How ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Brought an Obscure, Avant-Garde Piece of Classical Music to Rikers Island


On a cold January night in 1941, four inmates at a German prison-of-war camp debuted Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” The piece was largely written in the camp itself, Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany, where Messiaen, a French solider, was held for a year. He and three other musicians performed it for the first time for an audience of 300 German soldiers. In an inscription, Messiaen dedicated the piece “in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hand towards Heaven saying ‘There shall be no more time.'”

A cacophonous and arrhythmic piece, “Quartet for the End of Time” is challenging enough for both player and spectator that it’s rarely performed in concert. But in August of this year, a group of 100 or so inmates from New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex gathered outside in the yard to hear a group of musicians perform selections of Messiaen’s compositions for an episode of the Amazon original series Mozart in the Jungle. The result, called “Not Yet Titled,” is a moving half-hour of television that extends beyond the boundaries of fiction and serves as a reminder of art’s power to transcend even the most miserable circumstances.

The writing team on Mozart in the Jungle, which centers on the fictional New York Symphony, had toyed with the idea of sending the orchestra to play at a prison or jail. In the show’s third season, which premiered on Dec. 9, they got their chance when the musicians finally settle a contract dispute with the symphony’s president — but the concert hall is still being rented out to another group. It makes perfect sense for the orchestra’s unconventional conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal), to arrange a concert on Rikers in the interim.

Narratively, the situation justifies the performance. As symphony president Gloria (Bernadette Peters) says in the episode — which is shot in the style of a documentary filmed by the classical music aficionado Bradford Sharpe (Jason Schwartzman) — “I wanted to encourage Rodrigo because he had just come back so I thought, well, let’s give it a shot.” But in practice, the episode was more of an excuse for director and co-creator Roman Coppola to take a creative risk.

“I had a very genuine wish: Let’s use the power of our show to make an occasion to play some music and to have this experience,” Coppola told Flavorwire. “It appealed to me as a director because it was a challenge. We truly performed, for real, with a real orchestra in this real situation.” Normally, the show enlists a group of performers culled from The Chelsea Symphony in New York City and the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra in White Plains to fill out the onscreen orchestra and provide coaching to the actors, who pantomime playing their instruments. But in “Not Yet Titled,” the producers decided the program needed to be performed and recorded live.

“I got a call from one of the producers, Sean Fogel, and he said, ‘Roman’s directing this episode and he wants live sound,'” recalls Matt Aubin, the co-artistic director of The Chelsea Symphony and the real conductor of the Rikers performance. “‘He wants to film it like a documentary and we’re not gonna do multiple takes, it’s gonna be just a run through — and P.S., we’re gonna do this on Rikers Island, outside and for prisoners.'”

According to Coppola, the officials at Rikers were “very inviting” — not surprising considering the constant stream of bad press generated by the jail’s abysmal treatment of inmates, the vast majority of whom are still awaiting trial. The Mozart in the Jungle performance came about as part of the jail’s 14-point “anti-violence reform agenda,” announced by the de Blasio administration in March 2015. Among other critics, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara issued a blistering 2014 report which found that Rikers staff routinely used “excessive force” on its inmates and violated their constitutional rights.

In response, the city paid consulting firm McKinsey & Company $1.7 million to review the conditions on Rikers. In March 2015, the city announced the resulting 14-point plan to prevent violence, in part by introducing more cultural and educational opportunities for inmates. In a statement to Flavorwire, Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte called the partnership with Mozart “unprecedented,” and was careful to mention that the Department of Corrections’ programming “makes a difference not only in the lives of inmates but also contributes to the safety of New York City.”

Indeed, the Mozart episode marks the first time a live orchestra has played for inmates on Rikers Island. Corrections officers chose a group of 100 inmates who had been on Rikers for a year or less to make up the audience. Mozart’s producers, along with Aubin’s team, hauled their equipment to the jail complex, where everything was subject to inspection by security guards. For Aubin, there was the extra challenge of amplification: It’s difficult for an orchestra to project outdoors without a band shell, so each player was individually mic’d, which allowed the sound technicians to provide a live mix for the inmate audience and also made it easier to fine-tune the music in post-production.

