35 — “who are completely comfortable working across what we would clumsily refer to as ‘genres.’”

 

Muhly is a big enough name now that he’s joined that rarefied strata of figures that get to play themselves on Mozart in the Jungle. Another one in that category this season? Placido Domingo… just in case you’re thinking the series has gone completely off the old-school classical reservation.

Probably the most musically shocking moment of season 3 involves a profane dance track called “Welcome to Earth” that has its premiere in a jumping European nightclub. That’s a far less arbitrary addition to the soundtrack than at first it might sound. The co-writer of this club banger, in the show’s fictional universe, is none other than Malcolm McDowell’s ex-conductor character, Thomas. Struggling  with how to move forward in his life and career, the maestro is approached by a star DJ named Eraseface who hopes to collaborate with his idol. Longtime viewers know that Thomas is not exactly what you’d call an accommodationist by nature, but somehow, he’s won over — and a heated argument he has with Eraseface (improvised by the actors, on-camera) actually gets turned into the hilariously NSFW vocal hook of their unlikely club track.

“Thomas recognizes the potential for a new life for his own music that he never dreamt of before,” says Lott, who created the track. “It’s a really interesting character development. It’s also a prescient one of the way everything works these days. As a creative musician, you have to be willing to see your own work through multiple lenses.”

Lott isn’t sure whether the writers had him in mind when they created the DJ character, but “Eraseface is a lot like me,” he says — someone who was classically trained as a young person who got diverted into “pop” realms, then found himself drawn back, looking for a way to draw the two worlds together. “I’m obsessed with the idea of the juxtaposition of disparate elements, things taken out of context, combined with other things taken out of context, and this sort of pastiche that I learned from hip-hop and electronic music,” says the Son Lux frontman. “And we see that happen on screen as we see Eraseface recognize something inside of Thomas’ classical-world idea and cull from Thomas a nugget of musical information that can find a new home in his world. I got to write Thomas’ composition that he shows Eraseface on piano, and I got to write Eraseface’s piece that he shows to Thomas—and then I got to find the symbiosis between the two that we finally hear full-on in a subsequent episode at a big dance festival in Italy, with the crowd chanting along. I actually got to be both characters! And then to also be the marriage of the two of them, which was a lot of fun.”

 

Any Mozart fans who might hyperventilate at the thought of EDM taking over the series can rest assured that this is the only electronic track of season 3… assuming you don’t count the vocal looping effects that briefly factor into another episode’s Amy Fisher aria.

Did we just say Amy Fisher aria? That is not a misprint. Muhly was drafted to write just such a mini-operetta for Monica Bellucci’s character, who is voiced on the show by one of the world’s most celebrated sopranos, Ana Maria Martinez. Making the Long Island Lolita the subject of an aria might sound like something that is being played for parody, but opera lovers know that more sensational subjects than this have made their way into the form, and Muhly found no reason not to play it completely straight as he drafted this musical soliloquy (which he took seriously enough to write in full, though obviously it is only excerpted in the context of the show).

You could think of it as a mini-rock opera… without, of course, the rock.

“Amy Fisher is such a tragic figure,” says Muhly. “It was something that was so tabloidy, and then you sort of lost track of her until she reappeared on one of those Dr. Drew-type shows. I’d been thinking about how it seemed like an obvious thing to do as a dramatic aria, where she goes from kind of a certain mindset into another, which is a very classic thing in opera. It felt like such a ridiculous thing at the time, but the emotional content of that relationship is real. So it definitely was not meant as a parody or something you’re meant to laugh at, in any way. In the sort of Shakespearian version of this, we would really understand her motivation. That form of derangement is more accepted in art than it is in reality!”

Adds music supervisor Pine, “Creatively, we wanted the story of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafucco to also correlate to the relationship that Monica’s character, Alessandria, is engaging in with the maestro. So there is this kind of this wonderful parallel with what’s happening between (the triangle of) Alessandria, Rodrigo, and Hailey.”

Muhly not only wrote the aria off-screen, he is seen writing it on-screen, too. “Yes, I appear as me,” he says. “Which is, by the way, terrifying. Mainly because Monica Bellucci is the most glamorous person on the planet, so of course I walked in there feeling like Jabba the Hut.”

