Gunther Schuller: Multiple Streams

Gunther Schuller: Multiple Streams

Gunther Schuller has had profound importance as a jazz arranger and historian as well as a twelve-tone composer, conductor, publisher, and record producer, and at 83 years young he’s still going strong. Read the interview…

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

in conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
at the Hotel Pennsylvania, New York, NY
May 5, 2009—9:30 a.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Videotaped by Trevor Hunter and John McGill
Video presentation by
Molly Sheridan

For over a decade I’ve wanted to do a talk with Gunther Schuller for NewMusicBox. But which Gunther Schuller? As a composer, I’ve long been fascinated by how he was able to turn a 12-tone row into something as non-dodecaphonic-sounding as his Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and wanted to learn more about his seemingly alchemical use of mutes in his Brass Quintet No. 2. As a jazz aficionado, I’m grateful for his reconstruction of Charles Mingus’s Epitaph and his orchestration of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, and I’ve long been awestruck by the seeming omniscience of his two exhaustive volumes of jazz history—Early Jazz and The Swing Era. Like many readers of these books, I’ve also been immensely frustrated that no third volume was ever published. And as someone simply curious about music history trivia, I wanted to learn more about Schuller the French horn virtuoso who is the only person I can think of who worked with both Toscanini and Miles Davis.

Then there was Gunther the conductor, who has championed so much contemporary music over the years, and Gunther the record producer and music publisher, whose advocacy for a wide breadth of music first turned me on to the atonal piano preludes of the early 20th-century Russian avant-gardist Nikolai Roslavets, the concert works of film composer Alec Wilder, a charming string quartet by forgotten maverick Louis Gruenberg, and Lewis Spratlan’s remarkable composition When Crows Gather, as well as the amazing jazz vocalist Mary LaRose.

If I had my druthers I would want to talk to Gunther for hours, days even, but he’s way too busy for that. Eighty-three years young, he’s still hopping from train to plane to conduct, lecture, compose, arrange, and engage in scads of other things, and he remains notoriously difficult to pin down. Luckily I knew where he’d be the first Monday of May—at the American Music Center’s Annual Membership Meeting and Awards Ceremony to receive AMC’s Founders Award. So we met up with him in his hotel room at the Hotel Pennsylvania early the next morning.

As luck would have it, that hotel was a frequent destination for Gunther in the 1940s—he’d go listen to all the big bands play there every night as soon as he was done playing in the pit orchestra for the Metropolitan Opera. So being back there again served as a trigger for tons of memories. As one of the few musicians who crossed racial lines in pre-Civil Rights America, when big bands were identified by their race as much as the music they were playing, his reminiscences are particularly poignant. But perhaps even more startling for me was learning the story of how he was unwittingly forced into the Hitler Youth as an eleven-year-old boarding school student in Germany. Ultimately every question I had for Gunther led to answers that resulted in my wanting to ask ten additional questions. But after two hours, he was on a train to his next destination.



Frank J. Oteri: One of the many, many roles that you’ve had in music has been as an educator. You’ve taught at many of the most prestigious universities and conservatories. Your books have been incredible pedagogical resources for people, and many of your compositions, in addition to being aesthetically important, have been pedagogically significant as well. But ironically, you yourself are self-taught as a composer.

Gunther Schuller: And I’m a high school drop out. I have no degrees, no diplomas, no nothing! I dropped out of high school at age 16 because I was ready to be a professional, and as people know my debut concert as an orchestra player was with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. That’s starting at the top. I’m very fortunate.

Gunther Schuller in the 1970s; photographer unknown

But I have always wanted to share my acquired knowledge, and it’s pretty vast by now in so many areas of music. Of course, teaching is one way of doing that. Although that started sort of minimally; at first, I was just teaching horn at the Manhattan School of Music. Then I started coaching chamber music groups and suddenly I was becoming well enough known as a composer that I was hired by Yale. Next came the New England Conservatory, then Tanglewood, and then of course hundreds of university visits and lecturing and all of that. And I’ve been very happy doing this teaching, training, or whatever you want to call it, because I have had so many incredible learning experiences myself. I’m still learning. I’m the eternal student. And I feel I have to share it. But the one thing about teaching I learned is that it is just about one of the most exhausting things you can do; it’s even physically exhausting. I was in denial about that for about 30 years. If you’re just sitting and talking, how can that be physically exhausting? But it is. It’s probably because you drain out all of your acquired knowledge and a certain kind of energy is expended in doing that. I find it more tiring than doing physical work in the woods.

FJO: Well, in addition to sharing the knowledge, you also want to motivate and inspire the people that you’re sharing the knowledge with, which gets back to how unusual it is that you were self-taught given your subsequent career trajectory. There was no individual person who was a mentoring teacher for you?

