Versus Minimal Tones
Schuller, scheduled to be MPC 38’s Keynote Speaker in New Orleans, was
in Columbus, Ohio, to perform new works by Russian composers several years
ago. Bill Munger interviewed him, but technical difficulties prevented
the interview from being aired. It is being published here for the first
time. This is Part 1 of
The first time I met you was at the John Lewis School for Jazz in1959.
A lot has changed in music since then. Some for the worse and so much,
I think, has changed for the better.
Ya! Do you want me to make a philosophical statement here? Of course a
lot has happened, particularly since you mentioned jazz. There is the whole
idea of rapprochement between jazz and contemporary classical music. It
was a concept that I fought for even before 1959: “Third Stream Music,”
a way of bringing different musics together. Even the record companies
have caught on. They call it fusion or world music or “Third-World Music”
or all these other. . .crossover—that’s another favorite buzz word. They’ve
caught on to the commercial possibility in bringing musics together rather
than keeping them segregated. And what’s so interesting in composition
is that so many composers, so called classical composers, have had quite
a bit of experience as jazz musicians. And many jazz musicians are very
broadly trained and sophisticated in their knowledge of contemporary classical
You’re in Columbus to conduct Petrov’s “The Bells, A Russian Fantasy for
Orchestra” (on a theme by Mussorgsky) and written in 1990.
Yes, it’s a piece based on a certain passage from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”
It’s the cathedral music, the bell music that is one of the most ingenious
passages in the whole opera. However, that was the one piece I did not
choose. It was given to me to play. It’s OK and one of the accessible pieces
on the program. There’s another piece I fought very hard for, a Dimitri
Smirnov symphony. I regard him as one of the very best
composers today. He must be one of the 10 greatest composers of our
wanted to do my little bit here in Columbus in the context of this Festival
of Music and Art to promote the name of Smirnov. The orchestra is so impressed
with this music. They love playing it. They don’t always love playing what
I jokingly call “contemptible” music.
You used the word “accessible.” As a contemporary composer yourself that
must be something you are acutely aware of.
I’m aware of it as a composer but I don’t participate in that notion at
all. I think what has been happening in music the last 15 years let us
say has been, if not disastrous, a sort of a dead-end or a detour. I’m
referring to the minimalist and neo-Romantic movements, both of which are
retrogressive movements. “Neo” cannot go forward. It always looks backward.
So I see these movements as a temporary problem. Things will begin to straighten
out again. All the Schoenberg bashing, bashing of atonal music is at a
high point. I can understand this to a point. I myself, although considered
an avant-garde composer, warned the avant-garde almost 25 years ago of
the excesses of intellectualism and “mathematation.” Not those qualities
per se, but the excesses. And it was inevitable that eventually composers
and audiences would rebel against those excesses. Today the situation has
become so polarized and there is no common ground.
Unfortunately, many of the very great works that were written in the fifties
and sixties, atonal, “schmatonal,” 12-tone, I don’t really care, are included
in the garbage that people are dumping with the earlier music.
It’s probably human nature, I guess. It’s always the same thing. There
is in every era always a very small percentage of very talented, perhaps
even genius, composers, some very good ones. . . and then you have a lot
of bad composers! And this is true of any era, any system, any technique,
any school, any concepts. If people would only realize how much bad tonal
music was written in the 19th century. We only remember the great music
now, you know?
We are discovering, at least on CDs, Romantic composers who were never
recorded, or rarely recorded 20 or 30 years ago. A whole generation of
English composers comes to mind: Arnold Bax for instance.
It’s interesting that you mention Bax. I became a Bax fan when I was 14
years old! I’ve known all his symphonies all my life and have loved
them and conducted them. That’s what’s so crazy about this. He is a wonderful
composer and so are many of the other Romantic English composers. I’ve
been aware of that music for quite some time. Most people weren’t. And
as you point out, the record companies had no use for any of that stuff,
you know? So it’s always this polarized exaggeration: either/or. Why does
it always have to be either/or? Why can’t we have the best of both
“Either/or” reminds me of something I heard from Philip Glass to the effect
that nobody would take his music seriously because it seemed retroactive
compared to the 20th century Viennese. He felt he and his colleagues
made it safe for younger composers to use traditional building blocks to
create their music.
I wonder what he would say of two of his great colleagues John Adams and
Steve Reich. Both denied, like St. Peter denied knowledge of Jesus Christ,
their relationship to minimalism. [This was in the early nineties.] In
any case, their music is becoming more and more maximal. It’s OK, what
Philip said, and it’s true. What he doesn’t remember is that when I was
a young 12-tone composer— listen to this Philip— in the thirties and forties
the musical scene in America was dominated completely by the neo-classical
music of Stravinsky and Copland! But completely! And I as a young 12-tone
composer, boy! I didn’t have a chance. I didn’t get my music played. I
was ostracized. And I had to fight the good fight to be heard along with
colleagues of my persuasion. But at that time we championed both Stravinsky
and Schoenberg. There was no schism for us. What we are talking about here
is the history of humanity: these gigantic pendulum swings. It goes from
one extreme to another. And as I said I had to fight the good fight for
my music and my kind of music: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Messiaen,
and Bartok to
to be performed, and so on. That then led to a kind of excess of intellectualism
and mathematics in music by some composers. I would say by bad composers
not by the good composers. And then the pendulum swung back again and that
enabled Philip Glass to come in
Part 2 of this interview, Gunther Schuller talks about Ives and
Schuller’s reaction to Mahler, the “Mahler Era,” today’s symphony orchestras,
“Third Stream Music,” jazz, early music, period performance practice, folk
and ethnic music.
Munger is an independent radio producer and has spent over 25 years in
public and fine arts commercial radio. He joined AMPPR in 1969 while
at WCLV in Cleveland.