MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Gunter Schuller

Naturally, Gunter Schuller evokes all sorts of reactions. On the one hand it is tempting, when you have gleaned a few facts about his career and heard a little of his music, to picture him as America's answer to Leonardo or to Gary Sobers in terms of all-rounders. On the other hand, you might dismiss him out of hand, disbelieve in the quality of his inspiration, and depict him as a slave to every kind of musical expression but master of none. Of course, these are extremes. It is true that Schuller's career has some star quality with, undeniably, his success spread across more than one field; but he lacks the extra-musical flashiness ('Genius or Madman? ') which might have brought him wider recognition outside the USA (cf Cage). His foremost qualities are the uneccentric ones of a Musi- cian note the capital 'M'.

No doubt when they come to make a film about his life they'll start with a shot of the six-year-old Schuller, sitting in the bathtub with his brother, the two of them singing through the whole of the Tannhauser Overture and imitating all the instruments in turn. This amusing early memory of the composer's is actually an apt one. It points our attention to Schuller's early-developed sen- sitivity to instrumental sound, and reminds us that he has always lived at the hub of music-making, of whatever kind. The consequent stimulus upon him has meant that he has written no 'paper music' in either an academic or avantgarde sense. Quite the opposite, indeed. The iconoclasts have provoked from him strong criticism. Last spring in the New York Times, for instance, he launched a swingeing attack upon them. Few composers, to be sure, have made more demands upon themselves in order to extend the scope of musical expression without severing all lines of communication.

With Schuller the practical musician and the creative artist have always worked in complete harmony with each other. The course of his early career led him that way. Born in New York in 1925, his father, Arthur Schuller, was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, remaining there for 38 years. Gunther himself took up the flute and, after starting school in Germany, he returned to sing as a boy-soprano in the St Thomas' Church School choir - where it was discovered that he could sight-read music 'like a whiz'. His voice eventually broke, and he went to Jamaica High School. Now some new outlet for his musical urges was necessary. Advised by his father to avoid the violin (violinists were two-a-penny at that time), he started lessons on the French horn. He was then 14. Schuller the horn player left school at 16 to play in the Ballet Theatre orchestra, at $125 a week. A year later, he joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and soon Schuller the 19-year-old composer made his debut as soloist in his own Horn Concerto, with Sir Eugene Goossens conducting. From 1945 until 1959 he played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and his work during this period began to assume the breadth and scope which we now associate with him. He left the Met in 1959 to devote himself to composition.

While in Cincinatti he had become interested in jazz. He heard Duke Ellington for the first time, and made scores from his records. Eventually he himself played quite a lot of jazz, notably with the Miles Davis orchestra, both live and on record (eg in Gil Evans' version of Porgy and Bess). He also made jazz arrangements and filled a new role as conductor of modern-jazz groups. This was all a formative influence on the later instigator of 'third- stream' music not surprisingly, since he was almost entirely self-taught as a composer, and instinctively allowed himself to be drawn into fields of spontaneous musical expression. Composition became for Schuller a natural extension of playing. Not only are many of his compositions attempts to explore novel instrumental combinations, but he has evolved new relationships between styles of performance and musical structure. This is where the link-up with jazz is crucially manifest. It developed from the minor jazz influences which appear in his early pieces eg the Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1945), a pleasant piece of Gebrauchsmusik in three movements, the second of which is a Blues

(Ex. 1). Schuller's innovatory third-stream music did not start from nowhere. It grew spontaneously out of his efforts to bring the fields of jazz composition and 'classical' music closer together. In 1955, along with John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) he founded the Jazz and Classical Music Society of New York, to present authoritative per- formances of contemporary and rarely heard music, especially works by jazz composers which might not get into the normal concert-hall repertoire. The same year, Schuller wrote 12 by 11, for chamber orchestra and jazz group.

The symptoms of change in the condition of music were what Schuller instinctively diagnosed during the fifties, and his work seemed to crystallise the important, seminal features. Ever since the forties, modern jazz musicians had been in search of new forms to lend coherence to their improvisations. They had abandoned the world of enter- tainment, and were exploring jazz as an art-form in more sophisticated, complex ways: they reduced the size of their ensembles to chamber-music intimacy and juggled the per- cussion group around, turning the emphasis away from the pounding beat on to the soloists' polyrhythmic lines, and straying into the realm of atonality in the process. The kind of musical anarchy that sometimes ensued worried the best of them, and right from the time of Charlie Par- ker (who begged Varese to give him composition lessons, but died before they had an opportunity to work together), there was an open market for the sensitive composer-arran- ger. By the middle and late fifties, classical music was also struggling with the straitjacket of serialism: composers were seeking (are still, in fact) new formal criteria which would stimulate and encourage, rather than shackle, musical inspiration.

There were thus several attempts to wed European music and jazz, ranging from the aridities of West Coast jazz to the individual works which try to fuse symphonic and jazz idioms. Many of them misfired for they failed initially to resolve the players' different stylistic approaches in the manner of performance: an orchestral trumpeter will play in radically different way from the jazz trumpeter, just as an Italian opera singer's techniques are worlds removed from those of the Blues singer these are truisms. A second reason for their failure has been their reluctance to surrender to the emotional world of jazz. This is a controversial point, but the latter is necessary simply because of what can be termed the greater 'open-ness' of the jazz approach: European music since the Renaissance has certainly suffered from the restraining hand.

I have presented a somewhat melodramatic, or heavily caricatured, version of musical history deliberately in order to show what were the factors that made Schuller's innova- tions inevitable. The stage was set for a new kind of music not just a new kind of jazz or of 'classical'. And third-stream music was not meant to be an up-to-date jazz, but an attempt to allow the tributaries of jazz and classical music to flow together, by exposing them to each other's influence in practice. In Schuller's words, 'The new music is, in part, a process of joining jazz inflections and phrasing to the more set phrases and techniaues of non-jazz'. The composer's aim is to allow 'the two approaches to occur simultaneously. Up to now they have usually been linked alternutely'. In the symphonic jazz of Liebermann, Russo and others there is always a great divide within the overall sound which makes a satisfactory musical conception impossible.

In Schuller's third-stream pieces the jazz player tends to take the foreground of action, leading the structure on- wards, as it were (cf West Coast jazz, where an irrelevant dramatic structure is imposed upon the improvisations, restricting its creative impact). Where the basic thematic background is Schuller's, as in his Abstraction, the jazz improviser (in this case, alto saxophonist Ornette Cole- man) has to listen to the composed materials until he has absorbed them, can interpret their mood and shape, before playing at all in the work.

It was Schuller's particular achievement that he perceived relationships between the sounds of various modern jazz '77 groups and the sounds of ensembles which played classical music. He relates, for instance, the pointilliste use of the string-quartet medium by both Webern and Bartok to the subtle textures and 'cool' approach of the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Conversation, written for MJQ and the Beaux-Arts String Quartet, he explores the eCect of ten- sions created mutually in fragmented textures, the strings at first predominating. Then the more relaxed jazz group takes over, with characteristic improvisations, until the string quartet returns, whereupon the groups interact fur- ther until a sudden ending provides final resolution.

The structure of Conversation is convincing dramatically, because it springs from an inside knowledge of the styles of performance and of the motivations of the musical forces which are interacting from their separate standpoints. Schuller, the composer of serial music, is furthermore aware of similarities between modern jazz improvisation and the sounds emerging from Central European musical traditions. A bstraction, mentioned above, is based on a parallel which exists between Ornette Coleman's playing and serially constructed music. Since Parker's era, as I said earlier, the improvisations of the modern jazz musician have tended to destroy melodic symmetry, and the tensions of their polyrhythmic melodic lines are further enhanced by chromaticism sucked from the original tunes. Coleman's choice of notes thus fit well into an atonal, serial background: as Schuller remarks, 'the type of non-thematic continuity he projects - outwardly fragmentary, but inwardly cohesive - is very similar to that of recent developments in contemporary non-jazz music'.

Abstraction also adapts ternary form to this new musico- dramatic context. The composed first section builds up tensions which naturally find ample development in the middle section - a solo cadenza for Coleman - and the final part is an exact retrograde version of the first. This is a favourite formal plan with Schuller: he has applied it outside his so-called third-stream compositions. For instance, in the finale of his Woodwind Quintet (1958) the outer sections are fully and strictly composed, while the middle section is freely improvisatory with important cadenzas for clarinet, bassoon and horn.

Schuller's most effectively construed marriage of modern jazz and serialism occurs in his Variants on Thelonious Monk's Criss-Cross. The success of this work grew from his apt choice of thematic material: Criss-Cross is 'meant to be heard, not danced or sung to' - it cries out for extension and variation.

It's scored for string quartet, with the exciting combination of Ornette Coleman (alto sax), Jim Hall (guitar), Scott la Faro (bass), and Sticks Evans (drums), with Eric Dolphy (flute, bass clarinet and alto sax). Schuller exploits the quartet and soloists antiphonally, and uses another flute as a bridge, so to speak, between the two worlds of experience they represent. Again, as in Schuller's ternary- form pieces, the tension created within the string-quartet writing, finds release in the improvisations of the jazz soloists. The four variants contrast fascinatingly. The first one has a riveting sequence of solos which overlap in relay: Variant II is contemplative and static; the third and last variants are linked, and culminate in a superb flute cadenza. Even Wilfred Mellers, who, in his excellent study, Music in a New Found Land, has not very many kind things to say about Schuller or about third-stream music, finds this work rewarding and attractive.

I have said that Schuller's Criss-Cross is a successful attempt at third-stream composition because the musical material initially begs for such usage. Schuller's Variants on Django (by John Lewis), does not seem to me to come off, because the theme, poignantly memorable as it is, will not allow of such treatment. Django has a slow-moving expressive pathos to which the Variants can add little. Again scored for string quartet with the same soloists as in the Criss-Cross Variants, except for Coleman and Dolphy (this time on flute only), it generates hardly enough tension to justify the solo improvisations, and inevitably in the third and last variants the work returns upon itself.

Abstraction, Django and the Criss-Cross Variants were all first heard at a concert in New York in the spring of 1960. They provoked from the press a generally favourable response. Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker called Abstraction a work in wbich 'composition and improvisation had been organically and inextricably linked - one of those rare artless pieces that seem to fashion themselves right on the spot'. I would myself stress the word 'organically': for third-stream composition to be effective it has to invoke new powers and new magic from music. For if it is realised that the task of fashioning such musical experience involves the reconciliation of two widely separate cultural inheritances, then it cannot be accorded Schuller's fault if third-stream composition, in its original manifestations, has not become the dominant influence on the current musical scene.

Schuller is of course better equipped than most composers to effect an amalgam, due to his sheer facility as a jazz composer and arranger and as a serial composer. In his own mind, there are no differences. 'Look, a com- poser in his studio may think a long time about his work; the jazz man may improvise his music on the spot. But underneath, the compositional process is really the same. Both have to bring their creative experience and talent on a basic fixed conception around which they shape their ideas'.

The process of composition for Schuller takes place with the same intensity and speed as jazz improvisation: 'I write very quickly alright, but there is always a long ges- tation period... I let the thing develop in my mind and then there's a certain moment when I know it's ready. After all, it's in the nature of inspiration to occur when you have all your ideas ready. Then the writing-down is largely a mechanical matter'.

Schuller's attraction to serialism developed through his contact with the American Schoenberg circle. Earlier his idols had been Stravinsky, Ravel and Scriabin (a curious trio). The music of Schoenberg and his pupils took a firm hold on Schuller's mind from about 1945, when he joined his wife (a singer whom he had met in Cincinatti) at a seminar-cum-festival at Kenyon College, where she was studying with Eduard Steuermann and Rudolf Kolisch. Schuller's serial methods, even though he works at great speed, are as rigorous and as intellectually formidable as. any practitioner from Germany or Central Europe. Total serialisation, for instance, is applied in his three-movement Piano Concerto (1962): each movement is 'based on time and intensity proportions which are directly derived from the series'.

While for many European composers (including Boulez) total serialisation has proved ultimately to be a cul-de- sac, and some of them have gone over as a result to total improvisation of an anarchic kind and 'happenings', Schuller's faith in his own musical instincts has enabled him to bring to 12-note pieces the same spontaneity and ease of communication that exists in his other works. This is true, for instance, right from the announcement of the note-row in the opening movement (Ex 2) of his First String Quartet (1957), for he makes a rhythmic point and establishes an intervallic emphasis at the same time.

This facility in using serial techniques meaningfully derives, in part, from Schuller's experiments in dramatic, formal relationships in his third-stream works. The String Quartet incorporates the same elements of tension, building - up slowly, until they burst out into improvisatory phrases of the type one can hear in, say, Conversation. He does this by using slow basic tempi, and subdividing the beat often into very small units. The last of the quartet's three movements, also, culminates in successive cadenzas for the four instruments (Ex 3): the form here is ternary, and the movement's slow opening material returns at the end to disintegrate in fragmented textures.

