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The Twin Legacies of Gunther Schuller

The great musician Gunther Schuller passed away on Sunday. I proffer the title musician, because any other seems to be insufficient to describe his myriad activities, though his most significant impact on the musical world could be defined by his activity on the podium, in the classroom, and with his pen. In terms of my own experience with his work, I think that his considerable contributions to the art form come down to two significant ideas. The first is exemplified in the famous quote from one famous maestro.

“Tradition is the last bad performance!” – Arturo Toscanini

One thing that Mr. Schuller brought to music was some badly needed accountability. As musicians, we have a tendency to hold our tongues when we disagree with our colleagues (at least to their faces and to the press) for a variety of reasons. This has led to many problems within the industry as those with the most power tend to face the least criticism and guidance. In the final section of his landmark book, The Compleat Conductor, Mr. Schuller surveys eight great works in the orchestral canon through the lenses of over 400 ballyhooed recordings, and gives the listener a frank appraisal of where the listener is really hearing Brahms, and where the listener is hearing the conductor wrench the music away from Brahms. More importantly, Mr. Schuller is unafraid to name names, and call it like it is.

“Norrington ruins this magnificent four-bar passage entirely by adding – God knows whence he got this idea – a big diminuendo in the strings… all of these not even remotely indicated (or intended) by Brahms.” – The Compleat Conductor, page 299 from Brahms: First Symphony.

Would that we all had Mr. Schuller’s courage.

Secondly, Mr. Schuller coined the term “The Third Stream,” or “a new genre of music about halfway between jazz and classical music.” Fusion music has been around for a good long time, but I think that people sometimes get confused about what exactly it is. With apologies to the Vitamin String Quartet, fusion does not mean playing popular tunes on classical instruments. Nor does it mean playing Pachelbel’s cannon on electric guitar. It means taking two different styles of music, and truly mixing them together, to where one doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins. Take this brilliant video of Katy Perry’s Firework by Time for Three.

Now what starts it isn’t Katy Perry at all – it’s Stravinsky.

On the surface, this appears to be two different pieces of music – albeit from different ends of the spectrum – thrown together. What really makes this work brilliant is this part right here, where the opening strains of the work turn into the main idea from Katie Perry!

Put it all together, and you’ve got the best fusion music this side of the Turtle Island String Quartet.

Now strictly speaking, this may not quite be representative of the Third Stream style, since Mr. Schuller stipulates that improvisation is quite important to the process. However, knowing that this particular ensemble is heavily steeped in improvisation, it’s quite probably that large chunks of this song were arrived at intuitively. Regardless, I believe that this kind of music, needs to continue to be a significant part of our cultural heritage moving forward. We have allowed ourselves to be divided into neat little genres for too long, with the bridges between being treated like unwanted children by both sides who feel that the influences of the other style ruin what theirs is all about. Fusion is starting to become a major part of the creative process, from Michael Daugherty incorporating urban rhythms into his compositional style, to the above Time for Three work.

Gunther Schuller had too wide ranging a career to sum up in only one blog post. I think that if we can keep the above two ideas in the fore of our creative process, and move forward with clear, unobstructed minds, we will honor his memory. Rest in peace Mr. Schuller. May you continue to inspire the next generation of musicians, and beyond.

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