Interview with Gunther Schuller (Part 2)

Most of what Gunther and I discuss in part one is familiar ground to jazz historians.   Indeed,  there’s almost too much about Third Stream in the vast Schuller bibliography!  Instead, there really needs to be more about his own, fully-composed classical music that has little or absolutely nothing to do with jazz.

Admittedly, Schuller’s kind of classical music has fallen out of fashion. When Matthew Guerrieri reported on the recent Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music curated by Schuller, John Harbison, and Oliver Knussen, he closed with this warning:

The festival is increasingly burdened with keeping alive its own repertoire, as even the cream of the contemporary-music tradition continues to be shut out of the classical-music mainstream. When music like Jacob Druckman’s dazzlingly colorful 1979 “Aureole’’ (vividly conducted by Keitaro Harada) or the wondrous, bewitching aleatoric haze of Bruno Maderna’s 1972 “Il giardino religioso’’ (led by Knussen) is still banished to the margins, it speaks ill for the ecology of the musical landscape. The week was dotted with fantastic creatures that survive only in the festival’s captivity.

“Il giardino religioso’’ is indeed wondrous and bewitching. However, I only know this because it couples with Schuller’s “Contours” on an old, rare, unsung Columbia/Odyssey LP that will almost certainly never be re-released.

When exploring Schuller’s classical music, “Contours” was one of many pieces that stood out, and I had the temerity to ask Schuller for an overnight loan of the score followed by a listening session together. Included here is not just a rip of “Contours” (additionally cut into movements for clarity) but the audio of the interview as well.

Full track played by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble conducted by Arthur Weisberg:

and as separate movements:

Entrata

Interlude 1

Capriccio

Interlude 2

Partita

Var. 1

Var. 2

Var. 3

Interlude 3

Lamento

Interlude 4

Chiusa

 

Among the surprises was the date of composition. “Contours” is from 1955-1958, and it turns out that the little “jazz” moment of “Variation 1” was the first time he tried to make use of that resource in classical composition.

 

GS:  [flipping through the score] It’s pretty incredible script too, isn’t it.

EI:  Your handwriting is marvelous.

GS:  Yeah, it’s lost something because I’m a little arthritic and slowed-up, but I did all this with ink! I never made any mistakes; I don’t know, I can’t understand it!

EI:  It’s true. The score is, well, let’s actually count how many pages it is, are they numbered?… a hundred pages, basically. A hundred pages of perfect script!

GS:  Amazing.

EI:  On the first record, there’s your “Symphony for Brass and Percussion,” which just knocked me out. And I guess you were only 23 when you wrote it, and it’s atonal but I would say it’s not twelve-tone, is that correct?

GS:  Well, the last movement is twelve-tone. The first movement is hardly, and the second and third movement become more so; this was just the beginnings of me really getting confident in getting to use it.

EI:  But the melodies are shapely, and the scherzo in particular is sort of like an ear-catcher, like a hit number or something.

GS:  Well, that tune in there which the trombone, horn played—[sings] bob-bob-bob-bob-bob-bob-bob-bob-bob-bup—that is all twelve tones, and then what I did, also, I took that line and put it into three trombones, so now they’re playing in parallel fourths, so I get more than twelve-tone, all for the price of one row! [both laugh]

EI:  That piece did quite a lot for your reputation, correct?

GS:  Well, yes, most particularly because then when Mitropulous did it with the New York Philharmonic on a Sunday afternoon broadcast, which the whole coutry listened to, the CBS broadcast of the New York Philharmonic every week, three o’clock, once that had happened, I mean I started getting letters from Copland, from Sam Barber, from William Schuman, all these famous composers—“wow, what an incredible piece!”  They had ignored me or didn’t know about me or rejected me because I was going into this atonal world; you know, this was all the neo-classics ruling the roost, so to speak, in that time.

EI:  Right. Now, I’ve heard something to the effect that you actually write almost all your pieces off the same row; is that true?

GS:  Well, I have lately.

When I started, and all of us of my generation starting to write twelve-tone music, having studied all the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and all that, we found that every time they wrote a new piece they created a new row.  And I’m a high-school dropout, I never went to college or music school or anything, and so I had no education in these matters at all, but as I began to sort of look into this I could not find anywhere where it says you must not use a row a second time.  It just had become a habit, because those three guys did it and so it was understood.  And we all did that—Leon Kirchner did that, Don Martino, I did.

And one time in 1976, I wrote my first violin concerto, with a row which not only I loved almost as a theme or as a motivic element, but also because I found that it was so rich in feeding me, that I said to myself, “Goddamn it, why do I have to throw this away?” And I just decided I’m gonna use it again.  And I said to myself, “Gunther, don’t be stupid now; if the next piece comes out exactly”—I had no idea what would happen—“if the next piece comes out more or less the same, forget it, that’s not the point.”  Well, not only did it not come out the same, it was so totally different, even based on the same row.  So since 1976, I have now used this same row in every piece for the last—well, for all those years, and it must be something like 30 or 40 compositions.

EI:  Now, what is the row?

GS:  You want to know it?

EI:  Yeah, I want the magic row!

GS:  Oh, by the way, before I forget to mention it, it has now gotten into the jazz world through Ran Blake.

EI:  I heard that as well.

GS:  And I’ve heard a lot of ensemble improvisations using the row.  And not in the absolute strict way of Schoenbergian orthodoxy, but nonetheless, and they all know it. Well, it is… [A phone ring is intruding over the preceding exchange, and a third party now says “should we stop for a second?” and then there’s a doorbell breaking in causing a breakdown in the interview…]

GS:  Who’s that…. oh my god…

EI:  It’s because you’re about to say what the row is. The universe is like, “Don’t tell him the row! Don’t tell Ethan Iverson the row!”

