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Celebrated Composer Featured at La Jolla Summerfest

Gunther Schuller's Quintet for Horn and Strings will be performed at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 16, 2009, at MCASD's Sherwood Auditorium.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. It may be hard to believe considering today's broad definition of serious music, but classically-trained musicians use to be quite snooty about jazz. The jazz musicians were often not formally trained, many couldn't read music and they played in clubs that were, well, not symphony hall. But jazz has found its way to respectability over the years, and one of the reasons can be traced to the work of my guest, composer and musician Gunther Schuller. He is famous for creating and naming the "Third Stream," that is, music that combines classical and jazz techniques. His celebrated career has ranged from playing in the pit of Broadway theaters, to being conducted by Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic and also, being part of the legendary "Birth of Cool" jazz sessions led by the great Miles Davis. Gunther Schuller is composer-in-residence at this year's La Jolla Summerfest. And it's my pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

GUNTHER SCHULLER (Composer/Musician): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: La Jolla Summerfest has commissioned a new work from you. And I wonder, how often are you composing these days?

SCHULLER: All the time. That's what I do. That's my first love. That's what I first did when I was very young, before I even played an instrument. So composing is it and I've written now over 200 pieces of every kind of form, category, operas, chamber music, orchestra, whatever.

CAVANAUGH: You say that you've actually even saved some compositions from when you were eleven and twelve years old.

SCHULLER: Not quite that early but I wrote some things that were pretty good already by the time I was 13 or 14. And – and – But I put them aside. I didn't think they were very good at all but when I looked at them about 30 years later, I said, my God, you know, this is not really all that bad. So I published them in my own company. No one else would publish them. They are, they show my early influences but that's not altogether bad. As long as a piece is well constructed and doesn't go on too long or is too short or whatever, you know, you can play it. And some of those pieces I wrote when I was 14, 15, 16, they – they get played because they're easier than some of the later music that I wrote.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the – this piece that's being played at Summerfest is called "Quintet for Horn and Strings" and that's interesting for many reasons, one of which is that the horn is the instrument you played before you focused entirely on composing. Talk to us about the inspiration for this piece.

SCHULLER: Excuse me. I have to interrupt you again.


SCHULLER: I was composing before I played the horn.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed.

SCHULLER: Is that what you said?

CAVANAUGH: No, I said -- Well, you know, you…


CAVANAUGH: …focused entirely on composing and then you gave up playing.

SCHULLER: Yes, that's right.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

SCHULLER: That's correct. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the inspiration for this particular piece?

SCHULLER: The commission.

CAVANAUGH: Is that it?

SCHULLER: I've written everything I've – almost. I mean, since my very young years, everything's been on commission. And I don't say that in any bragging way. I mean, that's just the way it is. That's really how I make my living. And – and I've – I've been, you know, the trouble with commissions is they all have deadlines.


SCHULLER: But I somehow have managed. I've only missed out of the over 200 commissions or something like that, I've only missed a deadline twice. So I'm kind of driven by that and – and I work well. I work quite fluently and so, yeah, I'm composing all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I guess what I'm wondering is that since you used to play the horn, you know this instrument so, so intimately, is it harder somehow or easier to compose for it?

SCHULLER: Oh, no, it's definitely easier. I can put it to you this way. You know, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Schumann, all those composers from the past, they're all my colleagues. They're all gone now but – And they always used to talk to me about, you know, Copland always said, I'm afraid to write for the horn. I know it's the most difficult instrument in the universe and I don't know how to write for – and then he'd say, you know, the way you write for the horn is so fantastic. And it's really because I know the instrument so well. I know what lies well. You know, one can know certain – Well, I even know the fingerings that are best to use and all that kind of thing. So when you play an instrument for 25 years, you really get to know it. And – and then, of course, I am also a conductor and I've done so much conducting of a lot of literature where the horn writing, let's say, by Wagner or Strauss, who was one of the greatest writers for horn, or Mahler. You also learn from that, you know. And so you put all that together. A horn is like writing – I don't know, it's – it's simplicity itself whereas for many composers, oh, my God, should I do this? How do I approach this high note, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear an excerpt from your "Quintet for Horn and Strings." It'll be performed this Sunday. This is a recording from a recent performance of this work by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

(audio of Santa Fe Chamber Music Symphony playing selection from "Quintet for Horn and Strings")

CAVANAUGH: And that's just an excerpt from the first movement of "Quintet for Horn and Strings," composed by my guest Gunther Schuller. And we've already established that you have had a long career as a musician but you are also from a family of musicians.

SCHULLER: Yes. In fact, my two sons are the sixth generation of musicians, so we're building a little dynasty here. Yeah, my father was a violinist, leader of the second violins in the New York Philharmonic for 42 years and worked with Toscanini and all the great conductors of that time. And before that, he was very active in Germany as a young man so…

CAVANAUGH: You know, you tell a very interesting story about how you found your instrument, the horn. You tried other instruments and they just weren't working out for you or you didn't like them.

SCHULLER: Well, I had no talent for the violin and no talent for the piano. The flute, I liked for awhile but the – it turns out that the flute literature, the repertory for the flute, not in orchestras but, I mean, sort of solo is rather limited compared to, say, the violin or the piano. You know, there's zillions of pieces for those instruments. Very little – And so I got a little bored with the flute and then I switched over to the horn.

CAVANAUGH: And the minute you tried it, you played one note…


CAVANAUGH: …and – and your mentor…

SCHULLER: Yeah, my – my then – my – the man who became my teacher, he came to our house with a horn and a cigar box. And in the cigar box were a whole bunch of mouthpieces. You have to put the mouthpiece into the horn, so he said stand over there by that wall, and he sort of looked at me and scrutinized me, and he was looking at my lips and my amberchure, and he said, I got it. And he got to the cigar box and he picked – he rummaged around and he picked one mouthpiece and he stuck it into the horn and he handed me the horn. And I said, well, what now? Just blow on it. Just blow on it. The point was, he didn't want to tell me anything of what to do. You know, don't put it there, put it there, on the lips, you know. And – and, lo and behold, I put it somewhere right in the middle here, in the middle of my lips, and out came this beautiful note. It's not supposed to happen like this. It's supposed to be the most horrible sound ever issued. So – And so my father and Mr. Schultz, the teacher, he said, boy, he's some talent. And I guess he turned out to be right because I played for 15 years, first horn with the Metropolitan Opera. You know, not just the New York Philharmonic and, you know, and then all the other jazz stuff with, you know, so it was – it was nice.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. It seems to work – have worked out. I want to ask you a question about an accident you had when you were a child. You lost your left eye at eleven and I'm wondering what kind of impact that had on you as a young boy. Was it a hindrance to you as a budding musician?

SCHULLER: Not at all. Partly because I wore—I still wear—an artificial eye because it was done, the operation, which was gruesome—I won't even begin to talk about that—but it was done so well that the eye fits very well and I can even move it a little bit. And what's interesting is, and many ophthalmologists and so on have confirmed this, that most of the time when someone loses an eye, the strength of that eye gets transferred over into the remaining eye and so the punchline on that is, I've had the most incredible eyesight until very recently. I had a cataract operation finally but, I mean, I could see further than any human being I ever met and very – clarity, and since I use my eye both as a composer and as an author all the time, it's a good thing, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that's…

SCHULLER: So, no, it never – never hindered me in any way.

CAVANAUGH: That's pretty amazing.

SCHULLER: It's just a nuisance. You sort of have to take this eye out every night and, you know, and then put it back in, not a big deal, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this accident happened while you were in a private school. Your parents had sent you to a private school in Germany. And it happened in the late 1930s.


CAVANAUGH: And I'm just wondering if you would just share with us a little bit of what it was like to be in Germany at that time.

