© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Listen Back To A 1988 Conversation With Composer Gunther Schuller


This is FRESH AIR. Gunther Schuller, the composer, conductor, teacher and music historian who coined the term, third stream - for his synthesis of jazz and classical music - died yesterday in Boston from complications of leukemia. He was 89. Schuller grew up in a musical family and studied French horn, playing professionally in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera. But he also became interested in jazz, and for a time, combined his classical career with performances in jazz ensembles led by, among others, Miles Davis. As a composer, Schuller was self-taught, once describing himself as a high school dropout without a single earned degree. He taught music and composition at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music, wrote several books, directed the Berkshire Music Center, and served as president of the New England Conservatory. He was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation grant. Terry spoke to Gunther Schuller in 1988.



I knew you first through your work with third stream music. I'd like to talk with you a little bit about that. First of all, let me ask you to describe in your own words what you meant when you coined that expression.

GUNTHER SCHULLER: Yes. Well, it was the bringing together of two main streams of music - classical and jazz. I perceive them as equivalent in their quality, although different in style. And the marriage of these two main streams begets - as the Bible would say - an offspring, a child, and that is the third stream. Now, what I was not talking about was some kind of simplistic or superficial overlays of one kind of music on top of another, but a real integration at the most fundamental, technical and conceptual and expressive levels.

GROSS: Did you run into resistance on both sides - resistance on the part of people involved with jazz and classical music about the idea of merging the two in some way?

SCHULLER: Oh, absolutely. And a resistance was in some cases very fierce. This is called often territorial protection. The people in classical music - many of them - didn't want their music "contaminated," in quotes, by jazz, and jazz purists particularly didn't want any of the influence of what they considered effete or academic music in the classical area. But of course, what they neglected to understand was that both musics have a lot to learn from each other even to this day. I mean, classical music can learn a hell of a lot about rhythm and swing and momentum and motion in music, and spontaneity, through the improvisational aspects of jazz. On the other hand, jazz can learn an awful lot - and still has to learn it, I think - about form and how you write or improvise extended pieces, you know, pieces beyond three-minute or 10-minute duration.

GROSS: I want to play something that you wrote that is in a third stream style, and it's part of a larger piece that you wrote called, "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee." Let me ask you to just describe what's happening in this excerpt of the piece.

SCHULLER: Well, this is one of many third stream pieces that I've written, and I've used a different approach to this idea in all these pieces. This is one that happens to have been written for a symphony orchestra, which means that you could not use improvisation, certainly not in 1959, when I wrote this piece. Symphony musicians are not trained in improvising, certainly not in a jazz style. So this piece is entirely written, but of course it tries to emulate the whole feeling of a jazz piece, only now not for a big band or a small group, but for a whole symphony orchestra. And the idea came to me - this is one of the Paul Klee paintings, it's called the "Little Blue Devil." And blue and the blues sort of immediately makes me think of jazz of course and the blues, and so this has a kind of blues, jazz feeling. And particularly through the rhythm, the walking bass line and the muted trumpet solo and so on - various elements that relate to jazz.

GROSS: OK so this is from the "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee," composed by my guest, Gunther Schuller, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. And I should mention that this one of Gunther Schuller's most widely-performed pieces. So let's hear it.


GROSS: An excerpt of Gunther Schuller's "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee."

How did you find a drummer like that in an orchestra?

SCHULLER: Well, at that time they had a drummer named Tommy Thompson, whom I knew from my days in Cincinnati who was always sort of oriented towards jazz. So we were lucky in having that. I'll tell you, if you mess around with jazz, you better have a good drummer and a good bass player (laughter)...

GROSS: Really. (Laughter).

SCHULLER: ...Otherwise, you're in trouble.

GROSS: You know, you talk about opening up different worlds of music. I think many of us have you to thank for introducing us to different forms of music. You've played an important role in expanding the repertory of jazz and pop music. For instance, you were at the forefront of, you know, the - excuse the expression - ragtime revival (laughter)...

SCHULLER: (Laughter), that's all right.

GROSS: ...A few years ago.

SCHULLER: That's what it was.

GROSS: Yeah. And you found all kinds of interesting things that were, well, that had been totally forgotten by history. And I wonder what inspired you to look back to the turn-of-the-century music.

SCHULLER: Well, I've been asked that question many times, and I always find it difficult to explain. Again, a lot of the seeds for these kinds of interests I guess were sown in my childhood somehow, and I don't recall exactly how all that happened and developed. But many people think of me as a modernist, as a radical in music, you know, someone who's always sort of at the avant-garde of musics, but I'm also quite a traditionalist. And I knew about Joplin's music since I'm a teenager, but I never could do anything about it as a French horn player. There isn't much you can do with piano rags. But when I got a hold of these orchestrations from the first decade of the century, the nickname the red back book of rags, then I went to town - this was during my time at the New England Conservatory - and created a ragtime ensemble immediately.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to play one of the rags that you arranged, from an album called, "From Rags To Jazz," which features the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. Let's play "Heliotrope Bouquet," by Louis Chauvin. Do you want to say anything about what you thought of when you were arranging this?

SCHULLER: Well, my main interest was in keeping the classic style of ragtime pure. I mean, to keep it kind of period authenticity in these arrangements. It would've been very easy to update them or modernize them or to make them very fancy, but I was very interested in keeping in the pure classical style.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear the "Heliotrope Bouquet," arranged by my guest, Gunther Schuller.


GROSS: Now, your father played in an orchestra. What'd he play?

SCHULLER: He was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic - many other orchestras, but primarily in the New York Philharmonic.

GROSS: Did you hang out with him when you were a kid? In the orchestra?

SCHULLER: Yes. He took me to concerts. I suppose I guess I went to concerts in my mother's womb already. (Laughter). My whole childhood was filled with classical music and going to concerts of the New York Philharmonic and other New York ensembles and organizations, but interestingly, I didn't become conscious of wanting to be a musician until I was about 11. I was a rather late starter.

GROSS: Were you intimidated by the caliber of musicianship that your father and his friends had?

SCHULLER: No, that wasn't it. I was interested in art. I wanted to be a painter and an artist. And it's interesting that in some of my later musical works, I refer so often and associate myself with works of art, as in the case of the "7 Studies On The Themes Of Paul Klee." I wanted to be an artist, but at age 11, somehow all this musical knowledge and information and love for music that I had came out, and then suddenly it was very clear that I wanted to be a musician of some sort.

GROSS: Now, you started your career by playing in orchestras, but you gave that up. Why?

SCHULLER: Well, I was playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as principal horn. I was there for some 15 years - one of the most exciting and great musical periods in my life. But by around 1959, if I - I'm trying to make this sound modest - my fame as a composer had become such that I was getting commissions from all over and from so many sources, that I began to literally kill myself physically trying to be a French horn player by day and a composer by night. So I knew something had to give, and most reluctantly 'cause I loved the French horn, and I loved playing in the opera. I gave up the horn. My primary calling, I always knew since the age of 11, was as a composer, and so that had to take priority.

GROSS: Well, Gunther Schuller, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SCHULLER: Thank you.

DAVIES: Gunther Schuller speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Schuller died Sunday at the age of 89. Tomorrow Noah Charney takes us into the strange world of art forgery. Before Michelangelo was famous, Charney says, he was a forger. He sculpted a marble statue called, "Sleeping Eros."

NOAH CHARNEY: And it was buried in a garden and dug up, broken, repaired and sold as an antiquity.

DAVIES: Forgers, it turns out, are a crafty and colorful crew. Charney's book is "The Art Of Forgery." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.