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A Short Musing on Schuller's Musings

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A Short Musing on Musings
© 2013 Daniel Asia

Gunther Schuller has been for many years at the center of the classical music world,
as player, educator, conductor, publisher, writer, record producer and composer.

His book Musings is an intriguing look at the music scene of the latter half of the 20th century. The initial part concerns jazz/third stream. The remainder refers to the contemporary classical music, in sections titled Music Performance and Contemporary Music and Music Aesthetics and Education. These latter essays were put into print from the 60s to the 80's, a seminal cultural and musical period. Much growth, even a complete change of position, is displayed by Schuller over this period.

Schuller was instrumental in developing the genre of "third stream", a co-mingling of jazz and classical. He states "I don't care what category music belongs to; I only care whether it is good or bad." He says that as a creative artist he must call on all those musical experiences in his life that have true meaning, and that they all must come to play in his musical creations. Schuller also thinks that all classical and vernacular traditions are worthy of our support and interest. "All musics are created equal," and it "is a global concept which allows the world's musics...to come together, to learn from one another, to reflect human diversity and pluralism."

He doesn't explain how one can learn about all of these musics, or whether one should be privileged. It is a utopian concept at heart, and as he was to learn, in the realm of contemporary music, utopianism doesn't work very well. In its universal conception, do Schuller's views leave any room for the authentically particularistic? And can all musics be "equal", inasmuch as only Western music partakes of harmony and polyphony (except for jazz of course, because it is as much a western as a black phenomenon)?

With limited concert space and time, decisions must be made. One can't choose on the simple distinction between music which comes from the heart, but on aesthetic considerations. In the 80's, in a brouhaha at Tanglewood, where Gunther was the advisor for the Fromm New Music Festival, he was criticized for his unwillingness to countenance diversity in his programming. It was said he forbade the inclusion of the minimalists Reich, Glass and Adams (the last then counted in that circle). Even if this music proves not to last, it was a quizzical position for Schuller to have taken. Was not Reich, who grew up on jazz and then studied African drumming in Ghana, a perfect example of the symbiotic possibilities of the Third Stream approach? Was not Glass, who studied with both Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, another paradigmatic example of the definition? And finally, an Adams who studied with Kirchner, a Schoenberg pupil, who then wished to integrate American pop with a wide plethora of American influences, for what more could Schuller have asked? Or was this not the stream that Schuller had imagined? I can understand his not being happy with particular composers, but from an intellectual standpoint, from the combination of musics, this new music fits his definition well. One could say there was a major Oops factor playing out here -- when you call for a revolution, you can't control the outcome.

The young Schuller was a believer in musical progress, as in his near deification of the twelve-tone language. He was aligned with the avant-garde of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez and Babbitt. He states "I believe that the time will come when the twelve-tone language will be so familiar that sophisticated players and listeners will hear and "feel" derived sets." His messianism, like that of his mentors, has not worked out, as the music never caught on with listeners or performers.

This all changed for Schuller in a lecture given at Goucher College in 1978: "it must seem to be obvious to everyone that what we call contemporary music... has failed to capture the sustained interest of either lay audiences or professional performers; in fact, it has encountered a stone wall of resistance and apathy." He notes that the music communicates to no one, the new generation has not picked it up, and it is the audience who finally decides what lasts. In a true bearing of the soul, he deciphers what went wrong.

Schuller describes the rush to newness at the turn of the century with the retreat into neo-classicism of the 20s; then the headlong rush into the avant-garde of the 40s and 50s. The innovations of the 20s were taken up again, but with a vengeance:

vast new vistas were opened up, unheard of new freedoms were perceived and virtually no controls or predeterminations were exercised...we regarded all of these changes and gains as positive...but there was almost no questioning of where we were going at such headlong speeds, and whether in fact we were looking at gains or losses.

It comes to the matter of freedom without control, that there were more losses than gains; that even the gains weren't under control or mastery, and they were more technical than substantive. Composers were seduced into complexity and intellectualism, and taught that writing music was a technical matter, not an emotional or spiritual one. But if one wished to push the boundaries of comprehensibility, shouldn't there also have been a push to greater emotion, simplicity, and humanity? It also makes no sense that to accept the new one must reject the objects and lessons of the past. He says " we lost the whole meaning of melody," and notes the same problem in the realm of harmony, "that wonderful mysterious thing that enables us in diatonic music to go from major to minor...we lost the ability to deal in bright or dark harmonies-insofar as we thought about harmonies at all." Neither repetition nor recognizable form was allowed. In summary, he notes the doctrinaire and unyielding nature of the philosophical posture.

Finally, he asks that composers return to the task that the great masters engaged in, to use and coordinate all of the elements of music fully and to move forward on all fronts in regards to the components of music. The goal should be to create "goose bumps, choking emotion and even tears in the eyes." This should not be accomplished through a shedding of all that we have experienced and learned in the last 100 years, but by balancing the old with the new, the traditional with the experimental, the emotions and the intellect. This task must be undertaken with the hope that someone will be successful.

Schuller knows music is the most unforgiving of the arts. Despite all of his pretentions of diversity and of all musics being equal, he holds himself to the standard of the repertoire, that some pieces are in and some aren't. The verdict is still out on his music and we shall have to wait and see how it is ultimately judged.

Schuller has won just about all the awards to be won. He has contributed greatly to the musical scene throughout his long life. We should be grateful for this, and his clarity and honesty.

(An expanded version of this piece will appear in the Winter 2013 Academic Questions, the quarterly journal of the National Association of Scholars, published by Springer.)