SCHULLER: Well, yes I was in Germany but this was a private school, what they call in Switzerland and Germany an internacht and this was a private school for foreign children but of German parentage. So some of my friends were Chinese or American or Peruvian or whatever. So – And what I'm getting at is it was, therefore, very isolated in this tiny little town in the center of Germany. And so, I mean, I could almost – so I wasn't even in Germany, I was in this private school because this school included all the farm buildings in which the – you know, everything was in that school. It was an old castle, 17th century castle, with a six-foot wall and a drawbridge and all this sort of – I mean, the most romantic place you could possibly be in but we were very isolated. But to answer the question a little bit further, I did become dimly aware of this man Hitler that was really causing some tremendous problems and that is also one reason why I finally left. It was the combination that we, young boys and girls, were about to be drafted into some kind of a uniform – it was called a Hitler-Jugend and that was not a pleasant experience. They had us marching up and down, going nowhere, and doing all kinds of silly exercises. And then with the eye accident, my parents – I – I – said, wait a minute, we've got to get Gunther back.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

SCHULLER: Because, you see, my parents were three thousand, five thousand miles away, whatever it is. Can you imagine when I lost, this accident, what happened to my – because in those days the quickest way to get across the Atlantic was a seven-day trip on a passenger ship. There were no airplanes yet for that.

CAVANAUGH: Just must've been awful for your mother.

SCHULLER: Yeah, yeah.


SCHULLER: So I left rather precipitously. But having said that, the four and a half years that I was there, it was a fantastic school scholastically and in every way. And I – Very much of whatever I am, whatever good there is in me, comes from the two schools that I went to and that was one of them in Germany.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to get you back to the United States.


CAVANAUGH: You came back to the U.S. You started your career, as you say, as a teenager.


CAVANAUGH: And you talk a lot – you have talked about learning music from the inside, being in…


CAVANAUGH: …an actual orchestra and feeling this immense sound around you. How would you describe that?

SCHULLER: How do you know all this about me? That's amazing. Yes, I have talked about that. You see, the first question I always get from somebody is, well, who did you study with? And the answer to that one is I never studied with anybody. I'm self-taught. But then I say, my two teachers were the scores, the music itself, and no secondhand transfers from a teacher or from a curriculum to me but directly the source, the score by Beethoven, by Brahms, by Stravinsky, whatever. And the other amazing teacher for me was playing in the orchestras for those many, many years and – and the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera were the two best orchestras, I mean, practically in the country. So it's not that I was playing in a Podunk symphony or something, you know, so listening to music with great conductors at the highest level. And when you sit in an orchestra, you can feel the vibrations of the music, you can feel the intensity of all these sounds surrounding you and in a way that you never could, for example, in even the tenth row of an auditorium or certainly not from a recording or any other place. And I remember sometimes some incredible climaxes in Wagner or in Verdi's or Tell Overture or something I could feel the music coming from the floor below me into me. I mean, that's a way of experiencing music, which is unlike any other, you know.

CAVANAUGH: That's fabulous.

SCHULLER: So that was quite a teacher.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine so.

SCHULLER: Because you feel it. You see, it isn't about knowing. It's about knowing, of course, but it's also all this – everything has to be translated into feeling.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you spent your days playing with these orchestras and then you spent your nights at New York jazz clubs. Tell us how your affinity with jazz, what does it mean to you? Why did you grow to love it so much?

SCHULLER: Well, growing up in New York, after I came back from Germany, and any American would be listening to the radio and the radio was full of jazz and particularly at 11:15 every night after the news there would be broadcasts from all over the country. You could hear broadcasts from Kansas City and from Detroit and Los Angeles, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, so I was listening to all this. But one night, I think I was twelve, I heard a broadcast of Duke Ellington from the Hurricane Club in New York. And that changed my life because that night I heard some music that this great genius – I mean, he's the greatest composer in jazz so far. Wrote over 2000 magnificent pieces. I heard something there that I had never heard any sounds like that. And I had heard him before. I hadn't paid any attention to – like I did that particular night. And I said to myself, this is just as great a music as Beethoven. In the hands of the greatest practitioners of jazz, that music is as good as Beethoven. And my father nearly had a heart attack, of course.

CAVANAUGH: Your father the violinist.

SCHULLER: Yeah, yeah. And then I said, I've got to make this a significant part of my life and so I did, you know.

CAVANAUGH: And when did you get the idea to combine the two elements? The classical…

SCHULLER: Almost right away.

CAVANAUGH: Right away?

SCHULLER: Yeah. Because I – You see, those two musics, unfortunately, were completely segregated and I use that word advisedly. And I said, this is impossible, this is terrible, it's just like any segregation. And so immediately there formed these ideas of bringing the musics together and that's what I did. I became sort of the apostle of that idea.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, we have an example of what came to be known and may – perhaps you coined the term, the "Third Stream."

SCHULLER: Yeah, I did, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: This combining of these – of classical and jazz techniques. This is the last movement of your "Piano Trio" for piano, cello and violin.

(audio of Third Stream "Piano Trio" selection by Schuller)

CAVANAUGH: That's an excerpt from the "Piano Trio" by Gunther Schuller. And that "Third Stream," I wonder does it ever require classical musicians to improvise?

SCHULLER: Well, we're trying to do that. The classical musicians have been very slow in getting into improvisation just as the jazz musicians, early on, were very slow in getting reading music. And so the bringing together of a written music with an improvised music was not so easy. It took a long time for that all to happen. So, and I called it "Third Stream" because I thought of two mainstreams, the first and second being classical and jazz, and they get married and they begat a child, as the Bible says, and their child is the third stream. It's a very simple idea.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you decided you wanted to compose full time, you gave up playing the horn. Do you miss that?

SCHULLER: I had to give up playing the horn. It wasn't – I had always been composing full time but I was also starting to conduct and I was really literally killing myself trying to be a horn player by day and a composer by night and going to jazz clubs in addition. So I had a couple of very serious faintings and so on and it was like a sign from God that, listen, Schuller, you're doing too much. I really was killing myself. So I – they – I had to give up the horn and I did it most reluctantly because I loved playing that instrument. I cried for three days, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Ah. And you feel strongly you can't do it part time?

SCHULLER: No, no, you cannot play…


SCHULLER: …any instrument but particularly the French horn because these lips just won't take it. By the way, I kept my horn for about 45 more years. I couldn't part with it. It was like family. And I finally sold it to someone you probably know about or know, Rick Todd, was my – one of my favorite students.


SCHULLER: Yeah, he has my horn now.

CAVANAUGH: It's serving a good purpose.

SCHULLER: Yeah, uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you in closing, I read, in preparation for meeting you, I read that you say that you don't necessarily compose to please anyone but yourself. And I'm wondering, do you feel that in pleasing yourself you are going to please other people?

SCHULLER: I wouldn't put it quite that – It has nothing to do with pleasing.


SCHULLER: I – It has to do with having to express that which is in you and it also means, on the other side of that coin, that you should not write down or write to what an audience might like. We know what audiences – we know that most audiences don't even like modern music at all. I know that. I've known that since I'm twelve years old. But – And there are some composers who like to write for the audience and get the applause and, you know, all of the admiration and so on. But I know that the greatest composers, the Beethovens, the Mozarts, the Brahms, they wrote essentially what – for themselves. When you say for themselves, those three – those words sound a little bit selfish but it isn't that. It's you have to express what's in you and not taper it down in any way from that pure thing that you – that – the gift that God gave you enables you to do that, you see. So it's almost a kind of moral question, you know. And I think right now there's a little bit too much in our musical culture where the word accessibility is the big word. It's got to be accessible, instantly accessible. Well, Beethoven's works were not instantly accessible and I can think of almost any great composer whether it's Wagner or Stravinsky or Bartok or whoever where, you know, there's this instant accessibility. That doesn't usually mean very great music that lasts. Sometimes it does. So those are – those are ethical, moral issues and we have to be true to ourselves.



CAVANAUGH: I want the audience to know that Gunther Schuller's "Quintet for Horn and Strings" will be performed on Sunday, August 16th, at 3:00 p.m. at MCASD's Sherwood Auditorium. And Gunther Schuller, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHULLER: Thank you. My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And I want our audience to know, stay with us, These Days continues with comedy shows on San Diego stages in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

(audio of selection from Gunther Schuller's works)

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