Composer  Gunther  Schuller
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Gunther (Alexander) Schuller is a significant American composer, conductor, and music educator. He was of a musical family; his paternal grandfather was a bandmaster in Germany before emigrating to America; his father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was sent to Germany as a child for a thorough academic training; returning to New York, he studied at the Saint Thomas Choir School (1938-1944); also received private instruction in theory, flute, and horn.

Gunther Schuller became an accomplished horn player and flute player. At age 15 he played horn professionally with the New York City Ballet orchestra (1943); then was 1st horn in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1943-1945) and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York (1945-1959). He taught at the Manhattan School of Music in New York (1950-1963), the Yale University School of Music (1964-1967), and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he greatly distinguished himself as president (1967-1977). He was also active at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood as a teacher of composition (1963-1984), head of contemporary-music activities (1965-1984), artistic co-director (1969-1974), and director (1974-1984). In 1984-1985 he was interim music director of the Spokane (Washington) Symphony Orchestra; then was director of its Sandpoint (Idaho) Festival. In 1986 he founded the Boston Composers' Orchestra. In 1988 he was awarded the 1st Elise L. Stoeger Composer's Chair of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. In 1975 he organized Margun Music to make available unpublished American music. He founded GunMar Music in 1979. In 1980 he organized GM Recordings.

During his youth, Gunther Schuller attended the Precollege Division at the Manhattan School of Music. He became fascinated with jazz; and played the horn in a combo conducted by Miles Davis (1949-1950). He also began to compose jazz pieces. In his multiple activities, Schuller tried to form a link between serious music and jazz; he popularized the style of "cool jazz" (recorded as Birth of the Cool). In 1955 Schuller and jazz pianist John Lewis founded the Modern Jazz Society, which gave its first concert in Town Hall, New York, that same year and later became known as the Jazz and Classical Music Society. While lecturing at Brandeis University in 1957 he launched the slogan "third stream" to designate the combination of classical forms with improvisatory elements of jazz as a synthesis of disparate, but not necessarily incompatible, entities. He became an enthusiastic advocate of this style and wrote many works according to its principles. As part of his investigation of the roots of jazz, he became interested in early ragtime and formed, in 1972, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble; its recordings of Scott Joplin's piano rags in band arrangement were instrumental in bringing about the "ragtime revival."

In 1959 Gunther Schuller gave up performance to devote himself to composition, teaching and writing. He has conducted internationally and studied and recorded jazz with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis among many others. Schuller has written over 160 original compositions. In his own works he freely applied serial methods, even when his general style was dominated by jazz. Among his works in the "third stream" style: Transformation (1957, for jazz ensemble), Concertino (1959, for jazz quartet and orchestra; one of its movements, Progression in Tempo, has sometimes been performed separately), Abstraction (1959, for nine instruments), the opera The Visitation (1966), and Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960, for 13 instruments), which was recorded by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Bill Evans. He also orchestrated Scott Joplin's only known surviving opera Treemonisha for the Houston Grand Opera's premier production of this work. His modernist orchestral work Where the Word Ends, organized in four movements corresponding to those of a symphony, premiered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2009.

Gunther Schuller published the manual Horn Technique (New York, 1962; 2nd edition, 1992). He is the author of two major books on the history of jazz: the very valuable study Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (3 vols., New York: Oxford University Press, 1968; New printing 1986) and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford University Press. 1991). A volume of his writings appeared as Musings (New York, 1985). Other publications: Gunther Schuller: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1987); The Compleat Conductor (Oxford University Press, 1998). Schuller is editor-in-chief of Jazz Masterworks Editions, and co-director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Another recent effort of preservation was his editing and posthumous premiering at Lincoln Center in 1989 of Charles Mingus' immense final work, Epitaph, subsequently released on Columbia/Sony Records.

Gunther Schuller has been the recipient of many awards. He received honorary doctorates in music from Northwestern University (1967), the University of Illinois (1968), Williams College (1975), the New England Conservatory of Music (1978), and Rutgers University (1980). In 1967 he was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1980 to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He received the Ditson Conductor's Award in 1970. In 1989 he received the William Schuman Award of Columbia University for "lifetime achievement in American music composition". In 1991 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant. In 1994 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his orchestral work, Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993), composed for the Louisville Orchestra in memory of his wife who died in 1992. In 1993, Down Beat magazine honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to jazz. He received two Grammy Awards: Best Album Notes - Classical: Gunther Schuller (notes writer) for for Footlifters performed by Gunther Schuller (1976), and Best Chamber Music Performance: Gunther Schuller (conductor) & the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble for Joplin: The Red Back Book (1974).

His notable students include Irwin Swack and John Ferritto. Gunther is the father of jazz percussionist George Schuller and bassist Ed Schuller.

What is presented here are two interviews with composer, conductor, author, administrator and historian Gunther Schuller.  The first was held in Evanston in May of 1981, while he was there to conduct the Orchestra of Illinois in a concert of Berlioz, Debussy, Haydn and Schuller.  The second conversation took place in downtown Chicago in October of 1988, between performances of his Flute Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

It was fascinating to hear this complex mind delve into the ideas and concepts which shape our musical landscape.  It was also enlightening to hear him deplore some of the traits and trends he finds detrimental to the pure foundations of art.

We begin with the first conversation in 1981 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Your program is a mixture of standard pieces and something of your own.  Let's start with a little bit about your work.

schuller Gunther Schuller:  It's the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, to give it its full title; it's usually called the Klee Studies, which is, I guess, my most popular piece by far, for reasons that I cannot entirely explain.  I don't necessarily feel it's my best piece, but it certainly seems to have won a place in the repertory of lots and lots of orchestras.  At latest counting, it's been played by something like 312 orchestras, many of them repeating it in various seasons.  So it's sort of a hit, I guess.

BD:  Do feel that it's worthy of being a hit?

GS:  Oh, yes!  I'm not disowning it or apologizing for it, but I just feel there are some other pieces which are maybe more challenging or more creative.  But a composer is probably the last person to be objective about his own work, so I will let the judgement of my peers and audiences and fellow conductors stand.  If they feel that it is my most popular piece, fine.  It is a sort of translation to musical terms of seven of Klee's paintings, many of which dealt with musical subjects.  He was, of course, a great early 20th-century painter and artist, but he's of special interest, I think, to musicians, or should be because amongst the 9,000 paintings and drawings that he created in his lifetime, there are quite a few hundred which deal specifically with musical subjects.  He was a very excellent amateur musician and wanted to become a musician early in his life,
and knew especially well the music of Bach.  He then changed his mind and became a great artist, and early in his life began to conceive the idea of taking musical formsparticularly those of the Baroque masters like Bach, fugues and canonic ideas and variation formsand translating those into painterly terms.  I could now deliver a one-and-a-half-hour lecture on this subject, but I won't; just to say that that was what intrigued me about those particular paintings.  I took those paintings and translated them back into music, so to speak.

BD:  Do you feel his paintings are successful in that way?

GS:  Oh, eminently.  Far be it for me to judge that, but I think that was a stroke of genius on his part, and he was the first painter to do that.  It's an idea which has then been followed up by many other painters!  But he was the first to do that; he really innovated that whole concept of a literal translation of musical forms and concepts into visual, painterly terms.

BD:  Have there been any imaginative conductors who have programmed your piece after Pictures at an Exhibition or something similar?

GS:  I suppose it has happened; I wouldn't consider that the best juxtaposition, necessarily because my approach is entirely different.  In the Mussorgsky, it's really a matter of taking the subject of the title of the painting, or the mood of it and just making a kind of free association translation.  Whereas what I'm doing is taking Klee's paintings, which are themselves musically formed, dealing with specific musical techniques and forms, and translating them back into music!  That's a very precise and specific thing.  That's not a general thing, and that's not mood painting, although I have done a bit of that, too, in these.

BD:  Do you enjoy conducting your own works?

GS:  Oh, yes!  I enjoy conducting, I enjoy conducting other people's works and my own included.  I suppose I have some special insights into my own music, which perhaps others might not have, but that's not to say that I'm the ideal interpreter of my music.  I found out a long time ago that some other conductors, on occasion, will do my music differently than I, and do it perhaps even differently than I ever conceived it might be done, and yet have done it in a most marvelous way!

