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Music Notes 

Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio 
Summer 1999 


Atonal Versus Minimal Tones 

Gunther 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 
a 2-part interview. 

MUNGER: 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. 

SCHULLER:  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 music. 

MUNGER:  You’re in Columbus to conduct Petrov’s “The Bells, A Russian Fantasy for Orchestra” (on a theme by Mussorgsky) and written in 1990. 

SCHULLER:  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 
Russian composers today.  He must be one of the 10 greatest composers of our time. 
 I 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. 

MUNGER:  You used the word “accessible.” As a contemporary composer yourself that must be something you are acutely aware of. 

SCHULLER: 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? 

MUNGER:  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. 

SCHULLER:  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 worlds? 

MUNGER:  “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. 

SCHULLER:  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 
be heard, 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 
in his situation. 

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. 

Bill 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.