And then there was the “kicker,” as Aubin describes it: The sheer difficulty of the music. With only two weeks to prepare, Aubin had to obtain the sheet music for each part and track down “high-caliber” players who would be able to handle Messiaen’s music.

One of the Messiaen pieces featured, “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” calls for an ondes Martenot — an early electronic instrument obscure enough that Aubin estimates only around five people have mastered it. Luckily, one of those people, Suzanne Farrin, lives and works in New York City, where she is the Chair of Music at Hunter College. Aubin was able to tap Farrin for the Rikers performance. Speaking to the camera in the episode, Farrin remarks, “I always imagined that I would play this instrument in a jail. Because it was born out of such a utopic vision, and then it’s the one sound that Messiaen took with him when he went to prison.”

Another musician whose live performance is featured in the episode, the clarinetist Angela Shankar, is a regular with The Chelsea Symphony. “It was a very humbling experience,” she says of the Rikers concert. She describes it as “nerve-wracking,” because the performers didn’t know how their audience would react to the challenging program. “I mostly just felt uneasy,” she admits. “I wasn’t sure if we were reaching them. I wasn’t sure if they liked it. And when Gael would talk to them in between the pieces, there wasn’t much feedback from them.”

But she noticed a marked shift in the audience’s response when Bernal, who is from Mexico, spoke to the inmates in Spanish. The scene is included in the episode, when Rodrigo introduces the clarinet piece, called “The Abyss of the Birds.” In Spanish, Bernal asks the audience how to say “nightingale” in Spanish, and you can hear a few people shout the answer back. “They woke up” after that, Shankar recalls. When she stood up to play her solo after that introduction, she says she felt more relaxed and less vulnerable. “At the end of that performance, they jumped to their feet, they were clapping. It was honestly like night and day.”

Needless to say, the orchestra members were as moved by the experience as the inmates. Coppola returned to Rikers the day after the performance to interview some of the audience members, who describe their reaction to the music in the episode. One man says it brought him peace and tranquility, and reminded him of his family; another calls it “magnificent.” Shankar was unaware that these interviews would be taking place — on the day of the performance, she was just trying to concentrate on performing a very difficult piece of music while ignoring the glare of the sun, persistent wind, mosquitos and flies, and the fact that she could barely make out the real conductor, Aubin, who was perched on a scissor lift above Bernal, out of the cameras’ view. But when she watched the episode, she was taken aback. “I just sat on my couch crying. I had no idea.”

Aubin credits Coppola with coming up with the idea for the episode — “What vision,” he marvels. But he and the other members of The Chelsea Symphony have taken his vision and run with it: They’re planning to perform another program of chamber and orchestral music on Rikers Island in the spring, and have already been back to the complex twice to discuss logistics with corrections officials. “We were really affected by how much [the inmates] seemed to enjoy it, so we thought maybe this is a community service type thing — we can partner with Rikers and do something that we think is pretty meaningful,” Aubin says.

In the face of stubborn governmental indifference to prison reform, curricula like the Mozart performance and The Chelsea Symphony’s planned spring program serve as a reminder that inmates deserve to be treated with dignity. But no amount of well-intentioned cultural programming can offset the horrific conditions at Rikers and in so many prisons and jails across the country — nor can they mitigate the larger effects of a country that jails more people than any other, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down despite persistent calls for reform.

“Not Yet Titled” depicts a blissful but all-too-brief moment of transcendence. “Messiaen was very sure that at the end, love conquered all and that hope was there,” Rodrigo says, introducing the last song in the program. “He wrote this piece straight after he came out of prison.” Rodrigo spreads his arms wide, and as the musicians crescendo into their final, triumphant note, a blue-and-white Department of Correction van darts behind the orchestra’s barbed-wire enclosure.