GS: No. But I had, on the other hand, quite a few mentors in all sorts of different areas at different times. I’m very lucky that way. And when I met someone whom I suddenly realized was a great important person, I liked to get to know him. I didn’t want to exploit this person, just learn from him. It just was natural, and I was ready for these people. Sometimes there are situations where you meet someone and they want to give you some information and there are people who can’t receive it. But, boy, was I ever ready, every time, whether it was someone like the great conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos or some of the people I played with in the Cincinnati [Symphony] Orchestra. There were some orchestra musicians who had come from the old country where my father came from and who had played in the Berlin Philharmonic with Furtwängler. They were marvelous artists. I learned so much about the history of music and performance through people like that. I’m proud of the fact that my appetite for knowledge was so voracious that I seemed to be always ready for what anybody wanted to offer me.

FJO: But I imagine there was lots of music in your household. Your father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I always could quip that I heard music in my mother’s womb. I was destined to become a musician. But it’s more than that. My two sons are now the sixth generation of musicians, so we’re building a little dynasty here. We know about all this now that to some extent, not always, one is genetically disposed to these things. And that certainly seems to have been true in my case, although very interestingly it wasn’t until I was eleven, and that’s rather late, that I had any interest in music of any kind. Performing, composing, whatever it might have been. And that’s very strange. Again, as you mentioned, since I had this musical background, I mean, I heard music every day of my life practically. Somehow I wasn’t interested. Yet when I finally became interested, then my parents told me, “When you were four or five years old, you would sit in the bathtub and play with your rubber ducks, or whatever, and you would sing the whole Tannhäuser overture imitating the trombones and the violins and the clarinets. You would do amazing things, but it seemed never to take.” They even mentioned when I was in Germany once as a baby, I was sitting on the potty and they had a phonograph on, a windup phonograph, and it was playing Roses From the South by Johann Strauss, and I started to conduct and sing. So there was this thing in me all the time. But why it never wanted to manifest itself in all those young years from, let’s say, three to eleven, I have no idea.

FJO: You also lost your left eye when you were eleven.

GS: That happened in Germany. My parents had sent me to a private school in Germany, and I had this accident with my eye there that precipitated my return to America. Suddenly they get a telegram that I’m in the hospital with my eye gone. In those days, there were no airplanes yet—this was 1937— so my mother took a ship. Of course, that took seven days to come over. There was some music in that private school. It was a marvelous school by the way. Talk about mentors. I am so fortunate. I went to two of the greatest schools one could possibly ever go to. One was that one in Germany, a chain of private schools, mostly for foreign children. And St. Thomas Choir School here in New York on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. But anyway, in the school in Germany they had a certain amount of music and every morning, once we got out of the shower and had done some running, we went into a room and we sang two Bach chorales every morning. They’d hand you a chorale, maybe one of the most familiar—Ein’ feste Burg, you know—and we would read these. Now it’s a long time ago, and I can’t quite remember why it is that we all could read music. Me included. But I remember the other thing that sort of intrigues me, since I then did become a musician who loves inner voices, is that I always wanted to sing the alto voice even though I was a soprano and was supposed to sing the top line. Somehow my harmonic sense, whatever that was and as limited as it was at the time, wanted me to explore that inner voice.

FJO: You were probably too young to realize what was going on as an 11-year old, but Germany was a strange place to be in 1937.

GS: Oh my God, yes. Well listen, it got very strange in my case because, of course, Hitler came in in 1933. I went there first in ’32, but by the time I left, I was drafted into the Hitlerjugend, believe it not.

FJO: I never knew that.

GS: It was the most amazing experience and of course Hitler wasn’t supposed to do that. These private schools were supposed to be off limits, but he never stayed with any treaties or agreements that he ever made, and so suddenly we were all in brown uniforms. All of us kids from China, from Brazil, from everywhere. Ridiculous. And then the commandant, who was a sadist, beat the shit out of us once a day just for practice. And I got alarmed. I wrote my parents and said, “What’s going on here?” And they couldn’t believe what I was writing them. They thought maybe I was fantasizing or exaggerating or something, but anyway they eventually inquired and were told yes, the school had been taken over by Baldorf von Schirach who was the head of the Hitlerjugend. So it was a good thing that I got out of there. But those are not experiences every child has.

FJO: By no means. Well it’s interesting that your father was a string player. I don’t know about your grandfather or your great grandfather, but you gravitated toward the French horn.

GS: My father certainly tried me on the violin and piano, and I showed absolutely no talent for either of those instruments, which disappointed him. Once I became interested in music, I went to the flute first. When I came back from Europe, my parents took me to Carnegie Hall all the time. So one day I was up in the fifth balcony with my mother listening to a concert, and I saw something way down there on the stage that glistened and shone. I didn’t quite know what it was, but I said that I wanted to play that instrument. It turned out that this was John Ahmens, a Dutch-born flutist; he had the first gold flute. Most flutes are silver or wooden. But in 1935 George Barrère, who was sort of the Rampal of the 1930s, had a platinum flute made for him for which Edgard Varèse then wrote a famous piece, Density 21.5. Ahmens was so jealous of all the notoriety that Barrère got because he thought he was a better flutist than Barrère. So he got himself a gold flute. As silly as this all sounds, that’s how I became a flutist. And I loved the flute, but after awhile I got a little bored with the literature of the flute. It turns out to be somewhat limited, even in the orchestra. For example, Mozart very often didn’t use a flute.