Again, in the Woodwind Quintet (1958), whose ternary-form finale I have already mentioned, Schuller's keen instrumental sense stimulates him to create novel forms out of the sound possibilities of the medium itself. In the first movement, Schuller uses a characteristic oscillation of calm and wildly abandoned thematic ideas: there is a long melody used as a cantus firmus with related commentaries which stirs up unrest; this several times geleases more agitated phrases and these close the movement eventually. The second movement takes this process a stage further, employing contrasts of vibrato and non-vibrato playing, a Klangfarbenmelodie on the note A, violently opposed scorings of the same chord-clusters, through all of which Schuller manipulates his spectrum of pent-up energy and repose.

To draw a line between this sort of classical composition and Schuller's third-stream works is more or less impossible in the end. Such music as this inhabits a hinterland between the two worlds of jazz and classical expression. It reveals Schuller engaged in finding a musical drama-turgy, a relationship between form and expression that has fresh guiding principles. In this respect Schuller occupies similar ground to Varese. Yet Varese is much more atavistic, for he makes one aware that he has had to throw overboard a whole realm of musical experience in order to create afresh from the very roots of musical expression. Schuller, by contrast, has been able to accept everything on equal terms - the difterence between one who fled from France, and a native American - and is at home with all musical idioms. His career has been concerned to a large extent with mapping out the territory. And it is in his later, mature works that his numerous excursions have borne fruit.

It is important to realise that jazz and post-Schoenber- gian serialism, though the central ones, are not the only formative influences upon Schuller. He is fascinated by ancient music of all kinds, and as a practising musician he has always been keen on mounting performances of neglected music - music from past periods as well as rarely heard contemporary music - and with old music has been zealous and scholarly in aiming to preserve its authentic spirit, style and sound. In the winter of 1952-3, for example, Schuller directed a series of concerts at the Greenwich House Music School in New York, covering a wide range of mediaeval and renaissance music, and he has made a recording of brass music of the 17th century. While at work on a monumental history of jazz, as yet incomplete, he has researched into African and oriental music.

Schuller's composition, Contours, written between 1955 and 1958, draws considerably upon his knowledge of music outside Western culture and music of the past. It is not a Stravinskian neo-classical work although it consists of five movements, connected by short interludes, organised in a similar manner to 18th-century suites. After the Entrata, there is a lively scherzo-like Capriccio, a counter- part to the fantasias or inventions of 17th and 18th century composers. The third movement, Partita, is a set of variations: the first variation is a piece of jazz, the second is founded on Japanese ceremonial music, and the third on folk-dance rhythms from Greece and the lower Balkans. Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie dominates the next movement, and the finale intrgduces many opportunities for improvisation, for only the brass and harp have strictly notated parts.

Another interesting work, Schuller's Symphony for Brass and Percussion (which was first heard complete at an ISCM festival in 1951, and later taken up by Mitropoulos and Monteux; it has also been used as music for a ballet by Jose Limon, entitled The Traitors) was played in 1956 in the context of other brass music. This was at a concert of the Jazz and Classical Music Society which included works by Gabrieli, John Lewis, Jimmy Giuffre and J J Johnson. As one might expect, Schuller aimed in this work to use a more extensive range of brass sonorities, and shape out new formal moulds in the course of doing so. He maintains, rightly, that 'there is more to the horn than its "heroic" or "noble" or "romantic" character, or to the trumpet than its usefulness in fanfares. Indeed these in- struments are capable of the entire gamut of expression'.

Each of the four movements of Schuller's Symphony isolates one aspect of brass characteristics. The most in- teresting one, from the point of view of timbres, is the third, which is scored almost entirely for six muted trumpets. The three early movements create internal dissen- sion which precipitates the work into the finale, a Perpetuum mobile, and here the Constant semiquaver patterns build towards a final chord containing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale rhythmically atomised so that each note sounds on a different semiquaver beat (Ex 4).

These are typical examples of Schuller's voyages of discovery into new media with their own structural possibilities. His crusades have been conducted almost exclusively in instrumental territory: he has written little vocal music (some songs, dating from 1946 and six settings of renaissance lyrics), but otherwise has gone far afield. Few other composers have written for three trombones and piano, or for four double-basses, or four horns and bassoon. He leaves few facets of traditional practice unconsidered. In 1958 he completed his Spectra (commissioned by Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic), and Schuller here divides the orchestra into seven segments, specifying the seating arrangements. The woodwinds sit to the left of the conductor, and the tubas move into a position of prominence on the right; a bass flute is situated immediately in front of the rostrum. Although this sort of thing is not revolutionary, it is symptomatic of his approach to any kind of music-making.