GS:  I can play it on the piano…

EI:  Well, can you just tell me the pitches?

GS:  Yeah, sure.  Of course comes in twelve transpositions, as they all do, and there’s the prime form, the retrograde form, the inversion and the retrograde inversion. And when you have all that, bundled, it’s 48 row possibilities. So, if I sing one prime version, or say, it’d be C#—half a step up, D—a fourth up, to G—B-flat, minor third. Now, let’s say I’ll go down, a diminished fifth to E—half step up to F—then A, major third—then a major second to B natural—and then come G#, F#, E-flat, C. Now, I don’t know how much of that you remember, but you will see that there are huge tonal elements in it.

EI:  Exactly.  In fact, one of the pieces of yours I really admire is the Third String Quartet, which has a large G-minor quotation that’s based on a Beethoven fragment…

GS:  …that worked in because the second, third and fourth notes in this row, in that transposition, happen to be a G-minor chord, third inversion.  And so there are these tonal components, but then also the usual dissonant elements, minor 2nds and major 7ths—but the final five notes really fascinate me, because [sings] “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee,” guess what that is?  I mean, that’s one of the most famous jazz chords.  You put a D natural underneath that, and you’ve got a D raised-9th chord.

EI:  Absolutely.

GS:  Or 11th or a 13th. And I just sort of stumbled on that.  I mean, I know I was not intellectually out to make that kind of a row, but it turns out once I looked at many of the rows that I had used before, some 70, 80 of them, they all were heading in this direction, of combining tonal elements with atonal.  And what’s interesting in those first notes—the C#, D, G, B-flat—if I invert that now, and let’s say start with the same C# or D-flat, it goes D-flat, C, G, E, and now I’ve got a C major triad in there.  Now it’s a major triad; the triad in the other one is a minor triad.  And now, if you then, as I do and have for years and years, work in different segmentations of the row—tetrachords, trichords, pentachords, heptachords, seven notes together, or whatever, or dyads, that’s just two notes—that is the loosening-up that Schoenberg himself developed back in 1928, when he went basically into this hexachordal division, using the first six notes of a row for the melody and the other six notes for the accompaniment, and then he broke that further apart into… and Webern took it down to trichords.  So that’s been around a long time.  So when I do that, and I use it even more freely, I can have any kind of usage of those twelve pitches.  My whole intent is—and this is only the one primary one of the whole thing in the beginning, in the first place, namely to preserve the total chromaticism of any given moment in the music.  It could ultimately be a chord which would have twelve notes in it—that’s the simplest.

And by the way, the reason the continuity of the pitches as first ordained by Schoenberg, you “have to use every pitch before you can use it again,” which meant that there was an absolute sequence to those pitches, well, that’s a little bit unreal, because if I put together a six-part chord, you cannot tell me what the sixth sequence of those is, and same with a twelve-tone chord, so there sort of the sequencing goes out.

(Now, I know a lot of serial music is done that way, and including the real hardcore serialism where you derive numbers from these, that’s a whole separate thing.)

Anyway, so by my loosening up the usage of these components of this row, and by my also having the choice to use two versions of the row simultaneously, or four, you open up a whole universe of possibilities that are certainly not restricting, which is always the main argument by people who don’t understand twelve-tone, who hate it, they say it’s too restrictive and mathematical and all of that, but it actually feeds you, it helps you to—I see note combinations in this row, which I’ve now used for 33 years, that I didn’t see ten years ago. And I’ve looked at this damn thing so much… I don’t even need it, I also could improvise with it.

But when I realized that some of the inversions of the row are almost the same as the prime, except that two notes are in a different position, that’s like cousins, you know.  And that’s nice, and if I want cousins, well, I’ll use them!  But if I want enemies then I’ve got all kinds of other possibilities, where nothing seems to relate into anything tonal or preordained.  And so when you then also have in orchestral pieces or instrumental pieces the possibility of using three notes of a row, whatever they might be, in let’s say the first violins, and then you can use three other notes of the row in the violas, and in the first violins you can switch to another form of the row—this again opens up a vast new territory, it’s just mindboggling.  I mean, one cannot even in describing it oversee it, overview it.  And what it achieves is this inherent, almost guarantee—a guarantee of the inherent purity of the twelve-tone concept.  Because it doesn’t break the basic rules of twelve-tone.

EI:  The language remains authentic.

GS:  That’s right.  And insofar as you really learn how to use it—I’m now so fluent in it, I mean I almost don’t even have to think anymore, it’s an amazing experience, it’s like an improvisation—then it preserves its own integrity, cause you’re never going out of it . And again I want to emphasize, I don’t like the word “atonal”; I don’t like the word “twelve-tone.” They are both negative terms, certainly “atonal,” because it means “anti-.”  And Schoenberg often said, “I wish people wouldn’t use this.”  But what this is about for me is to preserve the most possible chromaticism, total chromaticism, highest chromaticism.  Let’s forget about atonality: chromaticism, that what it’s about, and that’s a good word and legitimate and right, because, let’s face it, the acoustic harmonic series already presents us with a chromatic template.  And it goes beyond that into microtones and so on.  So there it all is.  And this is just a full representation of those possibilities.  And then you can go even further—and these are all choices that composers have a right to make—you can go very subtly into something that sounds more tonal or you can become aggressively dissonantal and chromatic, and every possible variation of that.