Gunther Schuller as a young French hornist, ca. 1940s

Anyway, one day during an intermission my father was talking with one of his colleagues who happened to be a horn player, the fourth horn of the orchestra, and he said I was getting bored with the flute and had no talent for the violin and piano. “Well,” he said, “Try horn.” His name, by the way, was Robert Schulze. He was one of the two main teachers in New York, and he was at the Manhattan School and Robert Franzel was at Juilliard. So if you wanted to have a good teacher, those were the two. So about four weeks later, Schulze comes over to our apartment in Woodside, Long Island, and he has a cigar box and a horn, and he says, “Stand over there by the wall.” You know, I was about 20 feet away and he’s looking at me. I could tell he was looking at my lips, my would-be embouchure, and said, “Ah, I got it.” He went to the cigar box and there were about 50 mouthpieces in there. He rummaged around, and he picked one mouthpiece, and he gave it to me. He handed me a horn, took the mouthpiece, stuck it in the horn, and he said, “O.K., you hold it like this. Now play.” And he didn’t direct me, you know. I said, “What do I do?” “Well, just put it to your lips.” He wasn’t showing me. He wanted to see where I naturally would put this mouthpiece. So I did this and I went pfffft, and out came the most beautiful F, a fifth below middle C—not a fart, not some groaning sound, just this very nice decent long tone. “Oh,” he said, “my God, what a talent.” Well, that’s the beginning of how I became a horn player. And two years later, I was already a professional at the very highest level. So I must have had some talent, you know.

FJO: That’s not an instrument most people just pick up.

GS: Yeah. I know. That was fascinating to me. I loved the horn, and when I gave it up in 1963, I cried for three days. I still miss it very much.

FJO: So you never play it anymore now.

GS: No, you can’t play any instrument part time, or even for fun, let alone the French horn which is a very difficult instrument. It requires endurance. Right now, I can pick up a horn and play a few notes, but it’s pretty wobbly. And the muscles are all gone.

FJO: Yet once upon a time you were playing for the top orchestras, you were even in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I imagine the way you learned all of the standard repertoire was from your experience in the Met Orchestra and before that in Cincinnati. I imagine you were also involved with a number of premieres of new music at that time. So I’m wondering what turned you from a player into a composer.

GS: Well, it’s the other way around. What I forgot to mention is that the first thing I wanted to do was to compose, not play an instrument. Usually at age eight or nine, somebody wants to play a trumpet or play the piano. I wanted to compose. And so I started doing that. I still have some scraps of things I wrote when I was 11 or 12, big goose egg notes, ridiculous stuff. I just learned by myself, and I started collecting records when I was 13—classical and jazz.

I couldn’t afford to buy scores, but I began going to the 58th Street library, which was the second biggest music library in New York City. The other was at 42nd Street. But at 58th Street, you could take things out. And so, every week, while I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music with Mr. Schulze, I would stop off at 58th Street, and I would grab about ten scores—everything from Sibelius to Stravinsky, to Mozart, Bach, whatever—and I’d devour these and listen to the recordings, as well. Then bring them back and bring home another batch of ten.

I had this voracious energy and appetite, and so I learned very quickly, all by myself from the source, which is the score, and performances—and I soon learned, by the way, that you can’t trust all performances. Then of course, later when I became a player, I learned the music from the inside, sitting in that sound—I mean, the experiences I had, almost all the time! For example, the first time I played Othello was with Fritz Busch; this was in 1947 or something like that. I don’t know if you know Othello. It starts with a huge, storm scene, and I could feel the boards of the pit vibrating; the music was coming into me—this immense sound; I get goose pimples even as I talk about it. What I’m talking about is a tiny example of how one can acquire a deep, intimate knowledge of music by performing in it. Particularly at such a high qualitative level and how much you can learn if then you set your mind to doing that. A lot of my colleagues were sitting there fairly bored playing Othello for the 912th time. But I never got bored with any opera, no matter how many times I played it. I was there to learn. People ask me who my teacher was. Well I didn’t have any teachers. But my two teachers were the scores and playing in orchestras. And you asked about contemporary music. Of course that came very quickly. It turned out that I had of course immediately a keen interest in contemporary music partly because I’m a composer, and through collecting records. I bought all the modern recordings there were. And soon I became known as the horn player in New York who could play the most difficult horn music in contemporary music.

FJO: I’m curious to learn about how you first heard 12-tone music. This is not the kind of thing that was getting played much at the time.

GS: There wasn’t all that much 12-tone music played, especially by the orchestras, until Mitropoulos came along. And that was in 1953 or something like that. He played so much Schoenberg and Second Viennese School and all kinds of 12-tone music from Europe. Not just 12-tone. He felt that that music was being neglected in America. He thought this was very unbalanced programming and so he put that right. And we all got to hear this great music of Berg and Webern and Roger Sessions and so on. Of course, he finally paid a price for all that because he lost his job. The audiences complained too much: Too much contemptible music. But I feasted on all that. Where modern music, maybe not 12-tone, but atonal or complex music, polyphonically complex, so on, was played a lot was on the contemporary music concerts like the ISCM and the League of Composers and the Composers Forum. There were a lot of those things up in Miller Theatre at Columbia University. And when there was a horn part that seemed to be difficult and leapt all around and hard to hear, they got me. I just loved playing all that. And I learned a lot from it.

FJO: I’m interested in learning why as a composer you gravitated toward that music. What led you in your inner feelings to want to write music like that?

GS: I’ve thought about that many times, and I still don’t know that I have an absolute complete answer to that. But I realized that through my love for Wagner, and the harmonically most advanced of Brahms’s music, and then the turn of the 20th-century composers including Ravel and Debussy and Szymanowski and Scriabin and all these people who were breaking through functional tonality into new territories, I loved all of that. And then I discovered, quite soon, that after free atonality came this 12-tone thing. I’m not obsessed with the idea of 12-tone, per se. For me, in fact, I wish we would just abandon that term because it causes a lot of prejudice and ignorant commentaries. I would prefer some generic term like high chromaticism, full chromaticism. But to get back to the beginning of my sentence, it was Wagner’s chromaticism as it appears finally in the Ring and in Tristan—I played in Tristan something like 725 times. And so it’s that led me towards the atonal region. Then eventually to 12-tone, because I saw that it was a wonderful organizational system which can almost inherently or automatically—if you have a certain amount of talent—bring an inner coherence to your music. It doesn’t guarantee it, but it provides that possibility. Of course, I first wrote non-12-tone atonal music. But here’s the other part of me. I don’t deny that I’m a 12-tone composer. Some people deny it because it’s a dangerous thing. Some people will hate your music. But I loved Stravinsky equally. I always say the two greatest composers in my youth were Schoenberg and Stravinsky. And Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, which is still probably the greatest masterpiece of the 20th century, and Schoenberg wrote Erwartung, which is the other one for me, and maybe the Orchestral Variations. But as I mentioned, I could probably rattle off some 17 other turn-of-the-century composers who were all mentors at a distance for me, particularly Scriabin, Szymanowski, Delius, and Rachmaninoff—he is one of the greatest composers, even though he was anachronistic. There were a whole host of composers exploring new territory like Milhaud and Honegger. I just feasted on all this stuff. So I am a big composite of all of that, with Stravinsky and Schoenberg as the principal activists in my music.

FJO: In terms of the music you were exposed to as a player, you also played in the pit of Broadway show orchestras.

GS: Yeah, I did that in the summers to make some money because the Metropolitan Opera didn’t operate in the summer. I played Annie Get Your Gun¸ Song of Norway, and Peter Pan and I substituted in a lot of shows when some horn player was gone, or took a vacation or something. That was great.

FJO: But you never wound up writing anything for Broadway.

GS: No, I wasn’t particularly interested in that. I was always very serious about music and composing and to me, you know those idols, Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, that’s what it was for me. I’m famous for being involved with jazz and ragtime, so I have nothing against lighter music per se, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do for myself. I wanted to write music that is not written in any way to entertain someone, even though I hope it will be entertaining and all of that. I hope people will like my music, but the first thing was to write something hopefully, if your talent permits it, that is original and deep in all of its expressive capacities and that is well put together, and that makes a statement—music that has an idea. We have a lot of music nowadays that’s very well put together and that goes on and on and on, but there’s no substance. There are not enough musical ideas or a musical ideal which generates a piece like one or two musical ideas in a Beethoven symphony generate the whole piece.

FJO: So you don’t think there have been any Broadway shows that reach that level.

GS: I think West Side Story does, of course, and South Pacific. There have been some very good ones. By the way, I think Song of Norway was a wonderful show. But that was all Grieg’s music. So I’m not in any way putting that down. But you know, my father loved operettas, along with all the operas, and he played them when he was in Germany as a youngster. He played thousands of operettas by Lehar and all those famous Viennese operetta composers. And I love operettas, but it’s something of a sort of lighter category that’s not as demanding, not as challenging in any way, either in the writing of it or in the perceiving of it. I don’t want to sound snobbish or elitist, but I just didn’t have the time to also bother with that.

FJO: Yet interestingly you got very, very wrapped up in jazz. I’m curious about how that happened. You said already that when you were 13 you started collecting jazz albums.

GS: When I came back from Germany, I began to hear jazz on the radio. It was inevitable living in New York because there were at least three or four or five stations that played a lot of jazz. And even all the network stations played some jazz at least once every day. And that was at 11:15 at night. On all three networks, after the news at 11:00 which was 15 minutes in those days, the bands came on, and so I heard all of them: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I heard all of this while I was doing my homework. I also listened to classical recordings on WQXR and WNYC in those days.