BD:  Are those other ideas are better or worse, or just different?

GS:  They're just different.  On the other hand, there've been many miscalculated interpretations.  We composers always have to deal with that reality, but that's interesting to me.  When I was 20, if someone had asked me that question I would've said, "No, no, of course my interpretation must be the one and only, and the best!"  But I learned a long time ago that that's not necessarily the case.

BD:  So you're always looking and listening when other people conduct your pieces?

GS:  Yes!  And I've learned something, on occasion, from such performances.  Something was revealed in a piece of mine that I didn't even myself realize was there.

BD:  Do you work with students this way also?

GS:  I have for good parts of my life.  I am now institution-free; I'm a liberated man.  My one institutional relationship is with Tanglewood, the Berkshire Music Center, where I run the school there as Artistic Director the Boston Symphony.  That is my only teaching at the moment, but of course for ten years I was president of the New England Conservatory, and I was teaching at Yale and various other places through the years.  And yes, I always try to connect all these different aspects of music, whether I'm teaching composers or performers, because I feel that the performing is but the recreative other side of the coin to composing, which is creation.  So you have creating and recreating, and those are not in any way incompatible.  On the contrary, they can and should influence each other a great deal, and one can learn from the other.  The performer can learn a lot from the composer and from the creative process, and vice versa, the creator can learn a lot from the performer.  Though those two things are not at all separate, as most of the music world somehow seems to think, they are very, very intimately related, and in my teaching I've always tried to bring those two together.  In fact, at the Conservatory I made it almost an educational policy that there be no separation of these two.

BD:  So composers would conduct their own works?

GS:  It can take many forms such as that, but just the recognition needs to be there
— whether a composer actually conducts his own work or a performer composes.  That was, of course, the ideal in Baroque times; there was no separation whatsoever.

BD:  You were a musician, and that was it.

GS:  Yes, and you did both things.  In the 19th century we lost that, so it may take specific forms like that, but what I was really talking about was the philosophical concept that these two should not be separated, least of all in a school curriculum.  If a school curriculum brainwashes musicians-to-be with this notion that these two things are separate, and that a performer really doesn't have anything to do with the creative process, or that he can ignore contemporary music or various other manifestations, that is counterproductive and certainly goes against the vision of a totality of music.

BD:  Do you feel that you approach the music of other composers, then, in a different light than just a virtuoso conductor?

GS:  I'm glad you asked that question, and the answer is a resounding yes!  I deplore much of what goes on amongst the superstars when they occasionally venture into the ghetto of contemporary music.  For me
and some few of my colleaguesit is a real commitment of my life as a musician to do as much for my fellow composers and for contemporary music altogether as I'm able to do!  There are enough obstacles and resistance to that in the music field, goodness knows; it turns out to be an ongoing struggle and battle with the musical establishment and with the whole environment which is set up more or less against contemporary music.  That's why many conductors with famous names don't bother!  There's nothing in it for them.  There's no money in it, there's no applause in it, there's no satisfaction in it; orchestras may not even like it.

schuller BD:  Has there always been this reaction by the public against contemporary music?

GS:  There's always been a certain amount of resistance to the new in any art form, but I do believe and admit that the resistance to contemporary music in our own century is greater than it has been in previous centuries.  That's for some very good reasons, which would again take an hour-and-a-half lecture to fully explicate, but to bundle it all up in one sentence, it would be that the language of music did change dramatically around 1910-1911 with what we call the first revolution in 20th-century music.  That was simply the changeover to what we call an atonal language.  The assimilation of that, both by audiences and by performers, has taken a long time and is not yet fully accomplished.  It is as if I suddenly started switching into Japanese or German or whatever.  I might say some very beautiful things, but they would be unintelligible.  So what we're dealing with in music is, in a sense, a new or foreign language to most listeners who've been weaned on Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and so on.  So there is that resistance, and I think it's greater today than it has been in the past because of the fact that we're really dealing with a new language, and the educational system
the whole educational process, to the extent there is any music in people's education in any case, which there isn't.  But even when there is, it doesn't deal very effectively with the particular problem of contemporary music.  You may hear something in school about people like Beethoven and Brahms or Strauss, but contemporary music is not as dealt with realistically at all.  So the average listener just comes a cropper when he faces a new piece, and for that reason all these other things happen, or, as the case may be, don't happen.  But for me, it's an ongoing life commitment, not because I'm a composeralthough I suppose that plays a role in itbut I always felt that way.  As a 15-year-old horn player I wanted to do my share for the new music of that time.

BD:  You'd continue to feel this way even if you didn't write any music?

GS:  Yes, I like to think that I would have.  And there are others who are not composers who have that kind of commitment.  One of the greatest conductors in this regard was a man like Koussevitzky, who was not necessarily a great composer, though he did write some things.  Dimitri Mitropoulos was another who also was a composer early in his life, but gave composing up.

BD:  Do you find that most conductors have maybe dabbled in composing, but really can't call themselves composers?

GS:  Most conductors, if one looks at their early history, have composed and then either gave it up entirely or just kept it up sporadically.  Klemperer composed all of his life, and we know Furtwängler did.  Toscanini didn't.  I don't want to use the word "dabble" because most of them took it very seriously, but were realistic and honest enough to say, "I am not that great a composer."  They wrote their music and perhaps put it in a drawer or occasionally performed it, but they made no great claims for it, and I think that's rather good!  George Szell was quite a skillful composer, but most of them de-emphasized the composing as they became successful and mature conductors.  Doráti is a composer who still composes a lot, and Skrowaczewski has virtually given up conducting in order to become a full-time composer, which he was before he was a conductor!
  No, I wouldn't describe it as dabbling, although there have certainly been dabblers also, but these great musicians I've just mentioned were all quite serious composers.  In the case of Dimitri Mitropoulos for example in 1926, he just decided one day that he was not good enough.  He was a very modest and self-critical man, and instead of just sort of bathing his ego in his composing, he realistically decided, "I am not good enough or great enough."  He may have been wrong in that judgement, but that's what he decided and turned entirely to conducting.  I think that's marvelous.  Some of us feel that we can keep on with both activities.

BD:  And very successfully, I must say, at least in your case!

GS:  [Modestly]  Perhaps so...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I would like to ask about your opera, The Visitation.  This is a work that combines "standard" music, if I may call it that, with jazz elements.  Were you trying to build inroads for the otherwise non-experienced audiences?

GS:  It isn't that so much, and nothing as specific as that.  It's much more general and much broader, and it isn't limited to my opera The Visitation.  All my life, in one way or another I have tried to bring the worlds of jazz and "straight" or "classical" music together. I conceived the term "Third Stream music," which is generically applied to such attempts to amalgamate these musics.  I've done it in my composing, and I've done it in performances by bringing together jazz musicians and classical musics on recording dates or in concerts.  I've also done it in my publishing and in every way you can possibly think of because I feel so vehemently against the separation that has been enforced upon jazz as a music separate from the mainstream of music for all kinds of not-so-good social and racist reasons.  That enforced gap and gulf, between "classical" music and jazz is to me something entirely untenable, philosophically. 

schuller BD:  Who has put in this gulf
— is it the public or the composers...

GS:  [Jumping right in]  It's not so much the public.  I think the public has been a victim of this, more than the creator of it.  No, it's the tastemakers in general, the musical establishment.

BD:  The non-musicians in the musical industry?

GS:  I mean the critics, the publishers, the managers, the people who govern.  But it really goes back to the beginnings of jazz, which was born in very humble surroundings and created by black people.  The prehistory of jazz was a folk music.  Then it became a kind of urban folk music and was played primarily in the red-light districts of our American cities, most famously New Orleans.  So it was born on the wrong side of the tracks to begin with; it was a degenerate music played by black degenerates!  That was the prevailing view in nineteen hundred ten.  One can read articles in the Ladies' Home Journal where mothers are advised to not let their children go near jazz because they will get venereal disease!  [Both laugh]  Ridiculous things like that.  So there's been this social stigma against jazz all through the decades, which still exists to a large extent.  Then there comes the confusion.  Most Americans don't even know what jazz is.  They may think that Guy Lombardo is jazz, or that rock music is jazz, or AM radio music is jazz, none of which are really truly speaking jazz!  Jazz is a creative and mostly improvised music.

BD:  What is the role today of Guy Lombardo and of AM music?

GS:  That's a commercial music whose main ambitions is to make money; it has very little to do with creativity, as such.  Guy Lombardo and certainly Paul Whiteman and many other bands from that time were originally really very creative and provided superb dance music.  In the case of Paul Whiteman, marvelous arrangements and musicianship went into all of that.  Guy Lombardo is already on a lesser level, as is Lawrence Welk or people like that.  But the point is that all these musics have their proper functions.  I'm not about to eradicate Guy Lombardo's music from the face of this earth, but it mustn't be confused with jazz.  That's my point.  All of these musics should coexist happily with each other.

BD:  But should they be understood individually?

GS:  They should, yes, as for what they are and appreciated for what they are.  There's no question that Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington are great geniuses of music, whereas Guy Lombardo is a very minor figure who stole what he could from Duke and a few other people.  But the point is that this whole thing called jazz is still segregated to this day from the rest of the musical field.  There are always more people trying to keep jazz separate from classical music than there are people trying to bring it together.  To come back to the original point, the similarities between jazz and classical music are much greater than the dissimilarities or the differences, and on that premise my fight all my life has been to bring these musics together, and that has been done very often and very successfully.  So to come back to The Visitation, this was just one of many examples where I've tried to do that by bringing a jazz group into the symphony orchestra.  They played in the pit with the symphony orchestra in the opera, and that was perhaps particularly appropriate because The Visitation deals with racial prejudice and with the history of black people.  I felt that it would be really intolerable to write such an opera without involving the music that the black people have contributed to our culture.  Jazz is our one and only truly indigenous music, born entirely on homegrown soil and still not appreciated very much.

BD:  Is it more appreciated in Europe, really?

GS:  Oh by far!  In Europe, in the Orient, almost anywhere on the face of this globe except here.  It's the old saying, a prophet is not received in his own country.  This is prophetic music that is still not received in its own birthplace.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I'd like to ask you about the role of recordings as you see it.  There's a lot of controversy about whether they're good or bad; the idea of having 15 or 20 or 30 or 40 recordings of a certain piece.  Is there really a market for all this, or a need for it?

GS:  Well, there seems to be a market, because all of these things do seem to be selling.  Whether there's a need, that's an entirely different question.  I think the only proper answer to that can be if the recordings are of any value
of any quality musically or artisticallythen I guess one could demonstrate both a need and a reasonable market.  I'm trying to be a little bit facetious in this answer because I find that most of the decisions that lead to the reality of having 15 recordings of the Tchaikovsky 5th, or whatever it is, are not decisions based on any artistic criteria.  That's all business!  It's all money; it's just commerce.  It's as simplistic as if record company A puts out the Tchaikovsky 5th or the Brahms 4th, then record company B has to do it to compete.  And then record company C will come along and of course also wish to get into that market.

schuller BD:  But record company A is not going to record The Visitation, and then lead record company B to do it also, and record company C...

GS:  Not at all; this applies only to the real staples of the repertory
the Brahmses and the Beethovens, and so on.  I hope it's clear that I'm not talking, obviously, against any of those great masterpieces.  But if in the process, as you just implied, some other worthy things get ignored because everybody's so busy duplicating, replicating themselves, as it were, then there's something wrong.  It isn't necessary to record my Visitation, but there is a rich world of music out there, infinite in its variety and diversity which is more or less ignored by the record companies.  If it weren't for the small record companiesas you who work at a radio station well knowthere would be nothing!  There wouldn't be any of the delicious tidbits of the repertory from Renaissance times up to now, that we currently have available to us on records.  But that's not the work of the major record companies.

BD:  It's enterprising individuals.

GS:  Yes, the little ones who have that interest and feel that commitment to enrich the record market.  Another debit in this process is that very often a recording is made of a major symphony
let's say by Beethoven — and it is done by one of the superstars of today with one of the superstar orchestras.  This implies an enormous venture of marketing; you gotta sell this damn thing!  How good it is is almost irrelevant; you gotta sell it.  In this society you sell by marketing promoting and hyping.  Now this entire mass of money is pumped into this one venture, to be followed the next month with another venture similar to it.  All this money's expended, and in the meantime there are flawless, perfect, definitive recordings by Furtwängler or by Toscanini or whoever it might be that are languishing in oblivion because all the promotional emphasis and interest is going on this new product, which in all likelihood cannot in the slightest compare with some of the venerable recordings which are not kept in the catalogs.  I maintain that along with new recordingswhich certainly should always be madethere should be a greater effort made to maintain in the catalog all those recordings of the recent or ancient past which have been declared, by a sort of common consensus, as really ultimate, or at least for their time ultimate recordings of those works.  The companies should not to keep pushing them down saying, "Never mind all that old stuff with Furtwängler; we got a great recording by Mr. X, and he's the winner of the Nielsen ratings at the moment, so let's sell that."  I find all of that so cheap and deplorable.

BD:  So then you yourself would not get involved in recording a set of Beethoven symphonies or Brahms or Tchaikovsky?

GS:  I probably would resist that.  I think I do a pretty good Beethoven symphony, but I know that I can't compete with Furtwängler or Klemperer or something like that
— except under the most ideal circumstances, such as if I had my own orchestra and could work on a piece like that for weeks like Szell did with the Cleveland Orchestra.  He worked the Schumann 2nd Symphony for six years and then recorded it.  One has, then, a masterpiece.  It's a great temptation to do that, but I would much rather record something that is not so well known, and that would, by virtue of such a recording, might make a little breakthrough in the consciousness of listeners.

BD:  By "unknown," do you mean just new works, or also old works that are unknown?

GS:  Also old works that are unknown.  There's much more of that; there is so much music.  There are literally thousands and thousands of marvelous pieces which are generally ignored in programs or on recordings.

At that point, the telephone rang and Schuller was being summoned to the venue for that evening's performance.  I thanked him for the time, and he said he was pleased to have spoken with me.  Seven and a half years later, in October of 1988, he was in Chicago again for the premiere of his Flute Concerto with Walfrid Kujala and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.  This was commissioned by students and friends of Kujala, who had been in the CSO since 1954, in honor of his 60th birthday.  Between performances, we were able to continue our discussion at a different hotel . . . .

BD:  Thank you so much for seeing me again after all this time.  I want to draw on your lifetime of experience in music, and yet I don't want to get answers that you've given in a hundred interviews and a thousand lectures.

GS:  I rarely repeat myself.

BD:  Good!  Is it also true that you rarely repeat yourself in your music?

GS:  Yes, more or less.

BD:  More less than more?

schuller GS:  I write in a certain style or conception, and yet sometimes I use some of the same basic raw materials because I happen to be a 12-tone composer.  I find that the pieces that I write based on this same material are quite different in character and mood, and even what we call the "sonic surface"
the thing that you hear — and I think that's as it should be!

BD:  Do you ever feel confined by just twelve tones?

GS:  Absolutely never.  Never have, and anybody who thinks that 12-tone is confining just doesn't know what they're talking about.  The critics who continually bash 12-tone nowadays, and who call all of us who are working in that medium "academics," it's sort of like Bush calling Dukakis a liberal, or McCarthy calling everybody a communist.  It's just name-calling that has absolutely no substantiation whatsoever.  As with any system, technique or concept, it's what the composer does with it and how he or she uses it; it's not the system.  Naturally, there's lots of bad 12-tone music, as there is lots of bad diatonic music and lots of bad tonal music and lots of bad modal music.

BD:  Is there lots of good diatonic music and good 12-tone music?

GS:  Of course!  Of course!

BD:  Is there more good than bad?

GS:  Yes, definitely, I would say!  It's probably the same percentage as there is in any other kind of music.  If you think back...  I'll give you a little test.  Pick any year between, let's say, 1600 and 1900.

BD:  Okay, 1863.

GS:  In 1863 there were four or five major composers working.  Some of their names were Brahms, Schumann, Wagner.  Berlioz was still around, I think; yes, he died in '69.

BD:  Verdi?

GS:  And Verdi.  We could probably name a few others; Beethoven had already died; Chopin was not around anymore.  You probably can name another five or six of what we might call less famous or minor figures. 

BD:  Like Marschner and Catalani?

GS:  Yes, and Niels Gade, and so on.  Now, if you now take a look in the Thompson International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians or Grove's Dictionary, you will find, as you go through the book
it might take you a few daysyou will find at least 200 composers listed there who were all writing music, who wrote 17 symphonies, 55 operas, 19 oratorios, oodles of chamber music, whose music we don't play anymore!  They are completely forgotten now, but were figures in their time that had a certain cachet.  [See my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.]

schuller BD:  Should they be resurrected at all?

GS:  Many cases not, but because they were productive, or they had a job in the principality of Saxony under the Duke of so-and-so, they were, at that time, famous, or working, or relatively famous.  We have the same thing today!  I would conjecture that if we have 37,000 serious composers in the United States today, which I think we do, I would say that a good 35,000 of those will be forgotten 30 years from now.  Many of those, however, you are now hearing!  They're getting performances, they're getting premieres.  They're being even recorded.

BD:  Does being recorded add another joker to the deck?

GS:  Sure it does.

BD:  Anyone can pull it off the shelf and listen to it at any time
— now or in the future.

GS:  That's right, and that's what we didn't have in 1863.  But you see what I'm getting at.  In any era and in any system, any style
whether it's painting or literature or music or danceyou will have that wonderful two percent of geniuses that make up the pantheon of the great creative artists in a given field.  Then you got another six to seven to ten percent who are very good composers, the second level composersFauré, Sibelius, Delius, Rachmaninoffand I love them.  When you get below that level, then you get into those who are competent, skillful, didn't make too many mistakes, but the music is neither original nor very imaginative; it's just good handiwork.  Then you get below that, where you get really incompetent, and that's probably 50 to 60 percent!  It's the same in 12-tone as it was in the music of 1863 or 1755, or whatever.

BD:  Who makes the decision as to where these composers lie within that spectrum?

GS:  Eventually there arrives or derives
long after a person's deatha kind of general consensus which is then usually agreed upon and shared by everybody.  By now, everybody sort of agrees that Beethoven was a pretty damn good composer, but that wasn't the case during his time!  There was a lot of controversy about how good he was or how great he was or how original, and some of the reactions to certain kinds of music that one might hear today were heard in respect to Beethoven's music by certain people of that time.  Eventually it all sifts itself out, and the great people remain and the lesser ones get revived every once in a while, and those that had nothing to saythe also-ransjust disappear, and they're in those encyclopedias!  It's quite nice that we know that some guy in a little town in Austria wrote 37 oratorios and church sonatas.

BD:  Then let me ask an indelicate question
where does the music of Gunther Schuller belong — in the top two percent, or that next eight percent, or where?

GS:  I'm glad you asked me that; you're the only person ever asked me that.  I think I have a very honest self-appraisal, and I think I'm in that second level.  I know I'm not a great original creator like Beethoven or Wagner or Schoenberg or Mozart, or for that matter Monteverdi or Machaut.  Those are the ones who move the music forward for a whole century, or at least a generation.  I know I'm not of that kind of creativity.  But I feel I belong at least in that second rank because I am a very well-trained musician.  I have considerable craft, skill, technique and I know what I'm doing.  I hear very well and I have a considerable harmonic and orchestral imagination.  That's already quite a bit.  I hear everything I write, and I think my music is never dull or boring; it's always engaging.  Now of course I know some people are horrified by it, but so what?  I think it's their problem more than it is mine!

schuller BD:  Are you pleased with what you hear when it gets performed?

GS:  Absolutely.  That's not to say that I sometimes don't find that I made an error in judgement somewhere along the line.  Not too often, but sometimes a certain passage or a certain development of material goes on too long or is a little too short, but that happened more in my earlier works than it has lately.  I feel that I've got my technique down to such a level of skill that I don't make many of those kinds of mistakes anymore.  It's always possible, and in my crazy life, where I'm writing music on airplanes and hotel lobbies and bathrooms and God knows where, one can lose track of where one is in the piece, and sometimes there have been interruptions of two and three months!  I don't mean this, believe me, in any bragging way, what I find amazing is that I can come back to that piece after two and a half months and go right into it, and that in retrospect, after I've finished it, it's seamless.  That makes me very happy.

BD:  That means the ideas join together very well!  [Vis-à-vis the LP jacket shown at left, see my interviews with composer Elliott Carter, flutist Samuel Baron, and bassoonist Arthur Weisberg.]

GS:  Yes, and that the ideas were so clear and persuasive that I could pick it up at that point where I was interrupted and re-find the spirit of those ideas or the mood as I get back into it, and that carries me forward through the rest of the piece.

BD:  After you've heard the premiere, do you ever go back and revise the work or correct mistakes?

GS:  Rarely, mostly because I don't have time.  Right now I have 18 commissions, and I've usually had 15 or 16 commissions going for the last 25 years.  So it's all on deadlines; I rarely have time to do revisions.  Also, I'm not really philosophically so interested in doing that.  There are some composers who do; Boulez has revised every piece he's ever written, sometimes three or four times.  What I'd rather do is learn from that mistake and not do it next time.

BD:  You're not going to make a list, like an appendix to your life saying "Make this change, make that change," and let the editors do it later on?

GS:  No.  Of course, one may change things in the rehearsals
, such as a dynamic where I marked mezzo forte and it's just a little too loud.  That's cosmetic.

BD:  That's an adjustment

GS:  Yes.  But no major revisions.  God, I haven't done that for a long, long time.

BD:  Are there ever times when the musicians get into your piece and find things in the score that you didn't know you'd put there?

GS:  Yes.  More than that, conductors hear things that I didn't hear or didn't put in there, but are nevertheless there; if one hears it, it's obviously there.  But what happens to me
particularly in someone else's performance of my musicis where I hear something that comes out that I was not aware of being there.  That has a lot to do with the fact that so much of our composing process, the creative process, as much as we are consciously involved with it and work at it, part of our so-called technique includes a whole other level which occurs in the subconscious and subliminal.  A lot of things sneak in such as relationships between notes or pitches, or between movements; who knows what?  The whole infinite variety of things can happen there that we may not be aware of.  I've pointed some of those things out to my composer-colleagues where I, in performing a work of theirs, hear something that they absolutely were unaware of.  It might even be some suddenly tonal region, when they're writing basically atonal and you say, "Geez, I never realized that was an A major chord!"  [Both laugh]  So that can happen.  But that's part of the mysterious and exciting part of the creative process; not all of this is totally conscious.  I guess when you're really inspired and you're really inside the material that you're working with, it carries you forward in a way that sometimes you're not fully aware of in the specifics.

BD:  It's controlling the pencil?

GS:  I don't like the word "control."  It's leading you on, it's urging you, it's making you hear things and do things that you are not totally aware of where they come from and even what they are, maybe.  But we don't want to overemphasize this.  I think we know more about what we write than we don't know; at least I'd like to think so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What are some of the things that contribute to greatness in music?

schuller GS:  I would always put, not maybe in the absolute top of the heap but somewhere along the top, originality.  Next, memorability, recognizability, and then subsidiary to that, contributing to that are things like one's musical imagination and one's instincts, and of course one's background and skill and knowledge.  One other important thing that I find in composing
or writing a book or painting or any artistic endeavoris that as much as 50 percent of the creation resides in the critical faculty which evaluates what you are creating as you are creating.  It's simultaneous.  In other words, most people think, "I have a blank piece of paper and I'm now going to fill it with music."  Or, "I'm a painter and I'm gonna fill the canvas with designs."  That active act of putting something out is what most people think is the creative act.  Well, that's only half of it because while you're doing that, you better also be very good in evaluating whether what you are doing is worth doing; whether it fits the piece and whether it's a logical extension of what you've just created the second before.  The whole continuity of this process is something which you have to always be checking out.  So the critical faculty and working in conjunction with the creative faculty are the two major components of that whole process.

BD:  You're always writing on deadline.  Would those critical decisions be different if there was either a later deadline or no deadline at all?

GS:  That'll vary from composer to composer.  There are some who can't work under deadline pressures at all.

BD:  What about Gunther Schuller?

GS:  I thrive on it somehow and I can't tell you why.  I am not saying it's a particular good thing, it's just something I'm able to do; I've done it all my life.

BD:  When you've got a whole bunch of commissions, how do you decide which ones you'll accept and which ones you'll say, "No, I can't do them"?

GS:  Sometimes it's a time factor.  I'm committed to five pieces that have to be done by the fall of 1989, so if someone comes along and says, "I want a string quartet from you in the summer of '89," I will have to say no.  I'm very honest about it; I don't accept commissions that I know I can't fill.  However, if somebody says to me, "We know that you've written three string quartets and we'd love to have another quartet for our society," I say, "Well, you know I'm all booked up."  So if they continue, "That's okay; take your time, and if you finish it in 1992, that's okay," then I'll say yes.  So the time factor is maybe the only consideration by which I would sometimes turn something down.  Other than that, I don't care whether it's opera or string quartet or mixed ensemble or song cycles or a duet for piccolo and contrabassoon.  I really love it all.  [Susan Nigro has recorded Schuller's Concerto for Contrabassoon.]

BD:  With all of these pieces that you've got going, are you conscious of how long each one will take to write?

GS:  By now I am; after all, I've written 130 pieces and one gets pretty good at it.  I happen to write very fast, so I have learned
even though it still worries me.  Every time I sit down to write a new piece, there's that frightening thought, "Is anything gonna come out?" because we don't know where that comes from, and maybe nothing happens.  I'll stare at that blank page for five days and nothing will happen!  But it turns out that I shouldn't worry about that because it seems that every time I get ready to start a piece, it comes out.  I've also learned over many years nowafter all, I've been composing for nearly 50 yearsthat I have a certain pacing, it seems.  The interruptions in my crazy life as a conductor and publisher and lecturer and jazz historian and all these other things I can't always predict, so it might be that a piece will take me a whole year to finish.  The actual working hours on it may have been three weeks, but scattered all over the year.  But I have a pretty good idea, and I've gotten to the point where I unless I get disabled physically or mentally, I can almost guarantee that I'll finish a piece by a certain time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What is the purpose of music in society?

schuller GS:  Apart from giving great pleasure to those who can receive those pleasures, I think the most important thing is that it is a reflection of our particular society at any given time
in the time and period that we liveand the things that concern us and move us and touch us both intellectually and emotionally.  This reflection, however, is viewed through our own particular personal viewer, so to speak, because naturally what comes into this is our particular education and background and environment and genetics that created us, or me, in this case, as an individual.  But insofar that I'm a thinking person and that I am reacting to the world around me and reflecting it in my thinking, it's bound to come out in my creation.  Now that doesn't mean necessarily that I'm a political composer.  I'm not writing pamphlet music or Republican music or Democratic music, or whatever it might be.  But for sure, these things, in some subliminal way, present themselves.  Now specifically musically, the tradition that preceded usincluding, in my case, a deep involvement with the whole jazz traditioncomes out in my music, sometimes overtly or consciously, sometimes subliminally.  All of those things are then combined together as a kind of intellectual and emotional reaction to, and reflection of, my life and my times as I see them.  But music is very special.  If you were talking to a writer now, or a poet, or even a painter who works with much more specifically relatable figures, designs, words, you'd have a somewhat different answer.  The point being that music is this incredible language where nothing is specified.  Music cannot say anything specific, despite all of Richard Strauss's great protestations that he could even describe a fork and a knife in music, which is totally ludicrous.  Yes, you can create moods and characters and feelings, perhaps, but even those are very unspecific.  I'm so happy I'm a musician to be able to deal with this.  The beauty of music is that music cannot say anything specificeven with a program note and a storylineand therefore it can say anything and everything.  That's totally unique about music; there's no other artistic language that can do that, because everything else is more specified.

BD:  Does a text change that at all?

GS:  Only insofar as someone is aware of the text!  If you hear an opera or an oratorio in Turkish and you don't understand a word of it, all you can do is receive the music
the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythms, the structure, the dynamics, and the whole musical flow of the thing.  It might be about the wildest subject ever in the history of mankind, and you would not know what it's about!  So you would receive it just on absolute musical terms.  My famous test case of this, which I've tried out in educational situations, is to play Till Eulenspiegel for people who like music or love music or just listen to music, but who don't happen to know the piece.  You don't tell them what it is.  You don't say, "This is Till Eulenspiegel of Richard Strauss; you just play it.  There isn't a chance in a million that anyone will come up with the idea that this is about Till Eulenspiegel, the Flemish legend from the 15th century.

BD:  They won't even come up with a generic Till figure?

GS:  No!!  Absolutely not!  They'll hear a horn theme, [sings the opening measures] "Ba-ba-ba baaa, da--ba-ba-ba...," and ask, "What is that?"

BD:  They won't get a sort of nobility of character?

GS:  They might have a lot of fun with the piece; they might enjoy it, and if they're musically very sophisticated they might realize that this is an incredible masterpiece of orchestral writing.  They might note how he took this 7/8 theme and squeezed it into a 6/8 meter, and all those kinds of things, but those are, again, are musical things.  They're not descriptions of a person or a meal or a story or anything.

BD:  Then are we, in effect, destroying some of the composer's creativity by overexposing the music and repeating the program notes?

GS:  We often do.  I think we've got so hung up on that.  We know, for example, that a composer like Mahler vacillated tremendously between giving the programmatic content and not giving it.  Suddenly he'd give it, and then he'd pull it back; Strauss did, too!  Those composers realized that there were some real dangers in giving people who are just ordinary music lovers too much of a pre-digested story, which actually prevents them, in some cases, from hearing the essence of the music!  I have an example in my career, my famous Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee.  Many times, sponsors or orchestras that perform this piece want to hang the seven pictures in the foyer or project them on a screen during performances, letting the audience see the pictures.  I say "No!"  To hang them in the foyer's fine.  They can refer to them before or after the performance.  But when those pictures are projected during the performance, there isn't a soul that is listening to the music.  They're watching the pictures, and since the brain can only handle one thing at a time, there's no way that you can look at a picture intensely, clearly, seriously and also hear all the music going on.


Two different paintings by Klee are seen on the LP jackets -- Abstract Trio (left), and The Twittering Machine (right).
See my interviews with Erich Leinsdorf, and Paul Fetler

BD:  Then how do you justify opera, where you're hearing the music going on but watching the picture on the stage?

GS:  Because that is a totality created for that purpose.  That's what's so great about opera.  All the art forms are involved
the visual, the theatrical, dramatic, musical, pictorial and so on.  And it is conceived by Verdi and Wagner and Mozart in such a way to be received as a totality.  It is difficult to catch everything.  In answer to your question, I played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 15 years and I watched every opera and many other operas since I left the Met.  In Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, for example, I cannot catch everything of the music and the scenery and the visual and the words that's going on.  I can catch most of it and of course I know what's going on, but to say that I can perceive every miniscule detail of that totality, no.

BD:  But then each time you go you get a different set of the details.

GS:  A little bit, and of course depends on the performance.  It depends on what is being emphasized or brought out.  Nowadays, unfortunately when stage directors have taken over the operatic world, we get more psychedelic opera spectacles than we get music.  But that's another subject.

BD:  [Playing Devil's Advocate momentarily]  You don't feel they're revitalizing some of the old pieces?

GS:  [Dismissively]  No.  There are some exceptions.  I think occasionally Peter Sellars has done something remarkable to a Handel opera, for example, but by and large, particularly in Europe now, it's just killing what's happening to opera.  That's really another subject, but the main point is that even with textual or visual aids in a piece of music
let's say in the case of requiems, we have this wonderful text of the Mass — it is an inspiration to the composer.  But when you finally hear the end product, you do hear it as absolute music where the text is subsumed into the music or vice versa, and the composer makes an amalgam out of those divergent elements and creates a new totality.  That's what we hear, and we could appreciate that even if we didn't know the first words are "Kyrie eleison."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What do you expect of the public that comes to hear a piece of yours
— either an abstract piece or an opera?

GS:  My facetious answer would be "Very little" because I find the general education towards contemporary music to be so lamentable that it's a real problem.

BD:  Then what would you like of the audience?

schuller GS:  I would like, in the ideal, for audiences to be perceptive and discriminating and understanding of the musical elements as I work with them; to recognize relationships in the piece
melodic, motivic, thematic, structural relationships; and to love the harmonies that I write because I'm a strong harmonic composer.  This is an area where most people are at their weakest.  Most people listen very superficially.  I'm not condemning people!  This is a matter of education.  The musical and artistic illiteracy in this country is just staggering.  So I could answer your question by saying I don't expect anything because I know the state of what's out there, in terms of appreciating my music, Elliott Carter's music, Milton Babbitt's music, Schoenberg's music, Stravinsky's music, Beethoven's last quartets, Monteverdi's Orfeo or whatever!  There is no education towards that.  In our entire school system there's nothing that prepares you to listen to the music of George Perle.

BD:  So then why do you write music?

GS:  Because we have to!  We have to continue the process.  This all started with Pérotin in the 12th century.  I'm just part of a long, ongoing continuum, a legacy of composers, and I do my best to write the best music that I can.  Hopefully it will fall on some fertile ground and some receptive ears, and of course it does!  I know that my music is not attracting the 200 millions that are now attracted to Michael Jackson, and therefore he makes 97 million dollars a year.  I know that I always have a small audience any time a piece of mine is played.  At these performances here in Chicago, I felt that the audience was really quite enthusiastic about my piece.  In the two previous performances, there must've been 100 to 150 people who wanted to shake my hand and say, [enthusiastically] "Boy, we really loved that piece."  All right, so that's maybe even 200 people at best, but I'm quite satisfied with that; I know that I cannot get the 200 million that are listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna and Meat Loaf and so on because the audience that appreciates that level of music cannot possibly (and don't want to) appreciate Beethoven.  They've never heard a Beethoven symphony, but they've also never heard a Charlie Parker solo or Duke Ellington; they've never heard real bluegrass music.

BD:  Would you write any differently if you had 200 million people for every concert?

GS:  I would have to!  I would have to!

BD:  How?

GS:  That's precisely what these people do!  They know exactly, and by the way, I know how to do it, too!  But I won't do it because I'm not going to sell out!  In order to reach 200 million people you have to write at such an incredibly primitive creative level that it becomes instantly receivable to the most illiterate persons out there.

BD:  Are we back to the lowest common denominator again?

GS:  Absolutely.  But boy, is that low.  I'll give you examples...  There are marvelously creative people in the so-called rock and popular fields.  Frank Zappa is a genius!  Joni Mitchell is close to that.  There are many others, and you'll notice that they are not on the charts!

BD:  But they have a following.

GS:  They have a following.  They have a following a little larger than mine, but not much larger.  Frank Zappa hasn't been on the charts
even in the top 20, let alone at the topin something like eight or nine years!  Why?  Because he's a very creative person!  He wants to use some interesting new materials; some new harmonies, some new forms.  He wants to use more elaborate melodic material, and to the extent that he does that even by one little iota, he eliminates himself a priori from any consideration in that vast field!  So when you face that situation it becomes not a musical question at all!  I can do that too, but it's a moral question.  Do you want to write a music which is totally not your own, because when you lower yourself to that common denominator it's what everybody wants to hear and it's been done a thousand times and there's nothing new about it — except how you dress and whether you break guitars on the stage or act funny.  So I know right away where my choices lie!  If I want to become rich and famous and do all that, I know exactly how to do that, but for me it's a moral question.  That isn't what I want to do at all, and I don't care if I starve with my music; I wouldn't do that.  I want to write that music which is in me and which I suppose I was put on this earth to create!  How good it is or how many people will like it or love it is totally irrelevant to me in the long run.  I remember thinking this already when I was 14 years old.  I knew already how great composers like Schubert and even Mozart had been neglected and misunderstood.  Bizet's Carmen was blasted for the first five years, and the whole history of music, as you know, is full of these misconceptions and misconstruings.  So I knew all that and I said to myself, "All right, now I'm starting to compose; I wonder what will happen to me!"  I knew right then and thereand I don't know how I knew this or how I learned thisthat I had to create music.  I also knew the pleasure of that, the privilege of creating something out of nothing, out of thin airwhere suddenly there's black dots on a piece of paper and someday somebody will play themexists.  That is such an incredible thrill, pleasure, privilege, because it's something God-given.  I knew that that in itself was already satisfaction enough.  If, in addition, one other person liked the music, I'm really doing very well!  And if ten people like it, or 200 people, or, like in the case of my Klee Pieceswhich has now been played by 312 different orchestras and sometimes orchestras have played it in three or four seasons, I could, I suppose, add up how many people that is who've listened to that piece and enjoyed it, and laughed during it and applaudedI'm doing pretty well, in this field.  But I also know that if I move my music into a certain kind of structural, technical complexity, I'm going to lose some people; I almost can tell how many.  On the other hand, like many composers are doing now, this whole return to neo-Romanticism, neo-tonality, minimalismwhich is really a kind of backing out, going backwards to the extent that they become tonal and accessible and deal with conjunct melodies which make it very pleasant listening, where you almost aren't particularly challenged intellectually — if I wanted to do that, I could gain a larger audience, and many composers are doing that right now.

BD:  But it wouldn't be worth the cost to you.

GS:  I wouldn't do it!  Actually, I couldn't do it.  I don't mean to be bragging here, really, but my particular morality, my aesthetic, my integrity will not allow me to do that!  As I say, I don't care what the consequences of that would be.  Coming back to an earlier subject, I know that somewhere in the distant future, a final verdict will be made on my music
— probably 30, 40, 50 years after I'm deadand I don't know where that will land.  I have hopes that it'll be somewhere not totally forgotten and neglected.  I'll be one of those guys in the encyclopedia with the twelve lines!  But I never even worry about this at all.  I happen to be making a wonderful living as a composer and a conductorand have for a long timeso I have no complaints.  But if I look at this whole field objectively and critically, I certainly see what's going onhow you can make money in the music field and how you can not make money, and all of the gradations in between.  It finally becomes a question of your own aesthetic and integrity, and your loyalty to what you are, yourself!

schuller BD:  I'm glad you've stuck by your guns!

GS:  Yes, I am too.  [Chuckles]

BD:  Most notably in what you've termed "Third Stream" music, you have tried to bring all kinds of music together.  Is there any set of combinations of sounds that is not music?

GS:  No.  John Cage has taught us that, and I think it's the one great lesson.  Even outside the so-called musical sounds, one can take sounds from the world and create musical works
although you can't just throw anything together.  A creative mind still has to be at work at doing this.

BD:  Not even just creative nature?

GS:  Well, I think it would be damn hard to recreate that.  Nature does a pretty good job of the sounds of the birds and the trees and the wind.  I don't think we're good enough to do that, and why replicate it when it's already out there?  The way I look at music is in a very simple, very clear cut way.  First of all, the motto for my publishing company is "All musics are created equal"; all musics, plural.  This means musical categories, types, schools, concepts.  That includes the whole global view of music
African music, Indian music, Eskimo music, any music that is creative and pure.  Stylistic differences don't bother me at all; there's one whole world of music.  Separate from thatand this is where I draw the big dividing lineis commercial music, music that is made solely or primarily for profit.  As we've discussed before, such music, if it wants to be successful financially and commercially, has to aim at a very low level of creativity.  In fact, it dare not be really creative in a grand way.

BD:  Then what do you say to Bizet's ghost, who is hearing his music pushing pancake batter in a commercial?

GS:  Well, that's an aberration of our times; you even hear Mozart on commercials.  I have no particular objection to that; I must say I prefer it to hearing bad rock music in the commercials, or phony blues or phony gospel or phony anything.  Even phony Nashville... no, Nashville is phony by definition!

BD:  [Bursts out laughing]

GS:  I mean the music which Nashville stole.  That's another type.  One could also ask, "How do you feel about hearing Muzak in every elevator and bathroom in the United States?"  I think it's terrible because it pollutes the musical air.

BD:  Would you object to your music being used in bathrooms and elevators?

GS:  I wouldn't object to that; in fact, I've always loved this hotel.  Let's give a plug to the Palmer House, which is a Hilton hotel; I've stayed here since 1945, and the other day this hotel which I really love really knocked me out, because guess what they were playing in the lobby?  Delius.  Now you show me another hotel that plays Delius, one of my favorite composers.

BD:  You and Sir Thomas Beecham.  [Both chuckle]

GS:  I think that's incredible to hear Delius instead of this wallpaper crap that's played almost in all places.  No, the commercial use of music is a whole different complicated question.  If it's done with good intentions and maybe even a little educational intention in there, and if it's done with a certain amount of respect and doesn't destroy the music or bastardize it or bowdlerize it, I think that's fine.  But that's quite different from creating a music in order to have a platinum record.  And then to get involved with all the hype and publicity and PR and promotion and payola to make sure that it becomes a platinum record, that's totally immoral!

BD:  Even if you're promoting and doing all these bad things to promote a symphony?

GS:  No!!  Promotion for a valuable musical product which happened to be created out of pure integrity and pure instincts and for the love of creating that music, with no concern about what its commercial fate might be, that's a different matter!  I might then promote that.  I happen not to promote my music; I never have; I am not really capable of it.

BD:  But someone else could!

GS:  Someone could, and some people are very good at promoting their own music.  I have nothing against the promotion itself; when I spoke about that in connection with rock, pop and schlock, it has to do with the fact that the whole package
the hypeis almost more important than the creation (if we can use that lofty word) of the music itself.  That's all one gigantic business package which has nothing to do with art!  It's totally contradictory to art.

*     *     *     *     *

schuller BD:  In addition to the composing and the lecturing, you've been involved in the musical education business for a long time.  How have the students changed over 20, 30, 40 years?

GS:  It's interesting, the development of the students.  First of all, there are more students and more young players now than there has ever been in the history of the whole world.

BD:  Have we got too many?

GS:  Yes, we have too many
in this country, particularly, with its hundreds and hundreds of excellent conservatories, music schools, university music schools, colleges and so on.  We began overproducing, I would say, about ten years ago, or maybe five years ago.  Now it has reached a point of proliferation that for the young people who are graduating from the Chicago Musical College or Northwestern, there are virtually no jobs for them.  As you mentioned, I've been in education in a variety of ways, and I had expected as long as ten years agowhen I left the New England Conservatory, as I began to sense this overproducingthat there would be an automatic backlash, so to speak, and that young people and their parents would realize that the musical profession was not something that you should just go in lightly because there's no real profession out there, there's no jobs out there  To my amazement that hasn't happened!  The music schools have tremendous enrollments right now, so that's very interesting, and I can't quite figure it out.  It has to do, of course, with a love of music, and I suppose they find some niche or other.  They might not end up playing first oboe in the Chicago Symphony, which is what they really want to do, but they might end up playing third oboe in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, or teaching somewhere, or becoming an engineer for RCA Victor.

BD:  Let me attack this from another angle.  My assumption is that the technical proficiency of all of these players has continued to grow.

GS:  I was going to get to that.

BD:  But let me turn it around on itself.  Has the inspirational ability of
the composer grown alongside of the technical proficiency of the performer?

GS:  Boy, there's too many questions in that one.  Let me do it my way...  With this onslaught of musicians, what has also happened is through the sheer numerical competitiveness that this creates, there's been a perfectioning of the technical skills that are absolutely extraordinary.  The kids that play the horn today can play rings around what I could do when I was their age, or even when I was a professional!  The technical ability, the reading ability, the absorbing ability and the kind of quickness, the alertness with which they do all this, that has increased enormously.  This extreme competitiveness and technical perfection is because that's how I'm gonna get a job; that's how I'm gonna make my career; that's how I'm gonna win that audition.  I'm speaking now about the last two generations, the young generations.  Because of this, they have lost an ability to hear music deeply and fully.  Performers have turned playing into a visual art.  They've perfected the art of reading music on purely visual terms.  There are notes there and you play them; you play them efficiently and you don't play them too out of tune, and not rhythmically too inaccurate, but you don't know what the hell that the notes mean or why that note is there, what it's related to, what part of a chord it is
is it the third, is it the seventh?  They have virtually no intelligence about the rest of the equipment that you need as a musician.

schuller BD:  There's no understanding of it?

GS:  No understanding, no sensitivity to harmonic language, to timbre, to all kinds of internal relationships that occur in music.  They sit there and play their line very nicely, well enough so that they don't lose the job if they have one.  When I think back to my generation of players
most of whom are now near retirementsome of the great players in the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland or Boston or Chicago, boy, we were not so technically sophisticated, perhaps, but first of all, did we love music deeply.  We would look at every kind of music.  If we were an oboist, we didn't just study oboe music, we studied vocal music, we studied piano music, we studied operas, we studied everything there was to become the most well-rounded musician.  We also read books, and not even just about music!  We got involved with painting.  Maybe I'm painting too generous a picture here, but I know this was very much the essence of the approach then, and our teachers were after us to be that kind of musicians!

BD:  They pushed you to become more well-rounded.

GS:  Yes.  Nowadays it is get 'em into this school, give 'em that curriculum, and after four years process them out and hope that they will be technically proficient enough to get that audition.  There's been some interesting gains and some losses.  Some of the gains have benefited contemporary music, because the young players can read even the most difficult contemporary music more easily than my generation could.  It's unbelievable!  I remember when no musician in the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, perhaps even Chicago, could play accurately a quintuplet over two beats.  [Sings, metronomically]  Ba-ba da-da-da, something like that.  They couldn't do it!!  I remember as a young kid hearing recordings and performances of Petrushka, just to pick one little lick out of the whole piece, near the end where the trombones have a little figure that goes one, two, [takes a breath indicating a brief rest, then sings, crisply] da-da-da dat, dat, [pauses for a second] da-da-da dat, dat.  There wasn't a trombone section in the country that could play that.  [Sings the same pattern, but this time with a gurgling timbre and discombobulated rhythm] "bo-bo-lagh-b-lop-blop..."

BD:  [Chuckles]  It would be messy.

GS:  Well now, you could go to almost a high school orchestra and they would play that correctly.  Why was that difficult?  Because it's a little sixteenth-note figure with the first sixteenth missing.  That was difficult then, particularly on the trombone!  Now you can present young people with a piece by Elliott Carter, and by God, they're gonna be able to play it, technically and not even sweat about it.  The orchestras have caught up with music.  I am famous for having written some critical articles about orchestras 25 years ago in my book Musings.  At that time, the orchestras were at least a generation or two behind the composers.  Interestingly enough, in this last 20 years or so, the orchestras have caught up.  It is this technical know-how, this quickness and this ability to absorb anything on a superficial level that even helps a great orchestra like Chicago Symphony, in this case now with my Flute Concerto.  Not that I wrote anything really crazy or wild or unknown, but I must say, the quickness and skill with which they immediately picked up on my piece, there were no problems even in the first rehearsal!  It's just a little getting-to-know-the-piece, but there was nothing that nobody could not play, or that anybody had to practice for hours, which would've been the case 30 or 40 years ago.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  In spite of
or because ofeverything we've been discussing, are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

GS:  I'm optimistic about the continuation of the art of music
either performing art or creative compositionbecause of the talent that is available to continue that process.  I am, however, totally unoptimistic about the way that musical product or that art is going to be used in our society because of the deterioration of taste and knowledge, the musical illiteracy that is just growing in bounds and bounds brought on mostly by the rock music and the television and everything that supports that.  That worries me tremendously!  Ten years from now, we might have some tremendous composers or performers for whom there will be no audience!  Right now there are seven orchestras that have gone under in the last few years!  They're belly up!  Finished!  No audience for them.  No financial support!  And there are many other orchestras that are hanging on by their fingernails, and innumerable other kinds of musical organizations are just barely able to make it.  A lot of contemporary groups just barely survive!  They scrounge and scrounge to keep going.  In the meantime some idiot rock guitarist who can play two chords if he tries hard, is making $50,000 a night!  Now don't tell me that that person is a greater musician than Mozart.

schuller BD:  What's the answer, then?