So it’s a complete world, and once you really know how to navigate in that, you can achieve—here’s the final thing about this. Because what I think I’ve—I’m the only one doing this—what I’ve achieved here, and I say it in modesty because I’m not sure that I have—I’ve asked George Perle (major twelve-tone theorist), Milton Babbitt, I’ve talked to Elliott Carter about it, many people, and I have asked them, what have I done with this? what have I achieved here? isn’t there something remarkable and special out of these, what is it?, 1,200,000 twelve-tone rows there are?  And none of them have been—and they all love my music and they think it’s terrific linguistically, and they cannot answer this question, what is it in this row that gives this coherence, this inherentness.  And therefore I feel what I have—knowing nothing better or more—I think that I have created a parallel for functional tonality.  Because if you substitute C major for the twelve-tone row, that happens to be twelve notes—C major is only seven of those, but with chromatic usages—if the entire Beethoven movement comes out of that C major complex, and with thematic derivatives from that scale, then that’s exactly what I have.

EI:  It’s fantastic.

GS:  I’m not enough of a theorist or scientist or mathematician or whatever it takes to figure this out, but I really think I’ve done that.  So it’s like, it’s tonality revisited in terms of opening it up to the full twelve tones.

EI:  One of the reasons people think they don’t like twelve-tone music is that a lot of it can sound the same.

GS:  Yes.

EI:  Like—well, for example, you mentioned Babbitt. I’ve heard the Carter piano concerto, the Babbitt concerto, and one of the Wuorinen concertos, and sometimes I’ve had the feeling that you could drop the needle in the middle of one of these records and not know which piece it was. The surface tension is somehow the same.  And I’m really impressed with how you write all this twelve-tone music but the pieces are very distinct.

GS:  Absolutely, like I said to myself, if they repeat each other, you know, forget it.  And all these 30-40 pieces sound totally different from each other.

EI:  But it’s something that you’ve been doing of course even before you found this magic row: That’s why I was so struck by the symphony, the youthful “Symphony for Brass and Percussion,” is that it sounded to me like a really good composition, in terms of just an enjoyable listening experience from the start to finish, and you’ve written all these earlier twelve-tone pieces that somehow still have that idea of taking the listener on a journey with themes and variation and contrasting textures and this sort of thing.

GS:  The pieces written with this row go even a little further than that, because they have now helped me to create my personal harmonic language. It is so that if anybody knows more than two or three pieces of mine—they hear a fourth piece, they will know “That’s Gunther!” I mean they have to know what that is, just like you know Rachmaninov’s language, if you know it, then you’ll recognize it in a piece you’ve never heard before and you say “that’s Rachmaninov.”  And that I think is again one of the most important things in music altogether; that is what makes great composers great composers, that they all develop an individual, distinctive language.  We need to hear only three seconds of Sibelius and we know it’s Sibelius, or Rachmaninov, or Stravinsky or whoever it is—obviously Beethoven or Brahms.  And there’s a lot of great music that doesn’t—a lot of good music, I should say, that doesn’t achieve that distinctive personality, but those that do are finally the people who are in the pantheon, as far as I’m concerned.  That’s what distinguishes the really great and those who have really created the forward march of music, from the others who write very good pieces but they just don’t have—ultimately you cannot, when you hear their music, you can’t quite say who it is.  I mean even a composer—well, I shouldn’t say “even,” Delius is a remarkable composer; I mean, discounting his late works, if you hear all his middle works you only need to hear three bars and you know it’s Delius.  And it’s not Scriabin—he’s another one that has that absolute distinctive voice.  And since that is so important to me, if I want to call myself a valid composer, that I have somehow been able to do this is one of the most gratifying things.

EI:  A couple of pieces I’m thinking of right now, there’s a sextet for example—you just mentioned Brahms—which has a little bit of this Brahms feeling in it.

GS:  Well, yes, sometimes I go actually so far as to relate some of my pieces to Brahms or Schumann or something.

Since I was totally self-taught, and all I—when people ask me, “well, who’s your teacher?”  I say, “well, I had no teachers, and I didn’t go to college or anything like that, and study with anybody; my teachers are the scores”—which I digested voraciously, to the point that my parents were worried about my health.  I mean, I’m talking about 19, 21 hours a day.  And the other is playing in—happens to be two of the greatest orchestras in America, the Met and the New York Philharmonic—playing the actual music, and feeling the vibrations of the music.  And hearing, I mean being inside it; I’m not sitting in the tenth row, where you hear this surface thing, I’m right in it, and I can feel the vibrations in the pit.  Those were my two teachers, and that’s how I learned everything I know.  And then with further study, and you know, reading books….

EI:  It’s just how any jazz musician used to learn what they do, too.

GS:  Yeah, exactly.

EI:  Your piano concerto was one of the sort of I guess middle-period pieces, which is very thorny, and mostly themeless, I would say.

GS:  Yeah. It’s actually where I ventured, in two of my pieces, because of my great admiration for Milton Babbitt, whose music I just find—when I perform his music, and I’ve performed a lot of it—I have the most incredible rewarding experiences.  It’s just the thrill.  Now, I say that because I know that for 99,000 other people it is just an absolute horror, and I’m loving and thriving on it and the sounds of it and the elegance of it and the beauty of it and so on. And so, when Milton got into all this rather extreme serialization—this is beyond twelve-tone, now—

EI:  Oh, for sure.