But one night I had an epiphany that changed my life. I was doing my homework, and I turned on the radio, and there was Duke Ellington. It must have been in 1941 or something like that, maybe even earlier. Mind you, I had heard Duke Ellington’s music before, but this time it just hit me—the extraordinary beauty of the sounds, the perfection of the playing and the perfection of these little miniature compositions that he wrote. They were all three minutes long. Later he wrote big suites and so on. And I sat there. I had put down my homework. I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I gotta listen to this.” And I listened for the 15 minutes and it just hit me. It overwhelmed me. And I said, “My God, this is great music. Why do people talk so bad about jazz?”—including my father and lots of people I knew. “Oh, jazz is low music, vulgar music, cheap music,” they’d say. So the next day I happened to say to my father, “Dad, I heard some music last night—Duke Ellington. You ain’t gonna like this, but in the hands of the greatest practitioners of jazz, that music is as great as Beethoven’s.” Wow, he nearly had a heart attack. He eventually got over it, particularly when he saw that I became kind of successful in jazz as a player and composer and conductor and so on. But anyway, I still feel that way. I’ve said that now ten million times, because it is actually true. It’s just that the music is different, although they’ve now come together also through the Third Stream and all of that.

So I began studying Ellington’s music through recordings and transcribing his music because I wanted to see what it looked like on paper. Then I spread out to all the big bands of that time, including the many wonderful great white bands like Woody Herman. I used to be right here in this hotel [the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City] I don’t know how many times a year listening to Woody Herman playing down in the ballroom. This was one of the biggest hang outs for big bands in those years. That’s later on, with my wife and everything when I was playing with the Metropolitan Opera. After the opera, after five hours of Meistersinger, we would go to the clubs and hear Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington, because all of Broadway was just one jazz club after another. And 7th Avenue, there were something like 18 jazz clubs between Times Square and 53rd Street. It’s all gone now mostly. But anyway, that’s how it all started. With this one moment where this music hit me so hard that I said that this has to become a part of my life. Of course, I wanted to play jazz on the [French] horn, but the horn had only just begun to sneak into jazz. Very few bands had a horn. They would have one—Harry James for a while had one player. Claude Thornhill had two horns—but since I was very generously occupied at the Metropolitan Opera, although I thought of maybe leaving and playing in the jazz orchestras, I did not do that. But I sure listened to all of that and then got involved in the freelance jazz recording world in the New York studios. There were three of us: John Barrows, Jimmy Buffington, and me. We were sort of the three pioneers of jazz horn playing. And Julius Watkins, who was a black player.

FJO: You wound up playing with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions, which is one of the landmark recordings in the history of jazz.

Gunther Schuller with Charles Mingus, 1979

GS: That happened actually through the fact that I met John Lewis in 1948, whom I had already greatly admired. This is when he working with Lester Young and Sarah Vaughan, before he founded the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was everybody’s favorite accompanist, and I had a lot of his recordings. He was very classically oriented, and later had studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Anyway, I wanted to meet him and I finally did and he introduced me to the whole jazz world. There is a wonderful thing, or there was, anyway—I don’t know whether it still exists today to the same extent. The inner circle of jazz greats is a kind of closed world and you don’t get in there very easily. The jam sessions and the cutting contests were an arena; if you survived there and came up in the ranks, you were fine. But what usually happened is that one of those people in the inside would discover somebody and then would say to the rest of them, “This guy’s alright. He’s one of us.” And that was it, whereas in classical music you had to take an audition. But here, once you’re sanctified, so to speak, you’re in. So that’s how I became so involved with every great jazz musician that was active at that time. I never actually worked with Charlie Parker because he never worked with the horn. And I never got to conduct any of his music. Parker’s music wasn’t conducted until the album with the strings. But I sure became involved. And then when jazz developed into extended forms and larger instrumentations, then there suddenly was a need for a conductor. J.J. Johnson would write a big multi-movement piece with 27 tempo changes, and it wasn’t enough to just stomp off and say, “Here you go, boys.” You had to manage all of that, and suddenly I was the only one who was actually a conductor. So I got involved that way and, of course, as a composer and eventually as a publisher.

FJO: But to rewind the history a little bit. Very early on you wrote an amazing big band chart, Jumpin’ in the Future, that didn’t get recorded until decades later when your son conducted it. But this was arguably the earliest atonal jazz piece, a fascinating convergence of your two growing musical interests. I know that in the ’50s you wrote an article about Cecil Taylor in which you stated that there really couldn’t be 12-tone jazz because you can’t really improvise with 12-tone rows. I don’t know if you still believe that. That was 50 years ago.

GS: Well, yes and no. Here’s the thing. If you’re speaking about strict 12-tone, at any given moment—and a moment in music can last three, four, or even ten seconds—you will present all the 12 notes in some form: horizontally, vertically, harmonically, melodically, whatever. To do that in improvisation is not really possible, although it has been tried. You fall out of the system, so to speak, especially in a fast piece. And if you’re playing some almost generic jazz runs or licks, and so on, you can fall so easily into those and then suddenly you’re playing three notes that aren’t in the row the way they’re supposed to be, you know? I’m making this as simple as I can make it.

Gunther Schuller composing at home, 2006

But in fact much has happened in the last six years through a disciple of mine named Ran Blake. I once told him about the 12-tone row that I’ve been using. I’ve been using the same row since 1976. I’ve now written 41 pieces with the same row. I said to myself right away when I started on this, if every piece starts to sound alike, forget it. But they haven’t. In fact, every piece sounds amazingly different. I could go further on that to show what a big thing that is about 12-tone. But anyway, I told Ran Blake about it and finally he said, “Listen, write it down for me.” Even though he doesn’t really read music, he has really good ears and he has now been using my row and has taught all of his students at the New England Conservatory to use my row. But they do not do anything you would call strict 12-tone organizationally. So yes, they will take that as a theme and use all of it, or parts of it, or segments of it in their improvisation. But there’s as much 12-tone in their improvisation as there is the row. But anyway, it’s something that I really hadn’t anticipated. And now all these folks in jazz are using my row, like Joe Lovano. They call it my magic row.

FJO: Is that the Beethoven fragment row? Is that the same row that inspired your Piano Trio and the Third String Quartet?

GS: Oh, all of them. Of course, when we talk about 12-tone, we have 48 transformations of the row. That’s four different versions and 12 transpositions, so that’s an awful lot of material to draw from. I’ve done this so much now, it’s automatic. I don’t have to look at anything and I hear it. I could probably improvise on it.

Unfortunately 12-tone music and atonality are associated by most people with ugliness, harshness, nastiness, dissonance. Dissonance is a dangerous word, and I wish it would be abandoned, because now in this modern world, consonance and dissonance have really lost their original meanings. They remained very meaningful for two or three hundred years. I would rather like to use intensity because minor seconds or major sevenths are more intense intervals than major thirds. And I would like to use chromaticism, because the ultimate goal for me as a composer, and this is my definition of 12-tone, is to achieve the highest total chromaticism that can be done within those limits.

FJO: To try to connect this back to your essay about Cecil Taylor, as well as your involvement in both jazz and in 12-tone music, is that 12-tone involves organizational principles which determine key aspects of the music which is why it’s very hard to improvise using that sort of pre-compositional control. I find it so fascinating that on the one hand, you’re drawn to this music that is very much about pre-compositional control and on the other, music that is about abandoning control through improvisation. Those are two fundamentally irreconcilable things.

GS: Yes. But this is me again. I’ve always wanted to be very open and very wide-ranging. It’s just in my genes. I did not want to be stopped from exploring or getting involved with things, even if they were from opposing camps. That’s why I was a kind of mediator between the Stravinsky and Schoenberg camps. I always wanted to bring things together or open up the range of things. So for me, these are really not opposites. They’re just different sides of the same coin. And the main thing about any of this is just do whatever you’re doing at the very highest, creative, imaginative quality, so it’s a work of art that makes a statement and contributes something meaningful. Tonality, atonality, 12-tone, this kind of music, that kind of music—those are all just labels which are basically meaningless until somebody tells you what they mean. There is no system, no method, no school, no technique which guarantees that you will write a good piece or a great piece or guarantees that you will write a bad piece. The systems have nothing to do with it. It’s the individual creativity and talent of the creator that makes something worthwhile whatever the system is. People say that there’s been so much bad 12-tone music written. That’s true. But look how much bad tonal music was written over the centuries. Music that’s all long forgotten.

FJO: You’ve also written music that’s outside of all of these systems, like the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee which flirts with Arabic-sounding music and uses microtonality.

GS: That is a 12-tone piece; however, of course for the Arabic movement I had to go out of that, though not entirely. It’s Tunisian music, basically, which I studied but the background to all the Tunisian stuff is still 12-tone, because all the harmonies are 12-tone.

FJO: I also find it interesting that for that piece, as well as a much earlier piece you wrote after seeing a Matta painting you saw at MoMA, visual art has been another very big source of inspiration for you.

GS: Well this is the other thing that I forgot to mention. Earlier in my youth I mentioned that I was quite uninterested in music. What I was interested in was drawing, design, and painting. Everybody thought I was going to become a painter. I mean, I did thousands of drawings, everything from crayon to oil, watercolors. I first started doing a lot of nature drawing and so on. And that’s still all in me. I’m an avid art lover, and I even have a pretty good collection of things.