GS:  Education.  I don't mean just education in the formal sense, as in schools
as lamentable as that is nowI mean the arts.  All of the arts together get less than a half a percent from the Office of Education, which is the money that Congress appropriates to the educational system in the country.  A Japanese child, even with European music, let alone Japanese music, gets five hours of music every week from kindergarten through college.  What do we do?  In the fourth grade, the second semester has music appreciation.  That's it, if at all.

BD:  [Sadly]  That's how they learn to appreciate concerts.

GS:  Yeah, right.  It turns 'em off!  Also the way it's taught is poor.  That's "education" in the formal sense, but since the main educational medium in our world today is television, network television.  Thank God for public television and public radio and all those things that keep some kind of sense of what's going on in the world of the arts.  As far as the arts are concerned on network television, music is a disaster area!  There's nothing!  There's no Cézanne, there's no Beethoven, there's no El Greco, not even great films!  So that is the enemy; that's where we're falling down.  And that's only happened in the last 30 years, because if you're old enough, you might remember that there was such a thing as Sunday on CBS, when we had programs like Omnibus, and Leonard Bernstein talked about music.  There were many others on ABC and NBC.  Now the only example of anything having to do with art
as opposed to commerceis Charles Kuralt's program on CBS Sunday Morning.  There you can hear about jazz; there you can hear about great music, about literature...

BD:  Even though it's PBS and not network, what about Live from the Met and Live from Lincoln Center?  Is this a good thing or bad thing?

GS:  It's a wonderful thing.  Sometimes it's not so wonderful, but let's say all in all it's a wonderful thing.  The problem is that on any of the best nights that they've had, they've only gotten three percent of the population!  The other 97 are listening to Madonna or commercial derivatives thereof.  That's the dilemma!  I'm not making up these statistics; I've studied all this, and it's frightening when you think about the implications, especially when you then consider that this is getting worse with every day and every week and every month!

BD:  [Trying valiantly]  There must be some hope, otherwise the commercial record companies would not continue to put out records, and labels would not spring up
especially now with the compact discs.

GS:  The compact disc is a big commercial venture!  That's a way of making everybody buy their Tchaikovsky symphonies all over again.  It has nothing to do with art... or not very much.

BD:  But they're not only putting out Madonna, they are putting out Beethoven and they're putting out Gunther Schuller!

GS:  No, they aren't.  They're not putting out Gunther Schuller.  Tiny little record companies are maybe once in a while, but I haven't had an orchestral recording in 16 years.  I'm not exactly an unknown composer, but I'm a very neglected composer right now as far as recording goes because they don't think I'm commercial! [Intensely] So don't tell me about me being recorded!  Philip Glass, okay...

BD:  [interrupting]  ...but they're putting out Carter and Crumb and Ezra Laderman...

GS:  To some extent, yes, but that's a very simple thing.  They know that by doing the fifteenth edition of a Mahler symphony conducted by Lenny Bernstein, they can pay for a little Elliott Carter.  And they know that in the totality of that operation, totally separate from any commercial musics, they can keep that three percent of an audience.  They're content with that.  It gives them a little prestige and a little image.  They're not totally corrupt...

BD:  Makes 'em feel good?

GS:  Yes!  It makes them feel good, but that percentage hasn't moved at all in the last 20 years.

BD:  [Continuing to try to find something positive in all of this]  But if the percentage is staying the same, that means that the numbers, then, are increasing somewhat.

GS:  Possibly, yes.  It could be.

[Note: It is interesting to look back on these thoughts from 1981 and 1988.  That was the dawning of the CD age.  Since then, many new and previously-unrecorded works have appeared on compact discs, including quite a respectable number by Gunther Schuller.  Ironically, as this is being prepared for presentation on this website, the CD as a viable commodity seems to be in serious decline.  Ipods, MP3s, downloads and other devices are becoming the primary delivery system for music, while YouTube and other "social media" are adding visual recordings to the ever-expanding availability of all aspects of our society.]

BD:  [Wanting to end on an upbeat tone]  One last question.  Is composing fun?

GS:  Sure!  It's exciting and fun, it's everything.  It's such a profound experience I can't describe it; I have to be a great poet to describe that in words.

BD:  Thank you for all that you've given us.

GS:  [Chuckles and smiles]  Okay.

Gunther Schuller

Born: 1925

schuller Gunther Schuller's orchestral works include some of the classics of the modern repertoire written for the major orchestras of the world. Prominent among these are several masterful examples in the "Concerto for Orchestra" genre, though not all of them take that title. Most recently, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and James Levine premiered Where the Word Ends in February 2009 [Photo at right]. Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra brought Where the Word Ends to the 2010 Proms in London. An earlier work is Spectra (1958), alongside such works as the Concerto for Orchestra No. 1: Gala Music (1966), written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (1976) for the National Symphony Orchestra; and Farbenspiel (Concerto for Orchestra No. 3) (1985), written for the Berlin Philharmonic. The title of the latter, translatable as "play of colors," echoes the visual metaphor of Spectra.

Only one of Schuller's large orchestral pieces takes the generic title of "symphony": his colorful Symphony, written in 1965 for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and premiered that year. Schuller himself, however, has described his Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993) as a "symphony for large orchestra." Written for the Louisville Orchestra and winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Of Reminiscences and Reflections is Schuller's large-scale memorial to his wife of 49 years, Marjorie Black. (Another orchestral tribute to Marjorie is The Past Is the Present, written for the centennial of the Cincinnati Symphony and premiered in May 1994.) One of his first works performed by a major orchestra was his Symphony for Brass and Percussion, played in 1949 by Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic; his Symphony No. 3, In Praise of Winds (1981) is also for wind ensemble. He has also written a Chamber Symphony and a work for solo organ titled, simply, Symphony.

Concertos and concertante works for solo or small ensemble with orchestra form a large subgroup within Schuller's output. With his two piano concertos (1962 and 1981), two violin concertos (1976 and 1991), two horn concertos (1943 and 1976), and concertos for trumpet, for flute, and for viola, Schuller has championed as soloists unusual but deserving instruments, including alto saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, and double bass. He has shown a predilection for works combining small ensemble and orchestra in his classic Contrasts for Wind Quintet and Orchestra (1961), Concerto Festivo for Brass Quintet and Orchestra, and the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, to name a few. For concert band are Diptych for Brass Quintet and Concert Band (1967), Eine Kleine Posaunemusik for trombone and band (1980), and Song and Dance for violin and band (1990).

As in his concertos, Schuller's chamber music is for a range of both traditional and non-traditional forces. These works appear frequently on the programs of local and internationally known ensembles throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. His String Quartet No. 3 (1986) is prominent in the repertoire of, and has been recorded by, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Juilliard Quartet has championed his String Quartet No. 4 (2002). The outstanding, exotic mixed-media work Symbiosis (1957) for violin, piano, and percussion, written for a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist and his wife, a dancer, is but one example of Schuller's embrace of unusual performance opportunities and instrumental combinations.

Not to be overlooked are Schuller's original jazz compositions such as Teardrop and Jumpin' in the Future, works that epitomize the composer's “Third Stream” approach, which combines the total-chromatic language of Schoenberg and the structural sophistication of the contemporary classical composer with the ensemble fluidity and swing of jazz.

An educator of extraordinary influence, Schuller served on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and Yale University; he was, for many years, head of contemporary music activities (succeeding Aaron Copland) as well as a director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and served as President of the New England Conservatory of Music. He has published several books and recently embarked on the writing of his memoirs.

— April 2011  [Text from G. Schirmer Inc Website]

© 1981 & 1988 Bruce Duffie

The first of these two interviews was recorded in Evanston, IL on May 8, 1981, and a portion was used on WNIB later that day.  The second interview was recorded in Chicago on October 15, 1988, and portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990 and again in 1995.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.