GS:  And by the way, we should just remember in view of what we’ve said so far: first there was free atonality. So some of my early pieces, including the first movement of the brass symphony, those are free atonality.  And twelve-tone, which is sometimes called serial, is a further development of that.  One shouldn’t use the word “serial,” because then you can’t reserve that for the actual serialization, the numerification (if there is such a word?)—taking rhythms and putting them in a numerical sequence, and that sort of thing.

EI:  Well, I like the piano concerto, it’s still a good piece.

GS:  Yeah, and it… and the Symphony 1965 is the same thing, and one or two other pieces, because I wanted to see whether in terms of my ears and my concept, I could take Milton’s ideas and still retain my language, just as Stravinsky did when he finally wrote twelve-tone music—there’s no question this is Stravinsky!  You could never confuse any of that with Schoenberg for example.  So those were my experiments with that, and the piano concerto happened to be one of those.  And the symphony is even more strictly serialized, as some people will say, mathematitized—mathematicized? But that’s all right.

EI:  Well, it’s certainly all right, and actually I think the backgrounds, some of the Third Stream music too is also some of, in a way the most dense… you know it’s not Babbitt-level…

GS:  Oh no, no.

EI:  …but it’s still got this atmosphere that is very disjunct.

[Please listen along to the next part, where we go through “Contours” together.]

Part 1:

EI: It’s interesting to me that the piece we’re going to look at today, which is a piece from the ’50s… It’s so clear structurally.  I really love this piece, and I have a feeling… this is a twelve-tone piece though, right?

GS:  Oh yes, oh yes, yeah.

EI:  And I have a feeling this piece was a big deal for you, somehow.

GS:  Yes, it was—well, let’s see, it was the first… it’s a chamber orchestra, but it’s an orchestra, and that was, an orchestra piece is always a bigger challenge than—I had written, for example pieces for three oboes and piano, oboe trio, trombone trio, all kinds of chamber-music things. But this was the first real big piece in that nature, in that form.  But I developed it into a—not a four-movement symphony but a—I don’t know what it is, nine movements, or… and one of the movements consists of a theme and four variations.

EI:  Well, I think it’s time to start listening to it.

GS:  All right.

EI:  Many of your pieces begin with a cluster.

GS:  I wouldn’t call it a cluster; it’s just a six-part chord.

EI:  But there’s lots of minor seconds against each other.

GS:  Oh, yeah, I love minor seconds! I love major 7ths, I love minor 9ths.  And of course I learned those kind of spacings, intervallic spacings, that I learned from Schoenberg obviously, he… you know, in “Erwartung,” which may be his greatest piece—there are these amazing chordal constructions.  Scriabin started with the combinations of 4ths and 5ths, you know, and then some of us expanded it, going beyond that into pileups of 7ths and things like that.

EI:  But already that’s interesting; you see the first articulation as a chord, where…

GS:  Yeah, because the… Well, I mean, to be specific, there’s an E, a minor 9th lower there’s a D (I’m starting at the top), then a major 7th down is an E-flat; then there’s an F in the viola, that’s a 7th down; and then a 10th away from that F is a C#.

EI:  But of course if you put all those pitches together on the piano…

GS:  If you put them close together, oh yeah, then they’re a cluster!  Yeah, well that’s exactly the point: C#, D, E-flat, E, D. [Schuller means F.] That’s one of the most incredible things about acoustics; you put these things together and they sound horrendous!  Or a good cluster.  But if you now spend them apart, my god it’s like magic.  Because you see, each produces its own series, and overtones, and all kinds of fantastic things happen.

EI:  I guess ultimately this is a C# chord that we listen to.

GS:  That’s right; it’s a D-flat 7th chord, that’s right. [both laugh] It depends what you pile on top of it.

EI:  Let’s listen to this opening D-flat 7th chord.

Part 2:

 

GS:  It’s single woodwinds accompanied by percussion. I was very much into pointillistic ideas. And those notes in the woodwinds are the ones that are not in the chord.

EI:  Of course.

GS:  So that’s how I get the vertical twelve-tonality. And now the texture gets denser and denser, more and more notes come into play. Klangfarbenmelodie. – See, in a lot of twelve-tone music, this sort of idea of bringing a chord back again after it has changed, that’s verboten. [laughs]

EI:  Well, for sure, that’s why I like this twelve-tone music!

GS:  I do too!

EI:  You’re playing that nice D-flat 7th chord a few times, so we can hear it.

GS:  It’s also called a pedal point. [both laugh]

GS:  There it is again!

EI:  First movement.

GS:  Yeah.

EI:  And now we’ll—you have four major movements that are all separated by interludes.

GS:  Yes, right, that was another idea. By the way, that’s one thing I love about Gil Evans’s Porgy and Bess, where he put these—he didn’t use them between all the movements, but he had these little interludes and they’re all the same, but differently instrumentated each time. Sort of connecting up one movement to another; it’s a beautiful idea.

EI:  This one’s so short, and it, pretty much of what…

GS:  Well, the interludes are all short.

EI:  Yeah—this one in particular elides into the next, into the…

GS:  Yeah, they go directly into the next movement. That’s true.

EI:  I think we’ll listen to the next—we’ll listen to the interlude and “Capriccio” together.

GS:  Yeah, sure. – Yeah, the next movement is a capriccio.

GS:  Those are all twelve-tone chords.

EI:  Yeah.

EI:  Little of Bartók here, maybe.

GS:  Yeah. But it was more playing different rhythms against each other simultaneously, threes against fours against fives against duples.

GS:  Oh now I’m lost……. Oh, here it is. – And it’s all very transparent even though it’s also dense in a certain way.

[music ends]

GS:  Yeah, well… [chuckles] kind of a scherzo.

