Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

fishing in the 3rd stream

gunther schuller highlighted on "npr music"

June 06, 2009

Lacey Huszcza has brought to my attention that Andrea Shea has recently highlighted Gunther Schuller on the Internet site “NPR Music”; you may wish to read and listen to the feature here. There are delightful quotes to be heard, and a taste of Schuller’s original compositions, as well.

Schuller, as you may recall, was the one who first coined the term “Third Stream” in a lecture at Brandeis University in 1957, to describe music that combined elements of Western art music and jazz. Conductor, composer, author and educator, Gunther Schuller was born in Jackson Heights, NY on November 11, 1925. Raised in a musical family (his father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra), the young Gunther showed early talent on the French horn, earning a chair in the Cincinnati Symphony at the tender age of 16. In 1945, at the age of 19, he returned to New York, where he joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, remaining until 1959.

One night while doing homework at the kitchen table, Schuller says that he heard something on the radio that “completely rocked his world.” The next day, he said to his father, “You know, Pop, I heard some music — Duke Ellington — last night, and that music is as great as Beethoven’s and Mozart’s!” According to Schuller, his father nearly had a heart attack, “because that was a heretical thing to say.”

Jazz had become his new obsession, and to a greater or lesser extent, it has continued to be that to this day. For Schuller, however, it has never been a matter of “either, or”; it has always been “both, and,” although his juxtaposition of classical and jazz has never pleased everyone.

“It wasn’t controversial to me — it was totally logical,” he says. “In fact, I said, ‘My God, these two great musics and they are in separate camps — they don’t talk to each other, they hate each other, they vilify each other. We’ve got to get these musics together.’”

And that is what he has spent his lifetime doing. Over the past seven decades, he has composed nearly 200 pieces of music. His latest, called “Where the Word Ends,” was recently premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has cofounded the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. In 1963, he was appointed to teach composition at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood), where he subsequently became director (1974-84). From 1967 to 1977, he was president of the New England Conservatory; as an administrator and conductor, he actively promoted the works of young American composers, modern music in general, and the acceptance of jazz into the musical mainstream in particular. He founded the Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, participating in the ragtime revival of the 1970s. In 1991, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Grant (the so-called “Genius Award”), and in 1994 he received a Pulitzer Prize for the orchestral work Of Reminiscences and Reflections.

To hear and read more about this fascinating individual, check out Andrea Shea’s feature here.

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