So I realized that I could learn from the painters just as, especially around the turn of the century, the painters learned from the composers—especially in the French school, the Impressionists and vice-versa. And I saw Kandinsky and Schoenberg. Kandinsky was quite a musician and Schoenberg was quite a painter and that one could translate certain visual forms and terms into musical forms. Take a tone poem like Til Eulenspiegel. There’s no one in the world who would know it’s about Til Eulenspiegel unless Strauss told you. Whereas certain shapes and forms in a painting, one can translate. And that’s what I did in the Mata and in the Paul Klee pieces. So that’s been a fascination with me. And that comes from my boyhood love and the museums I was taken to in Germany and with the St. Thomas Choir School. We went at least once a month to either the Metropolitan or the Frick Museum.

FJO: I want to go back to something you said very early on here about transcribing Ellington and all the scores that you had taken out because you wanted to see the music in addition to hearing it. Does that tie into your relationship with visual art and wanting an analog for shapes? Is music for you as much about seeing as it is about hearing?

GS: Yes, and I would go even a little bit further than that. I think every score is its own work of art. Every page in a Beethoven symphony—the way it’s printed and the shape of that page and what is visually there on that page is a beautiful thing in itself.

Gunther Schuller Immersed in a Score
Photo by Stephanie Davis

Just a minor point, but I think that’s the case. I studied scores. I wasn’t sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher telling me what I should learn about Wagner’s Ring or Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I was doing it myself, so I really looked at every fly speck in every score. With Duke Ellington’s music—I mean, I have very good ears, I could certainly hear what was going on—there was something that made me want to see what that looked like. I figured that it would look very much like a Brahms chamber music score, you know, a small group. The only difference was that there were no strings. And in terms of the way it’s notated, it’s finding the same thing. But that also refined my ear, doing all that transcribing. I started when I was 17.

Now let me tell you something. I was the first to transcribe entire jazz works. What had been done was to transcribe a trumpet solo by Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong and they would appear in Downbeat magazine or in some books, as jazz books began to be written. But no one had ever transcribed, or had even thought of transcribing, a whole 17-piece band. And I also transcribed the drum parts. Of course, half of that music was improvised. That’s the nature of jazz, so this was an enormous learning experience. How did these great improvisers achieve this miracle of a perfectly made two-chorus statement that is a composition itself within the larger composition? I had to see what that looked like, because I could relate that to all the other music that I had looked at. And it seemed to me just about the same. Or just as good.

FJO: Of course, what happened as result of your transcribing all this music is that many others have also embarked on transcriptions, and there’s now this whole body of written material for a music that was not originally written down. And now it can be studied as repertoire.

GS: There have been tens of thousands, especially through the Smithsonian. For a while I led the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra, and we created a lot of transcriptions of things that had not previously been transcribed. You’re right, there’s a huge repertory of that earlier music from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s into the moderns—Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and beyond that. I even transcribed some Cecil Taylor things with Buell Neidlinger. That wasn’t easy, because of some of Cecil’s clusters and the wild things he does at the piano, which by the way, is not 12-tone at all. It’s just atonal. And it’s terrific. But anyway, it was also a tremendous ear training thing for me. The toughest in a way was always Ellington because the orchestra plays in such a perfectly balanced way that sometimes you really cannot tell whether that’s a second tenor playing that or a trombone. It’s so blended. It’s amazing. And the other thing was that recordings sometimes are deceptive, because not every recording gets everything in the balanced way that it was actually played. Jazz recordings generally were on a very high level. I thought mostly better than classical recordings, but of course, it’s a smaller group if you have 16 instruments. But sometimes there were things, certain acoustical phenomena and acoustical illusions that happened in a recording, where suddenly a muted trombone note, one note, would sound two octaves higher. It’s just what the microphone did to that sound.

FJO: The other thing that has been so valuable about your work in transcription is that it then in turn has informed your own compositions. I’m thinking of the last movement of the second brass quintet which has these wonderful mutes. That’s obviously coming out of the experience of transcribing all these jazz recordings, figuring out how these sounds were made and then doing something very different with it.

GS: I used just about every mute known to man in that piece, including the bucket mute. One of the great things about jazz is that these black people who were so poor they couldn’t even buy their own instruments mostly had hand-made instruments or second-hand instruments. I know of players who wanted to play the violin who made themselves a violin out of a cigar box and a gut string. So now these people invented all these mutes that came around in jazz: the Harmon mute; the Solotone mute; the bucket mute; the plunger; etc. There are at least seven different mutes and then you can put mutes on top of mutes. Ellington, for example, specialized in putting the Harmon with the stem out, into the bell and then putting the plunger over it to varying degrees. That’s a whole new range of magical sounds. I was so fascinated with that I began to use it in classical compositions. And more and more players in classical orchestras got adept at using these things.

FJO: That evolution in playing technique has made a tremendous difference in the kind of music composers can write for winds. And you’ve taken full advantage of that. You’ve written some fantastic pieces for wind ensemble. You don’t even miss the strings.

GS: My definition of a good wind ensemble piece is if it sounds like a full orchestra including strings, even though it doesn’t have any.