EI:  Yeah, it’s… Well, we were talking last night about repetition, and how important repetition is.  And that’s also something that I think a lot of twelve-tone composers don’t want to do, is to have those ostinato rhythms, and the sort of building up of things.

GS:  Yeah. But almost everybody may do it, on a short term.  It’s a question of how long you do it. I mean, when I was very young, I was told that any ostinato or pedal point is a kind of cheap trick.  And so I just sort of instinctively avoided it a lot.  But of course these are all such short repetitions, you know what I mean.  And it was also matter of making the material—since these repetitions aren’t exact repetitions, they’re near-repetitions—of making this sort of pointillistic transparent texture a little more familiar through having heard it a few times, you know.

EI:  It was a real—I finally got to see the score this morning, and after listening to it so much it’s remarkable how simple the rhythms are, in a sense… of course, they’re very hard, I mean you’re listening to it, it sounds like this incredibly difficult music, but honestly, to look at that, it’s a lot of eighth notes and quarter notes, it’s nothing unreasonable.

GS:  That’s right.  There isn’t any rhythm that hasn’t been around for almost ever.  I mean, I don’t remember, even in this movement I don’t think there are any quintuplets—oh yeah, little ones—but like you say it’s not quarter notes… Part of it is when the notes aren’t on the so-called beat; I write a lot of music off the beat.  And when it’s this… I mean, if you look at this page of score, there are five woodwinds who have one thing, three brass have another thing, the whole string section is divided into multiple divisis… that means that there’s an incredible independence in each part.  And that is of course the exact thing that musicians are not used to; when you play a Tchaikovsky symphony everybody’s playing the same thing, or at most somebody has a melody and the other’s accompanying, but here there’s nobody with anybody else.  And it means that as you play through, you have to of course be absolutely secure in making your entrance, of a note or two, fit exactly into this puzzle; and otherwise… And then—because it’s amazing, when pieces like this are not played well (as this certainly is), boy, it just sounds terrible.  It’s just absolute ridiculous chaos.

EI:  I’m sure.  But this is a good recording, I think.

GS:  Oh yeah.  And for a live performance it’s just absolutely amazing.

EI:  All right, now we have an interlude with a very big change of texture.

GS:  Yeah.

GS:  That’s an interlude again.

EI:  Yeah, another interlude. Why the interludes? You remember?  It’s only 60 years ago! [laughs]

GS:  Yeah, maybe I won’t! … It had something to do with… inventing different bridges from one movement to another, that at one and the same time—and I’m not sure it was always successful—that were not of the material that was coming, in the next movement, but that somehow also internally related and presented an introduction to that movement. And then all those interludes had to be totally different from each other; this one is very sparse, and all celesta and harp and plinking instruments.

EI:  Right.  Well, the next, we’ve got—for me, really the highlight of the score is this—

GS:  Yeah, partita.

EI:  Which is a—it’s almost like a baroque-type feeling.

GS:  It is. It was my absolute conscientious attempt to deal with—let me just cast a glance here… [flips score pages] … maybe it’s actually…

EI:  Well yeah, first there’s the theme and then it’s varied in a jazz style, a Japanese style, and a style I called “9/4,” I don’t know what style it’s in…

GS:  Well, it’s 5 and 4; that’s Greek music, that’s bouzouki.

EI:  So there you go.

GS:  Yeah. Well… as you just said, it’s a sort of introductory thing that presents a theme, and it’s a rather stark theme, because suddenly there’s either big dissonantal chords or, with that, very clear unison thematic or motivic ideas.  And they are then varied throughout the succeeding variations. So the first thing you hear in the horn and the trombone is sort of a stentorian “DEEEE………Da-Dah…….Da-Dah.”  I mean that’s pretty simple. But in this atonal context, even that sounds a little strange.

EI:  Let’s check it out.

GS:  And the strings are in unison here, which…

EI:  Some tricky writing in there for the…

GS:  Yes.

EI:  Still does have something of the baroque though, even here.

GS:  Yes, oh yes.

GS:  And these are already, the Greek melody coming in, previewed.

[Music ends.]

EI:  So the next movement, you mentioned to me was actually the very first time you’ve written some jazz.

GS:  That’s right. And that was—boy, that was scary and daring, because I mean, no orchestras could play jazz at that time.  And you had to write it out either in triplets or in 12/8, or 6/8. But of course, 6/8 in classical music is a totally different animal than swung triplets, you know.  I mean, jazz musicians, we know, mostly jazz is written in eighth notes, and then they play sort of variations of that rhythm.  In the early days it used to be pretty much tripletized: two even eighth notes (dah-dah) would become daah, da-daah, da-daah, something like that.  But Miles Davis, for example, he made them more even; he did what is in effect a quintuplet: three parts one note, two of the next note. So it’s dah, da-dee, da-daah. And then you can say some jazz musicians — I’ve analysed this, it’s like seven septuplets, four and three, slightly longer note than the next note.

EI:  Don’t want exactly [to] write out septuplets for everyone! [laughs]

GS:  I know!  If I wrote it out, what I really meant, I mean they would say, “I can’t read that!”

EI:  Well, what’s great about this, ‘cause I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard this, ‘cause you know I was listening to this piece, it’s really a surprise.  What I think it’s, what’s really good about it is that it’s really just hinted at, and then you get like two bars of a swinging beat and a…

GS:  It’s very subtle.

EI:  And a walking bass, and you’re like, “wait…! was that what that was?” And then you’ve moved on.

GS:  I always do these things not in one’s face; it’s some kind of strange… modesty or something.  I always want to do things in an unobvious way.  Understated.

