Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music & Beauty, Part II

We’re picking up the thread of a long conversation with Gunther Schuller, in his living room outside Boston.  He’s been a sort of one-man vessel of many revolutions in 20th century music, a player of many parts, too: a French horn virtuoso in orchestras led by Toscanini and Fritz Reiner, a modern composer still winning commissions in his 89th year, a jazz player back in the day too with Miles Davis, Bill Evans and the Modern Jazz Quartet; also a principal big-book historian of jazz in its early, swing and modern eras; and all his life an instigator of things, like the Ragtime revival that went to Hollywood in the 60s and 70s.

He’s the man who first mapped a Third Stream of “jazzical” music between classical and jazz temperaments.  So the thread in Gunther Schuller’s autobiography and our conversation so far has been the many musics in a sort of democracy of geniuses: Duke Ellington in the Pantheon with Beethoven and Mozart; Erroll Garner’s piano improvisations standing tall next to Shubert and Chopin.  It was Gunther Schuller’s line years ago that “all musics are created equal.”   By now his third stream is inundated by maybe 300 world streams of genius music.

 In this second half of our conversation, I’m asking a question I put to Richard Powers, the musically astute novelist of Orfeo, a couple of months ago: is there any summing up the 20th Century disruptions in tonality and rhythms of mainstream music?  And Gunther took it immediately to Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer who started a riot in Paris in 1913 with “The Rite of Spring,” a riot that changed Gunther Schuller’s direction and in a sense, never ended.

Music in this show:

Louis Armstrong – Potato Head Blues

Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Gunther Schuller – The Twittering Machine

John Lewis – Three Little Feelings

Ravi Shankar – Improvisations on the theme from ‘Panther Panchali’

Vijay Iyer – Brute Facts

Duke Ellington – Ko-ko

Duke Ellington – Harlem Air Shaft

Duke Ellington – Rockin’ in Rhythm

Duke Ellington – Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

John Coltrane – Coltrane Plays the Blues

John Lewis – Jazz Abstractions (composed by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall)

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  • Chris: Radio Open Source has enriched my life for so many years that the modest donation I made tonight is truly the least I can do to show my gratitude and my selfish desire to see it continue on and on, opening new doors and windows for me to explore.

  • mary

    Eric, thank you! Comments like yours make the work we do even more fun and rewarding. We are truly grateful!

  • Goosebumps were prickling my skin right along with Schuller’s as he praised the astonishing originality and perfection of “The Rite of Spring.” I would have liked to hear him expound on something that has always fascinated me about it–how it manages to sound (even a century later) new and modern and unprecedented at the same time it evokes the utterly primal and primitive. That connection seems to me the very heart of modernism. Instead of trying to rise above or condemn our basest natures, modernism’s diabolical genius is to harness them. I still marvel at “The Rite of Spring” some 40+ years after I first heard it.

    I was also glad to hear Schuller confirm the effect that Wagner’s chromaticism had on those who had the unenviable (but ultimately liberating) task of following him. Wagner really did suck the air out of the room. Setting aside the story and symbols, the music of “Parsifal,” especially the orchestral conclusion after the last words are sung, is still what I think of as the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. When I saw it live at the Met a few years ago, I thought, If there is a Heaven (there isn’t, I’ve since decided) then this is the music you hear as you ascend to it.

    But I have to say I was disappointed by the short shrift Schuller gave rock or pop or whatever you want to call it. Sure, we are constantly bombarded by aggressive, egomaniacal junk. But you know as well as anyone, Chris, that over the years rock has produced albums whose power and originality is simply inexhaustible. The early Radiohead albums “The Bends” and “OK Computer” come to mind.

    Well here’s another: “Like Clockwork,” by the American band Queens of the Stone Age. It came out last year. There’s more agony in it than ecstasy, but the imagination in it, the astonishing contrasts of texture, melody, harmony and rhythm refute any idea that it’s driven by nihilism. I’ve listened to their earlier albums, and nothing in them quite prepared me for the leap made by “Like Clockwork.”

    I hope you will give it a listen, Chris, and I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

    • Kunal Jasty

      Eric, I completely agree with you. “Kid A” as well!

  • Potter

    Mr. Schuller had some gems in this one. About me and atonal music, it takes listening and then I hear certain passages and can connect or respond. I have Stravinsky music here because I set myself to know it (“rhythms never before written” as Schuller says) and some of it is easy and some not easy for me. I am amazed to learn that Stravinsky is connected to Rimsky Korsakov and now I see or recognize (hear) it. I am digging out “Rite of Spring”.
    My Schuller notes: “so much of the creative process is really not known” (it’s mysterious). “imagination comes along with inspiration”. Jazz musicians did not want the codification of classical music; they wanted to improvise (the ability, the freedom to create, to express).
    When Schuller talks about the third stream, I think of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland and Osvaldo Golijov.
    As well I am thinking of more contemporary music of Joni Mitchell, very folk-jazz, Paul Simon Afro-pop-folk, and the lovely Linda Ronstadt all who have ventured forth beyond their first music. As well, so much of the world’s music has come to us now, thankfully, through the “World Music” circuit. It’s wonderful to have live performances right here here of Classical Indian, Persian, African (especially from Mali), Irish, Flamenco, Cuban music etc.
    Thank you.

  • George Mathew

    Thank you so much Chris for exploring Gunther’s life so thoroughly with him in these interviews. This is part of Gunther’s manuscript of the Twittering Machine from the Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee.