On November 22nd, in a year that commemorates several notable birthdays and anniversaries (including Mozart’s 250th and Tallis’s 500th), Gunther Schuller - American composer and champion of jazz, as well as icon in the realms of education, administration, conducting, and publishing – turns 80. This event is being celebrated by the city of Boston and two of its musical pillars: the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A tribute coming from these institutions is fitting, as Schuller led NEC as its president, from 1967 to 1977, and was the head of the composition department at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (the BSO’s “summer home”) from 1963 until 1984. In addition to discussions at NEC and Harvard, the festival includes several sweeping performances (what the NEC website calls a “crash course” in Schuller’s music) and two BSO concerts.
The central tenet of Schuller’s aesthetic, and indeed, the driving force of the whole festival, is that qualitatively, the best and truest musical expression should not be differentiated on a sliding scale of value; that, in the composer’s words, “…all musics are created equal.” All musics – crossing borders both cultural and aesthetic, which also includes “popular music,” although this term obviously meant something different to Schuller than it means now. For him it meant “jazz.” Schuller forged his “third stream,” a concept in composition based upon the unaltered intermingling of different music, from his pure, distinct experiences both as a be-bop player and as a classical composer and performer.
In the opening performance of the festival, the clearest expression of Schuller’s ideal was presented in the third-stream piece Conversations, written for traditional string quartet and modern jazz quartet (piano, bass, drums, and vibes). It can best be described by what it was not. It was not “jazz with strings,” as exists in countless horrible recordings that permeated post-bop commercialism, nor was it reminiscent of Gershwin, Bernstein, Milhaud, Copland, or Stravinsky in their attempts to incorporate “jazz” idioms, stylistic or otherwise, into their compositions. Neither was it jazz trying to be more than it is – trying to prove its acceptability to the artistic elite. Neither quartet pandered to the other; it was exactly what the title expressed. Idiomatic statements led to conversation, which led to communion, and the birth of a consort greater than the sum of its parts, the purpose and the effect being totally understandable.
Egalitarianism in music -- indeed, in anything -- is a prickly concept that is not easily acceptable. In fact, the whole profession of music criticism is based on the perceived inequality of different music. A perverse version of the leveled musical playing field has crept into the collective subconscious, however: technology has turned the “song” into a yard stick of memory, and everyone can now illegally download 50 Cent or Palestrina (though, I know for a fact that finding downloadable Palestrina is not as easy as I would like it to be). But this, I think, is not the point Schuller tries to make. His views and his writings reflect a belief that the musics of the world could mutually educate each other while maintaining their integrity.
(Go to Part Two.)