And you can hear how, if this piece… by the way, this is interesting, I hadn’t thought of this, this jazz variation, if this were now played by jazz musicians, which now could play this, they could read this, many of them—this would really swing!  But you will not get much swing from this classical orchestra.

EI:  No. That’s why it’s good there’s only two bars. [chuckles]

GS:  Even a thing that you and I, if we go dah-dat-daah [snappy rhythm], that dah-dat-daah, that’s such an incredibly subtle and unique thing, there’s nothing like that in classical music; it just anticipates the beat and then it fades, and it has an absolute clear ending. We have even words for those things—like “dah,” we spell it D-A-H; “daht, daht-daht-dah,” which is another jazz thing, D-A-H-T.  It’s like African music and language, which are so allied. And classical musicians cannot imagine these sounds.  Or for example “dah-daht”: the first note is a hard D, the second note is a softer D—dah-daht.  It’s almost slurred.  And then you lift that second note.  You make the first note very long—dah-daht—and that’s the basic rhythm of ragtime—dah-daht, daah—which is the cliché of jazzing the… And so m any musicians at that time could not, if you gave them a million dollars they could not feel that. And it’s so simple—it’s just da-daht-daah! So anyway, I tried to write it, and see what happens.  So I was a pioneer, you know.

EI:  Yeah, that’s for sure.

[music plays]

GS:  See, that’s already… that’s, jazz would have been “ba-dah, ba-dah”…

GS:  Better. There’s the theme.

EI:  Oh yeah, the theme’s in the bass; god, I didn’t even notice that!  It’s so obvious, now you just point it out.

GS:  At least you can say that’s jazz-y; it’s not jazz yet, but it’s jazzy.

GS:  You see, this lick which, I finally develop it; in jazz that would be played “da-dah, daah.”  Now classical musicians cannot do that, because they take the second note and they make it short; now it sounds “dah-dat, dat.”  Now you can have that too in jazz but then you have to really make it short—“da-dat, daht.”  But “dah-dat, dat”… it becomes something else. And I could not get them, here in these G#, A, B-flat, to play this G# long, in the rehearsals.  I say, “stay on the string—baaaah-dah, not baht, dah”; they lifted the bow.  That’s how ingrained it was in the physical part of their playing and aural and so on.

EI:  Well, I have to say—I don’t mean to be controversial, but there’s something I like about the way they perform this movement.

GS:  Well, it has its own charm, I guess, yeah…

EI:  The fact that it’s square—

GS:  Yeah. [laughs]

EI:  It’s sort of just like, the fact that it’s not hidden really what time it is, it’s just this strange quotation that’s dropped in the middle of this 25-minute atonal madness, and then there’s this… I just really dig the way it worked out, somehow, at this time.

GS:  Yeah. Sure. – I wish one could hear the harp better, it was sort of like a guitar part.

The next variation is based on a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ancient music, namely gagaku, Japanese court and ceremonial music, which, the first great piece in that style was composed in Japan in 860, something like that, and that was the beginning of gagaku.  And its cousin is the dance that goes with that. And both of those end up in the famous Noh plays that are basic ancient Japanese traditional things. And this is a music which exists in a very slow tempo.  I mean, the Japanese musicians who play this can play in a tempo of somewhere around 30, 34 on the metronome, which we Westerners we cannot do. Of course they start learning how to do this when they’re two years old, because they go into that profession as babies, but anyway to keep this “BUM…………………BUM…………………BUM………..”—that was already inaccurate slightly—and then the drummers do these famous things where they go “bum………….bum………bum…..bum….bum, bum bum bumbumbumbumbumbumdagagagigigiggigi, BOOM,” and they don’t know how many notes they play, but they’re right on the next downbeat.  So you’ll hear that, and over this is a melody, typical Japanese, I made up my own, but it’s derived from a tradition, where they do a lot of slides and a sort of a whistling sound—very high instruments, and I used a piccolo here.

EI:  It’s an amazing movement, actually.

GS:  And then there’s a seven-part chord, which is played here in the strings, which intimates the sho, which is a woodwind instrument and you play seven notes on it.

EI:  This is still a variation movement.

GS:  Yes. Yes, because the melody as much as I could, I still based it on that opening theme, in the theme.

[music plays]

GS:  And now two instruments – [sings along with pizzicato:] Bink, bink… bom.

EI:  It’s a great ostinato.

GS:  Oh, glissandos on an oboe are not easy. But this music is full of glissandos, slow bendings of the note.

GS:  It’s that processional, slow march.

EI:  Yeah.

EI:  The texture’s so thick at this point.

GS:  Yeah. Well I thicken it up, I bring in more and more voices. – And look at this, incredible, each has its own trajectory.

EI:  Right.

[music ends] Well, that foreshadows some of the things that Ligeti would do.

GS:  Oh yes. And Nono. Yeah.

The next one is a Greek variation, that is to say bouzouki music, which is in a 4/4, 5/4 combination.

EI:  Here I actually am distracted a little bit by how the rhythm is played by these musicians. I don’t find it distracting in the jazz, but here I feel like it could be a little more clear. It’s a great movement, though.

[music plays]

GS:  That’s more like the introduction, way back.

GS:  It begins to move a little bit here.

EI:  Yeah. It’s exciting.

[music ends]

EI:  Whew!

GS:  [chuckles] I should have written two more variations, but it’s already pretty long.

EI:  Well, boy, I—it’s sometime that those, the partita movement could be performed separately, I suppose to get all the forces together for such a shorter work [would be hard], but that’s a really incredible achievement, the partita there, I mean everything else is great too…

GS:  Well, for that time, certainly I think, no one ever tried anything like that.