How realistic does Muhly find the show? “I think it’s sort of like asking doctors what they think about ER, because they’re like, ‘That’s not what I wear!’ On the other hand, there are always moments where it’s nice to hear something that you’ve thought a lot get articulated by someone on a TV. It’s not a documentary, and one doesn’t expect it to get it all right, but you kind of don’t want it to, either. I mean, if someone saw what it actually looks like when I’m negotiating with opera singers, it’s usually me in sweat pants begging people on the phone to call me back, not me in some palazzo wining and dining Monica Bellucci. Really, the whole thing is a lot of fun — and I’m a big enthusiast of fun.”

 

Ask the music supervisors what the most fun moment of season 3 was for them, and for all the joys of helping foster original dance tracks or offbeat arias, they go for a more traditional moment involving a classical piece of music… for understandable reasons. “Being in Venice and watching Placido Domingo sing to Monica just swooned my heart,” says Mandi Collier. “He is such a charming man and really sold this amazing piece of music, from the Samson and Delilah opera… on a moving raft! Doing it at 3:00 in the morning in Venice down one of the canals was pretty amazing.”

A perk like that helped make up for the trial by fire that Collier and Pine, partners in the Whirly Girls firm, underwent when they were drafted as the show’s new music supervisors shortly before filming. The two of them also oversee the music for the other most musically inclined show on television, Nashville. There are a surprising number of similarities between Mozart and Nashville… and, they quickly learned, a few nerve-wracking differences.

“The original music is what I think is most exciting about both shows,” says Pine. “On Nashville, we obviously let all of our characters sing previously unreleased music and have songs written for the show. And that’s what I most loved about doing this season of Mozart in the Jungle, too, being able to showcase new and up-and-coming composers. The biggest difference between the two is not even just the genre but the amount of people it takes to carry out a band performance on Nashville as opposed to an orchestral performance on Mozart.”

Whereas music supervisors on previous seasons had the relative luxury of having an on-screen orchestra mostly play to existing recordings, the emphasis on originals this time around involved a lot of fresh recording sessions and even live performance. And then there were the dilemmas that faced Mozart’s musical overseers from the beginning, like picking out a wonderful Czech vocal piece… only to remember that this means the actress in question is going to have to be an extremely quick study in a language no one picked up in school.

 
 

One other wrinkle: “We got to do a rock song on the show!” laughs Pine. Don’t get too accustomed to it, but the number occurs when it’s revealed that Saffron Burrows’ character used to be in a punk band in the ‘80s; the number they found for her came from an unreleased demo stack from the Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham.

When partners Pine and Collier realized they had a learning curve ahead of them in figuring out the intricacies of licensing classical music, they brought on as their executive music supervisor one of the most familiar names in pop/classical crossover, Suzie Katayama. She’s known as a longtime cellist and even conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic… but is also famous to anyone who’s ever scoured rock album liner notes, having played with Nirvana, Madonna, Beck, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, Incubus, and literally hundreds of other non-classical stars. Besides helping out with the licensing and sessions for this season, she wrote a number of new instrumental pieces for the show.

As a veteran crossover musician, Katayama has a unique take on the world of Mozart in the Jungle, where violinists and oboe players suddenly rush from their day gig to a night job doing something completely un-symphonic… and remembers the suspicion that used to greet classical players switching between worlds.

“I remember playing on a session with a (classical) composer — I won’t say who it is — who sat next to me the whole session, making me nervous. I finally looked at him and said, ‘Excuse me, is there a reason you’re sitting next to me?’ And he said, ‘I just wanted to see if you could read.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, you’re a rock & roll cellist!’ And I went, ‘Uh, you don’t start off playing a rock & roll cello.’ It was kind of funny.

“On the other hand, when you’re trained as a classical cellist, there’s the first time somebody says — like Prince did — ‘Can you ad lib?’ And you go, ‘I don’t know!’ Prince said, ‘Well, let’s hear what you can do!’ And that’s what was on ‘Purple Rain.’ And you go, well, that worked out!”

Muhly, for his part, admires the way Mozart in the Jungle portrays musicians who easily glide between roles and functions in a world where walls are rapidly falling. “There’s a way to be an orchestra musician where you really do exist inside the canon, and that’s great, and those people are amazing musicians who have cut their teeth on really knowing the standard rep as the poetry that governs their entire lives. But then you also are meeting more and more people, particularly younger ones, who are comfortable there and also comfortable somewhere else. And whatever that somewhere else is can be really different: It can be people that are interested in jazz, electronic music, or some weirder, undefinable thing in which they play the violin with pre-recorded versions of themselves in art spaces. The show is not inventing this; it’s great that they’re clicking into the fact that it’s already happening.”