My day with Gunther Schuller in 2010 is in two parts. The Third Stream stuff is what the BBC wanted. However, I'm more proud of the second section, where we listen his orchestral work Contours together.
When preparing for the interview, I went through the complete discography of Schuller working with jazz musicians. It was the first time time I paid serious attention these records and probably also the last, as my conclusion was that most of it just wasn't that successful.
During the same investigation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was impressed with many of Schuller's compositions that had nothing to do with Third Stream. Based on an early exposure to Abstractions with Ornette Coleman, I expected all of his music to be unremittingly thorny, like Milton Babbitt or another high modernist, but that turned out to be far from the case.
Since Schuller's passing I've been repeatedly listening to three significant pieces.
Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op. 16 Schuller wrote this when 23 or 24. He played french horn, and like Paul Hindemith and Morton Gould was interested in giving the brass family some proper repertory. All that Schuller/Hindemith/Gould brass stuff is always a pleasure to hear. The brash and accessible style of Op. 16 suggests Shostakovich with a major infusion of Schoenberg. (The Schoenberg Op. 43 Theme and Variations for Wind Band is the only work I can think of offhand by the Second Viennese School with a relevant instrumentation, although it's far more retro than anything by Schuller.)
Anything good written for brass band keeps getting played, so there are several recordings by now. However, the first one with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting top New York freelancers at the legendary 30th St. Studios is a seriously valuable library item. The whole album, Music for Brass, is interesting, with fun pieces by Jimmy Giuffre and J.J. Johnson, although the other true masterpiece is surely John Lewis's "Three Little Feelings," with some extraordinary Miles Davis phrasing against Osie Johnson's ride cymbal. For me, this is the easily the greatest album of Schuller with jazz players, although tellingly his own contribution is not at all his famous "third stream" but simply excellent classical composition.
According to Schuller, most of Op. 16 isn't quite twelve-tone yet. However, his language would soon be entirely dodecaphonic. Probably because of the painterly allusion and a touch of jazz, his Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee has become one of the best known orchestral works by an American composer from the 1950's (although I prefer the piece from the same period I brought to Schuller, Contours). From the '60's the Piano Concerto and Symphony are absolutely relentless serial explorations worthy of Babbitt; these days both are only known by specialists. After that peak level of abstraction, Schuller mellowed out his aesthetic, discovered his "magic row" (discussed in the interview) and started producing music that had not just rich chromatic interest but digestible narrative shape, closer to Op. 16 in spirit but with an absolutely unique and authentic harmonic palette.
The other two selections on my memorial playlist are from the mid-'80s.
Sextet for Bassoon, String Quartet and Piano. The challenge of dodecaphonic composition is often simply rhythmic: Atonality seems to demand disjunct phrasing as well as disjunct pitches in order not to be unbearably corny. For this Sextet, Schuller bravely uses the comparatively simple paragraphing of a 19th century composer like Brahms. It works! For maybe the first time, a pairing of atonality and the classical style works. The first movement is such a pleasurable shock, with a plain introduction followed by a galloping 6/8.
Obviously, the bassoon is an instrument that demands special treatment. The "Arioso" seems ideal, with a majestic high reed song surrounded by opulent harmony.
String Quartet No. 3. This may be one of Schuller's better known chamber pieces, as the Emerson Quartet recorded it for DG. Schuller's "magic row" has triadic properties similar to the row Berg used for his Violin Concerto, and both works use intriguing quotes. Schuller's note explains further links:
...The work is “lovingly dedicated to Louis and Adrienne Krasner", with whom I have been associated for many years...I first encountered Krasner's name as a 17-year-old, when his pioneering recording of the Alban Berg Violin Concerto appeared. I was so taken by the concerto and Krasner's playing of it that, since a score of the work was not available during the war years (World War II), I set about copying the last 6 minutes of the work from the record!
The third movement of this quartet incorporates a quotation from a Beethoven manuscript owned by Louis Krasner. This 13-bar fragment in G minor was evidently written by Beethoven on the spur of the moment for an English autograph-seeking lady admirer. The suggestion to use the Beethoven quotation actually came from Mr. Krasner. Little did I anticipate at the time the amazing coincidence - reaching across some 180 years - that the first seven pitches of Beethoven's theme, Eb-D-A-C-Bb-F#, correspond exactly to the first seven pitches of my row (in a particular transposition), a relationship which is exploited in a variety of ways both harmonically and melodically. It occurred to me afterwards that the situation is not dissimilar to the one encountered by Alban Berg in 1935, when he discovered in the writing of his Violin Concerto that the first four notes of the Bach chorale that he was quoting, “Es ist genug", were identical to the last four notes of the concerto's twelve-tone row.
It's a wonderful piece in a stellar performance by the Emerson. Again, the slow movement ("Canzona") is an highlight: Indeed, this nine minutes of epic romanticism might be what I would chose to play first when making a case for Schuller as an underrated composer.
For Schuller is strangely underrated, at least in terms of what he did best. All the obits bang the Third Stream drum, yet as far as I know hardly anybody really loves most of the Schuller-penned collaborations with jazz greats like Abstractions, Concertino for Quartet and Orchestra, Transformation, or Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk. His jazz criticism is also frequently praised, yet modern readers of Early Jazz and The Swing Era come away with serious questions. (See Darcy James Argue's DTM post, "Misunderstanding In Blue.")
If I were in charge of the history books, I'd let Schuller's involvement with jazz take a distant back seat to his composition. The best of Gunther Schuller is simply great American Classical Music.
Gunther Schuller and Ornette Coleman, gone: The 20th Century is vanishing before us.
Ornette and Gunther had a lot to do with each other when the Texan first came to New York. The 1960 interview between them is an important piece of the puzzle.
In my essay "Forms and Sounds" (which starts with that 1960 interview), I speculate not just that Ornette's noise violin was inspired by modernist classical music but that the whole Harmolodic system was partially a response to the erudite musical analysis Gunther was eager to offer. "Well, Gunther's got his twelve-tone rows, I'll have rules and regulations, too," I can imagine Ornette thinking.
Possibly I'm overstepping my bounds here! But there's no doubt in my mind that Ornette was a fantastic assimilator. First he remade the blues and Bird in his own image, then modernist classical music, then rock/pop with Prime Time. It all went in and came out as pure Ornette.
Hyland Harris sent me the blindfold test Leonard Feather gave Ornette in those heady early days. Somehow I'd never seen it, although surely it's been reprinted since? Hyland's scan was a bit faint, so I googled around and found a good reproduction at Adam Melville's site.
In the test, Ornette is revealed to be a true jazz cat. He knows everybody, commenting wisely on musicians as diverse as Bill Evans and Art Farmer. He really knows jazz! Must have had a hell of a record collection. I wouldn't have doubted that, exactly, but part of my reverence for Ornette has been fueled by regarding him as completely outside of the system, not as somebody who would instantly recognize Bud Shank and Bob Cooper or talk about how they played the beat.
Message received! I'll be thinking on this further...