EI:  It’s great.

Here’s another interlude.

GS:  Yeah, and this is an interlude introduction to a piece called “Lamento,” which is really an exhaustive exploration of Baroque and Renaissance ornamentation techniques, embellishment. I used every goddamn ornament thing that I could find in Quantz, and all the people in the Renaissance and Baroque who wrote about these things, including even Mozart’s father Leopold. I mean, even the vibrato was an ornament in those days; it was a choice, and there were all kinds of scoops and of course double ornaments, single-note ornaments, grace notes, all of that, but it was a vast repertory of things. In these books, when you notate them, it fills pages and pages, and I used I think almost every one of them! [Both laugh]

EI:  Well, I didn’t realize that, so I’m glad to know that, OK, so I’ll check it out. This is the most obdurate movement for sure.

GS:  Yeah, could be.

[music plays]

EI:  There it is, “Lamento.”

GS:  The cellos are the protagonists.

EI:  Yeah.

[phone ring intrudes on the music and the interview breaks off temporarily]

 

EI:  Let’s listen to the interlude [again] as well…

GS:  Yeah, yeah…

[music plays]

EI:  And now the—boom! [a string crescendo out of which springs the cello as solo voice] “Lamento.” And the cello’s the protagonist, you say.

GS:  Yeah, yeah. The noble cello!

EI:  How many are playing right now on the cello?

GS:  Oh, I don’t know, probably eight… maybe six. Chamber orchestra.

EI:  Right.

GS:  This is all one long melody now. Klangfarben. Wanders…[melody wanders from instrument to instrument]

EI:  Right. – The harmonies are beautiful.

GS:  No vertical coordination at all, rhythmically.

EI:  Right, right.

GS:  Everybody’s on their own.

EI:  Mm-hm…. And these rhythms are actually quite complicated, some of them.

GS:  Yeah, oh yeah.

EI:  All those nested triplets and everything.

[music plays to end of track without comment]

 

EI:  Beautiful.

GS:  Yeah, then… the last movement is called “Chuisa,” closing, finale. And it is, to a large extent, aleatory, for almost the whole orchestra. Some of the sounding-aleatory things I actually wrote out, like here the five woodwinds. That’s as if they were improvising, without anything given. If I just told them “start fast and reduce the rhythms…”—but I kind of wrote it out to give an example. And some of these other groups here, the strings, I give them pitches but they’re supposed to improvise as variedly, in all respects: dynamically, rhythmically, with those pitches. And all of that is to preserve the twelve-tonality, the full chromaticism. Because a lot of these tremolo improvisations and—turn out to be again, when you put them all together vertically, they make a twelve-tone chord. And it’s introduced by a little interlude, which is for three brass instruments.

EI:  And that will come back quoted at the very end of the piece.

GS:  That’s right—yeah, they come back.

EI:  It’s almost like a little fanfare moment, the interlude.

GS:  Yes it is, absolutely, oh yeah.

EI:  But now, you know I was first listening to this piece—it doesn’t give the date of the composition on the record, so I thought it was from the 1970s. And aleatoric music wasn’t really new at that moment, but I don’t think there was so much aleatoric music like this—

GS:  In America?

EI:  —in America in the ’50s, was there?

GS:  Well, actually, it started right in the mid-’50s, but only in Germany, and Poland. And it all started in Darmstadt, and I’ll tell you how and why, because this will be interesting to listen to, because… Germany having lost the war and all the modern music having been forbidden in Germany for all the entire Hitler period, they had to do catching up, after the war.  And the Darmstadt Musikinstitut as it was called was the first to really do that in a really big way, that is to say to start a festival—they called it Summer Courses, but it was a festival—in which only modern music would be played, and the whole intent was to rediscover all the music of not only Jewish composers but all kinds of modern composers that they had never heard.  They hadn’t ever heard any recent Milhaud music, or anything.   And they did that and in typical German fashion very thoroughly and very quickly, so by 1950 all of that had been rediscovered and, to some extent, digested and absorbed and learned from.  And so then, all the composers in all the countries in Europe influenced by this, what was happening in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, and eventually at the Warsaw Festival—you know, the whole European continent went just really, really avant-garde, and picking up on all these new ideas which had appeared, including twelve-tone of course.  And then very quickly a lot of composers, fascinated by these new techniques and technical possibilities, started to write music that was so incredibly complex that the best musicians from all over Europe who were invited to play the new music in these concerts, they said, “we can’t play these things any more”; and that was music of Stockhausen, and to some extent of Nono, certainly of Boulez.  And by 1955, ’56, it got pretty intense, the battle between the musicians and a developing animosity for all this unplayable music, and “even if we work our buns off and we learn how to play it, it’s still no reward in it, because it’s just so mechanical and mathematical and everything.”  It was a kind of a music which could justify to say that a lot of this twelve-tone music is in fact only mathematical, and “Augenmusik,” you know, eye-music, that has nothing to do with aural realities.  So at one point there — and Boulez’s “Marteau Sans Maître was involved in this’ — He had written some incredible things, by the way, also in his teensy weeny little notation, and he’d written it all in 64th notes, to make it even harder… The musicians just rebelled. And then there were some pieces by, I can’t remember all the names, some Italians, and a Belgian composer named Elwa that went so extreme in that direction, and I saw it and I said, “My god, this is beyond what anybody can do; I’m not even sure it’s music anymore.”

