Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gens and Such: A Ramble about Gunther Schuller

I remember learning about the word "Gens" from a History course I took in high school. Our teacher, Dr. Burnham, who became a full-time poet after he retired, told us that the point of the "Gens" was to propagate a Genius. All my etymological sources tell me this isn't true, but until now I always considered Dr. Burnham's speculation to be correct. I loved studying history, and if I didn't go through my young life with the belief that I would go into music as a profession, I probably would have gone to a real college (Juilliard was a conservatory) and would have studied history and/or geography.

Towards the end of Gunther Schuller's talk last Wednesday, he mentioned that he was a ninth-generation musician, and that contributed to his success as a composer (success meaning the ability to come up with ideas and write music that pleases him). It occurred to me that, taking his German relatives into consideration, his genius (and it is genius) could very easily be traced to the multiplicity of composers of the Baroque period in Germany. If a generation is 33 years, the first professional musician in his lineage would have been around in 1716. By the Burnham "Gens" principle, he could be the "Genius."

Schuller spent much of his childhood at a boarding school in Germany (studying all his subjects in German), and his English does have a slight German tinge to it. He loves organization, which is one reason he loves writing 12-tone music. He still writes his very interesting (and singular) mixture of 12-tone music and jazz, and has been generating it from the same row he's used since 1976.

I mentioned something about his memoir before he began his talk. He told me that he included all the names of the people he worked with in his index. I told him that I read a review copy (without an index), and was thinking that this book would have one hell of an index. I told him about getting a professional indexer to do the index for Bernie Zaslav's memoir. His response was "I did it myself. I love indexing." There you have it: a great organized mind doing what it likes best.

I have also been thinking about the statement Gunther Schuller made about hating the word "interpret" and loving the word "realize" when it comes to playing music. After thinking about it for a while, and after thinking about his music, I understand his viewpoint. I also know that it is the polar opposite of mine. I love the idea of leaving the ultimate meaning to something I write to the people playing it. I actually absolve myself of "ownership" once a piece is completed, and I love the fact that it could be played in many different ways by many different people, while still following all the pitches, phrase markings, articulations, and dynamic markings.

I imagine that Schuller's musical brain works a little bit like the brain of Arnold Schoenberg (though his personality is quite different), which brings to mind the first post I put on this blog, which I called "Reconsidering Perfection." Both composers have ways of thinking that I find fascinating, and both write music that I admire, but what I have for both composers is admiration rather than identification. In this vast world there is room for much more than one or two ways of thinking. Gunthur Schuller talked about his goal of melding the two "camps" of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in his music. Now, thanks to the many investigations by musicologists and the opening up of resources by way of the internet (the IMSLP, the Internet Archive, the Worldcat, YouTube, Wikipedia, music blogs, and Jstor), we know that there have always been far more than two "camps," and that there is room in this musical world for all sorts of musical expression.

I find it really interesting that Gunther Schuller became so attracted to Jazz, a medium that is built on improvisation, when he himself did not feel comfortable as an improvising musician. He sought out what was external to his experience and comfort, and he made a huge contribution to the work of Jazz musicians by doing what he was good at. I find it interesting that both his sons, the bass player Ed Schuller, and the drummer George Schuller are accomplished Jazz musicians. Like many of us, Gunther Schuller had children who were able to do something well that he was unable to do, like improvise.

I'm very proud that both of our children went to college, and am very proud that they both can do things that I could never do. (In addition to her many intellectual talents and her degree in linguistics, Rachel is an athlete, and she can sing confidently and beautifully. Ben can also sing confidently and beautifully. He as a degree in philosophy and is now teaching history--fulfilling, by almost coincidence, one of my personal unfulfilled dreams.)

Someone asked Mr. Schuller about the various kinds of music and various ways of writing music that are around today (it was a young crowd, and he was viewed very much, at almost 88, as a composer of the past, though he is a composer of the present because he's still writing). He said that he wasn't impressed by music that was generated mathematically, and he considered most minimalistic music repetitive, though he did mention that he liked Steve Reich's work.

After Gunther Schuller's talk, I was excited about trying my hand at 12-tone music again (I haven't used a tone row in years). I found a nifty row, put the pitches on an squared index card in the original order and in inversion, and then I generated rows from every chromatic step of the scale. I had a grand time playing with it, and I turned some of the music I found using the row into a piece for viola and clarinet. It is liberating to be able to escape from tonality for a while, but the very thought of only writing music generated from that row for the next 37 years feels stifling. Organized atonality is an interesting country to visit, but it's not a place where I feel at home.

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