What’s interesting about composers is that we composers and great chefs are alike. We mix and blend things with notes and sounds and they do it with ingredients, but otherwise we’re doing the same thing. We take these diverse things that are available and put them into something—in their case, tasting very good; in our case, sounding very good. It’s amazing.

FJO: You have been such a driving force in both classical music and in jazz for well over half a century. In the 1940s and ’50s, you were completely immersed in every type of music that was going on at the time. But you’ve been a very vocal critic of rock music and other musics that have happened in the last 50 years or so. And there are tons of composers now who are doing things with rock which seem to be share a direct kinship with the Third Stream initiatives you were involved with. So this would seem to be a kind of music making that you should be sympathetic towards.

Gunther Schuller with Ornette Coleman at the American Academy Members’ Dinner, 2000; photo by Dorothy Alexander

GS: Well it’s not true that I was against it. That’s been a misunderstanding. I was against, or I was very dismissive of, a lot of bad rock. But my God, my best friend was Frank Zappa and I hung out with Jefferson Airplane and The Association. And, in fact, for years I gave lectures on all the pop music that existed at the time, including country and bluegrass and all those other things. It’s just that anything that is a sort of lowest common denominator quality made for a mass public and only for that is music that I just can’t be very excited about. So much in the most primitive kind of rock and roll is just repetition of one little three-note idea which they probably stole from somebody else anyway. And then you repeat it 56 times. Now that is not great composition.

One thing that I have always also said about rock and roll and rock music, especially in its early days, is that it was often very great social commentary and protest music. It isn’t that any more as much. Rap has now taken that role. And some of that is offensive. Some of it is bad. Some of that is great. So I have an open mind about this, but again, I back away from all of those statements and say now wait a minute. Ultimately the greatest art creations in painting, in literature, and in music, we know what they are over the centuries. There’s Bach, and there’s Beethoven, and there’s Rembrandt, and there’s Shakespeare, and Hardy and Joyce and all of that. What I guess I have trouble with is when someone is trying to tell me that the Beatles maybe amongst the best that ever was; that this is art of the level of a Mozart. That I can’t digest. So that’s my opinion, and I don’t know that anyone could prove it to me; I’d be an avid listener to see how that might work.

FJO: But you do feel that way about Louis Armstrong.

GS: Yes.

FJO: And Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

GS: That’s right, even though that is ultimately also somewhat limited compared to the St. Matthew Passion or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. But yes, it’s on that same level.

FJO: But hold on. You said to your father that Duke Ellington was as great as Beethoven.

GS: Yeah, that’s right. But that’s Ellington, because Ellington is the greatest composer in jazz, besides being an incredible pianist, band leader, and arranger. Now Louis Armstrong was a fantastic improvising trumpet player. He was not a composer. He did some pretty great composing as an improviser, but it’s not at the level of the 2,000 masterpieces that Duke Ellington wrote. One has to keep all of these things straight and balanced and in proportion. I will say that the craft and the skill and the talent and the imagination in the best of The Beatles is at a very high level, but I can’t quite get it up to Rembrandt or to Beethoven; I don’t know.

What I think is very great and fortunately no longer neglected music is the great ethnic musics, the vernacular musics from all over the world. There are marvelous musics going back thousands of years in Japan and India and China and Africa. I think that music is cleaner and purer and greater than a lot of the commercial music because it comes out of the people. Let’s face it. Rock and roll, hip-hop, rap, and all of that, that’s pretty much a commercial enterprise and those folks know that if they do a certain thing, they will sell 200 million copies in the first week. They know that. What I know is if I write a pretty damn good piece, if it gets performed, if it gets recorded, we might eventually sell 5,000 copies in three years.

FJO: I’d love to reach 200 million people.

GS: I would too, but that will never happen. And that’s why we have something we call popular music. That is for a mass public, and that is fine. But in human beings there is this capacity for a higher level of art, whatever the art form is, that will always have less recognition, and less support than what is more broadly accessible. If you make the music very easy and simple, you’ll get a bigger audience; there’s no question about it. There’s even a big difference between homophony and polyphony. If you write a nice little melody with a nice little accompaniment, boy, you’re in. But if you now make a polyphonic, contrapuntal thing, you lose half your audience right away. I’ve analyzed this all my life. And I’m smiling as I say all of this. I’m not complaining about anything. It’s just that when people try to pin me down about whether I happen not to like this or prefer that, it isn’t that simple. For every intended work of art—be it a rock piece or whatever it is—I look at its quality as it was created. I have a pretty analytical mind and I see the good things, and I also see the things that are very commonplace. There’s nothing wrong with commonplace, except don’t try to elevate it to the level of the highest art. I think we have to keep these things straight to some extent because you get very confused, especially in a world where everything is publicity and selling and labeling and promoting. Man, you can sell the most unbelievable crap and make a million dollars with it. We live in a dangerous world where anything can be made to sound better than it really is and sold. And I think some of us just need to be on guard about all that. But, you know, we all live together.