Into The Future
American master Gunther Schuller contemplates the state of contemporary classical.
Thursday, August 31, 2000
American composer Gunther Shuller spent several hours at Robert Louis Stevenson School''s Pebble Beach campus last month, critiquing music by student composers at the annual California Summer Music program.
The visit afforded a rare opportunity to speak with one of our most esteemed musical elder statesmen about the whence and wherefore of new American classical music. Schuller, now 75, is probably best known as the composer of Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, a witty, once wicked, score that has mystified, charmed and amused generations of concert-goers since its premiere in 1959. Klee, a piece inspired by that artist''s visual works, represents many aspects of Schuller''s interests and ideas.
In Klee, Schuller turns the movement titled Little Blue Devil into jazz. Indeed, it was Schuller who made some of the boldest moves toward integrating composed music with improvised jazz, calling it "Third Stream." In Abstract Trio, Schuller visits the 12-tone technique developed by Schoenberg and pervasive in many American conservatories during the 1960s.
Schuller''s work outside of academe caused him to become concerned about the growing rift between modern composers and concert audiences. He began to predict dire consequences for new music and its composers. "Some music was getting so intellectually complex that musicians couldn''t handle the density or volume of information. There were excesses in that movement, initiated by Anton Webern, but there are hundreds of masterpieces in that style.
"I have some problems with today''s compositional situation," Schuller continues, "which has changed radically during the last 15 or so years. The excesses that emerged in the 12-tone era initiated the present situation."
Many will trace the abrupt collapse of interest in 12-tone music to the appearance of Terry Riley''s In C, composed 30 years ago. That seminal work launched what came to be called minimalism, and in turn fueled the careers of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, among many others. In going from complexity to apparent simplicity, minimalism served the function of cleansing the palate.
"But that implies that the palate needed cleansing," rejoins Schuller. "I don''t care if music is tonal or atonal. Even in minimalism there''s always good music, masterpieces, along with a lot of the mediocre. I''m a pluralist. Every category of music has the capacity to be phenomenally great, or bad, or useless. But I saw the minimalist movement become an overreaction, of leading the whole field of music to eliminate what had gone before.
"I am disappointed that so much good music from earlier in the 20th century is being ignored. I regret that such important men as Elliott Carter, Andrew Imbrie and Milton Babbitt get virtually no play today. Nevertheless, there are any number of composers today writing important music, for now and the future. People like John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis and Richard Danielpour."
Schuller also observes the negative effects of television and economics on composers today. "The financial stakes are so high that they lead to whole bundles of temptations. Unless a composer has a very strong integrity, compromise and corruption are always at hand. The few can ride that wave and live happily ever after, but at what cost to their art? That to me is a moral issue that goes beyond style. But what really matters are those very few who are real movers and shakers, moving music itself ahead and giving succeeding composers something to build on. To me that is the highest achievement of music, those 20 or 30 names, since the 12th century, who pursued the grand vision, the radical and the innovative."
In December, 1996, Schuller conducted the Radio Philharmonic of Hannover in four of his works, including Klee and the then brand new An Arc Ascending. Titled Gunther Schuller Orchestral Works, it is available on the GM Recordings label.