And the musicians really protested, and at that point, some of these composers said, “Well, OK, if you really can’t play it, just do your best, come as close as you can. Maybe even improvise with it.” And that opened the floodgates to aleatory music; “alea” means chance in [Greek]. So it became some kind of structuring like this and then you make up your own little teensy wee ideas out of it. And then that developed into ensemble aleatory situation[s], not just a single individual. But that’s really how aleatory music started. No one had ever thought of that, and it just was a reaction: “well, if you want us just to approximate this—OK, well, we can do that!”

EI:  Well, when I look at this page I think of course of Lutosławski, cause I’ve seen some Lutosławski scores that remind me of this, where…

GS:  Yeah, of course. Oh, there were lots of pieces like this—Lukas Foss did a lot of it also.

EI:  But I just feel like this is awfully early to be doing it, because I thought that was 1960s music.

GS:  Well, I did it really… having been there at Darmstadt and saw this whole development, I immediately used it. Takemitsu was one of the very first to jump in and write aleatory music; he then gave that up entirely.

EI:  And I don’t think you’ve used it much.

GS:  No, I haven’t, because in the end, unless people really take improvising—which is what it is, with certain given instructions—unless they take it really seriously and try to develop something individual, and something interesting, so it isn’t just a repetitiveness thing, you know with, you give them four notes and they go [sings repetitive 4-note noodle]…well, listen, I could write that too! I always told musicians, play something that I could never have written—that you just feel.

EI:  Good luck!

GS:  Yeah…! And that has never been taught, it hasn’t been much talked about. And so much aleatory music was so bad, just totally chaotic, but I have it…—I decided therefore also in “Conversations,” the piece for the Modern Jazz Quartet and the string quartet, that has jazz improvisation, and it has classical improvisation where the string quartet has to aleatorically improvise, given certain instructions.

EI:  Oh, OK, that’s what that one section sounds… OK!

GS:  Yeah. And I wanted to use that idea, cause in principle it’s a lovely idea—of this kind of total freedom. But I knew that if I left it totally open they wouldn’t know what even the first note should be, so I had to give them pitches; I would give them instructions like “play either tremolos or trills with those notes” or “use these particular rhythms in as great a variety as you can”: certain things that would make them do certain specific things rather than just some… nothingness. And this score is full of that, this kind of guarantees.

EI:  Right, no yeah, it’s clear that you’re going to get the same effect every time with this.

GS:  More or less, yeah.

EI:  It’s nice that this is how the piece ends, though, I have to say.

GS:  Yeah, that was the whole idea; after all this strictness and pointillistic complexity.

EI:  So first we’ll hear the interlude that goes into the…

GS:  So this is really a texture piece.

EI:  Yeah, exactly.

GS:  Yeah, the brass introduction.

[music plays]

EI:  I notice there that you almost have one of the hardest things to put next to each other, like the hardest ensemble things, of the whole score…

GS:  Rhythmically you mean?

EI:  Yeah!

GS:  Oh yeah, yeah.

EI:  This is one of the hardest things, it’s the last… and then it opens up, it’s like you have this struggle there, and then it, now we hear it open up.

GS:  Right. – Well, the fanfare starts very simply. And I always intensify things once I get them going!

EI:  Your beloved horn gets an entrance here.

GS:  Yes. Well, it has it already in the fanfare.

EI:  That’s nice.

EI:  And the fanfare returns.

EI:  I don’t think we hear it. [referring to a bass note in the score]

GS:  Yeah.

EI:  Yeah, there’s a little pizzicato note that doesn’t come out.

GS:  Yeah, it doesn’t come out, yeah, right.  Yeah.  And of course, if you look at the score, these improvisations in the string section—almost divided, each section’s divided into four parts, and each has their own little improvisations to do, and they don’t start together, and they don’t end together, so on top of them being unused to improvising, and then having to know when they have to enter, and how long they should improvise, when there’s not much of a beat going on sometimes.  So that makes this a little bit difficult to organize; you have to rehearse it quite a bit, and then you resort to having section leaders or stand leaders, kind of count things out.  And they all have plenty of cues in their part, so if they’re really listening to what the brass are doing they should always know where they are. But this one I didn’t conduct at all.  It just gave the tempo and they all have a different tempo—96, what is it, 91, 74.

And by the way, I should have mentioned that one of the ones who did a brilliant work with this sort of free aleatoric approach was Stockhausen in one of his great masterpieces, which is totally neglected. It’s a very early piece called “Zeitmasse,” for woodwind quintet, except that the horn, it’s not a French horn but an English horn that he uses, five instruments. And it’s a work everybody should look at and study, because it’s a wonderful…variety of different ways of doing improvisations and aleatory combinations.  And a lot of it is also fully written out, but then also many meter changes. So it’s one of the most pathbreaking works of that time; it was written in 1953.

EI:  Well, how did you feel listening to “Contours” again?

GS:  Oh, I loved it, it was like meeting an old friend after 50 years! [both laugh]

EI:  I think it’s a great work; it should be a repertory piece.  It’s really nice.

GS:  Yeah… – There’s more on the record than we heard here, on this equipment at the moment.

EI:  Probably.

GS:  Yeah, it sounds a little thin or something, but… Yeah, I have nothing to be ashamed of, I think! [both laugh] – God….

EI:  Well, thank you for listening to that with me, that was a blast.

GS:  It’s been my pleasure.

EI:  It’s really been fun listening to it—really been great.

(Update: Commentary from 2015, after Schuller’s passing:)

When preparing for the above 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.

My own Schuller memorial concert consists of three 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 (discussed above) 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” 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 thisSextet, 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.