In addition to his work as a composer, conductor and horn-player, Schuller has propagated all that he has worked to discover. He has taught (horn and composition, for both jazz and classical students), written newspaper articles and a book on horn technique, lectured, founded a music-publishing firm along with John 'Lewis (MJQ Music), and worked at a radio station in the USA.

The fact that Schuller has performed such prodigies in a short span of time, the fact that as a musical personality he has such wide sympathies, that he draws upon every conceivable source for his compositions, make him liable to gain a cynical response. He is impossible to label, and so invites disbelief. Thus, his Seven Studies on themes of Paul Klee (1959), the orchestral work by which he is best known in this country, often provokes the question 'But where's the film? ' Many, including Mellers, have yielded to the temptation. The question is of course an irrelevant one: it springs from a basic misunderstanding of the structure of the work. That each movement of it is self-contained does not mean that it is static, or in need of visual action to complement it. The movements bear precisely the relationship to each other as have the sections in, for instance, the ternary-form movements in Schuller's other works, notably his third-stream compositions.

The tensions set up by the first two movements (Antique Humonies and Abstract Trio) find release in the jazz expression of the third (Little Blue Devil), with its nine-bar Blues and fragmented decoration (Ex 5), and also in the post-Webern fragmentation of the Twittering Maehine, immediately following. The next movement (Arab Village), the centre-point of the work, is the most completely relaxed movement, maintaining an Oriental contemplative stillness through the single-line textures dominated by oboe and distant flute (Ex 6). The last two movements re-introduce the earlier tensions: An Eerie Moment has tremendous expressionistic power; tbe slow-moving Paztorale, while full of implied unrest, re-establishes contact with the primitive contemplation of the central movement through its textures and folk-like themes reminiscent of Le Sacre du Printemps.

To be sure, this is a work with an overall ternary structure, and it makes a very convincing and immediate impact. It is no less intriguing to watch a technically accomplished composer interpret the musical implications of paintings by an artist who himself was fascinated by musical forms and techniques. Schuller reproduces directly the structure of the paintings in three only of his Seven Studies: these are the first two and the final one. For the first of these (Antique Harmonies), Schuller draws upon his acquaintance with medixval music, constructing blocks of fifths, introducing a 14th-century cadence and organum-like figures. The second (Abstract Trio) is a study in constantly changing tripartite textures; and the last (Pcetorale), which was subtitled Rhythms by Klee, has several rhythmic and melodic ideas appearing at different speeds and in various registers, the pastoral mood being supplied by the clarinet, French horn and cor anglais. The other movements use the paintings as starting-points for musical expression, rather than directly transposing features.

The ease with which this work can and does communicate to the wider public (would that it were played more often) is symbolic, to my mind, of Schuller's growing stature. When the work was performed at an LPO concert the year before last, it held spellbound an audience that included a large proportion of middle-aged lady-piano-teachers who were there in the first place to hear Cher- kassy do Rachmaninov 3.

The attitudes to musical composition which came to the fore in Schuller's third-stream music are those which pervade the whole of his output. It is significant then that his first opera, The Visitation, which had its premiere at Hamburg last October, should discard traditional operatic practice and incorporate a seven-piece jazz combo into the orchestra, while the whole of the music is organised (as were the Klee Studies) by serial technique.

This widely acclaimed opera I have unfortunately not seen or heard, neither have I seen a score or a libretto, so I do not propose to make any detailed comment. The opera is based on Kafka's novel, The Trial, freely adapted so that Josef K becomes Carter Jones, the lonely Negro pilloried in a world of racial prejudice. It is clearly a work of contemporary value and relevance, and should prove a watershed for further dramatic quests in this sphere. We must hope that a production will not be long forthcoming in this country.

Schuller has sufficient fertility of mind and energy to have lived off his many commissioned works. He has also won many awards, and was chosen as ISCM representative at the ISCM in Donaueschingen in 1961. He must be a disconcerting figure for those who cast their sights lower, or elsewhere, but his success is based on appparently limitless appetite for work, on his inspired practicality and the open-ness of his mind to all kinds of experience - a peculiarly American characteristic, I think. Clearly, he is a central figure in the realignment of musical expression taking place at present.

(Music examples by courtesy of Universal Edition, McGinnis & Marks and Malcolm Music)