Molto vivace career of Gunther Schuller

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GUNTHER Schuller was returning home recently from a string of meetings with the Spokane (Wash.) Symphony Orchestra. ``I had slept about five hours in the last 48,'' he recalls. ``I was dog tired. My plane was three hours late getting home. Then -- I can't explain to you how -- suddenly, in 25 seconds, the whole second movement of this viola concerto I am working on popped into my head.

``So, I composed yesterday, and I composed this morning; and that movement is three-quarters finished.''

Thus it is that music gets written in the helter-skelter life of Gunther Schuller.

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As his 60th birthday approaches next month -- marked in part by the publication of his collected writings about music, as well as concerts in Spokane, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, New York, and elsewhere -- the many lives of Gunther Schuller can be celebrated in a remarkably diverse collection of fields.

The bulky man with a quizzical stare, thick flyaway hair, and wide-ranging mind has been at various times an educator, conductor, music publisher, record company founder, author, festival administrator, friend of other people's music, jazz performer, classical horn player, and serial composer whose music is widely respected for its intense logic, high craftsmanship, and expressivity.

``Gunther Schuller isn't merely a musician,'' critic Alan Rich once wrote in New York Magazine, ``he's a monopoly.'' The Washington Post referred to him as ``one of the most versatile and sophisticated musicians alive.'' Paul Fromm, the music benefactor who had a well-publicized parting of the ways with Mr. Schuller three years ago, says flatly: ``History will not forget him. He will be remembered as a composer first, as an educator second, and as a conductor third.''

The mystery about Schuller, commonly wondered about, is how he manages to juggle these three lives with all the rest. ``I could never see separating myself into either a composer and not a performer or the other way around,'' Schuller muses as he sits uncharacteristically still in a porch swing at his home outside of Boston.

``I started composing on the subway, even in the rush hour, hanging from a strap,'' he recalls about the time he played horn with the Metropolitan Opera in the late '40s and early '50s. . . . All the other things, the teaching and the publishing, . . . complement themselves for me. People ask me, well, `How can you do all these things?' The answer is: They cross-fertilize each other.''

``It's rather amazing that Alban Berg and Scott Joplin and Ornette Coleman all appear in his life,'' says Schuller's self-proclaimed ``disciple,'' pianist Ran Blake. ``He has been musically active in [Duke] Ellington, [Igor] Stravinsky, country and western, [Charles] Ives, ragtime, and Thelonius Monk.''

Schuller played on Miles Davis's landmark ``Birth of the Cool'' jazz recordings in 1950 and '51. While he was president of the New England Conservatory (a post he left in 1977 to pursue his many musical interests), he helped inspire the ragtime revival in this country, and, through his arrangements and public advocacy helped give composer Scott Joplin the posthumous reputation he now enjoys. He has conducted most of the major symphony orchestras in the world and many minor ones.

``The motto of my company is, `All musics are created equal,' '' he declares. No music ``is intrinsically better, or potentially better, than any other music. We live in a society where everything is pigeonholed, labeled, and rated.'' And this, he says, has led to the kind of splintering of tastes that divides audiences into lovers of baroque, or classical, or opera, or folk. ``I make only one discrimination, and that is between good and bad music. And one more: The integrity and the purpose to which th e music is put is an important factor to me.

``By the same token, for me there is no such thing as a violin being a better instrument than a tuba. . . . There are no inherent limitations to instruments.'' This philosophy has led Schuller to write a number of works for such instruments as bassoons, tubas, and double basses.

``Gunther identifies a lot with `unsung' instruments in the orchestra,'' observes composer John Harbison, who points out that Schuller ``is doing a series of real concertos'' that are ``meant to cast attention on the performer in an almost self-effacing way.''

Schuller has often been found focusing attention on other people, frequently musical underdogs.

His companies, GM Recordings and Margun Publishing and GunMar Music Publishing (coined from the first names of his wife, Marjorie, and him) have concentrated on neglected performances, compositions, and artists. Beneficiaries of his interest echo the statement of composer Robert DiDomenica: ``I can't image what my life would have been without him.''

Schuller's efforts have gained him some enemies, however. A speech given to students and faculty at Tanglewood in 1980 tore into symphony orchestras for hidebound unionism, lost idealism, and artistically uninformed management. Those remarks have never been forgiven in some quarters. His tenure at the Berkshire Music School in Tanglewood also came under increasing criticism from New York Times critic John Rockwell, who persistently charged Schuller with narrow, rigidly ideological programing. Paul From m withdrew his longtime support of the new-music festival there with similar complaints.

Schuller resigned from the Berkshire Music School in 1984 and now leads a smaller music festival in Idaho. But he still speaks with deep bitterness about the charges leveled at him, and so do his supporters.

``I would like some journalist to go back and look at the programs,'' he says. ``The record speaks for itself. So far, everyone seems content to print the charges.''

``It's hard to get used to the idea that one of the complaints about Gunther was that he wasn't inclusive enough,'' adds composer Harbison. ``I think that Gunther as a programmer was as broad as any single musician could be. I can't think of any other composer of his generation who would range as widely as he did.''

Schuller's pluralism may have had a negative impact on him. ``In no way is Gunther Schuller thought of as a composer in the same way as Elliott Carter,'' a fellow composer complains. ``Is it because one man does 10 things at once, and the other does one?''

Though he coined the term ``third-stream music'' -- the melding of jazz and classical elements in performing and composition, Schuller says he's wrongly characterized as a third-stream composer. ``Of the 110 works I've written, there probably are only 25 overtly concerned with jazz. My music is rooted in the past, whether I am writing 12-tone music, or atonal music, or jazz.''

Schuller's continuing legacy, as Fromm and others point out, may be principally as a composer whose minutely fashioned, deeply felt works -- ``Spectra'' (1956-58), the ``Violin Concerto'' (1975), ``Variations on a Theme by Thelonious Monk'' (1960), the ``Second Concerto for Orchestra'' (1976), and ``Concerto Quaternio'' (1984) -- are likely to endure. But of equal importance, friends and observers say, is his effect as a teacher, mentor, and friend to a wide array of musicians, many of whom credit him w ith helping them discover their own individual gifts.

They only wonder how he found the time.

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