Molto vivace career of Gunther Schuller
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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.
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.