Several writers have already summarized the incredible and prolific accomplishments of Gunther Schuller, who defined and redefined the spirit of American Art Music.
So I have a brief story – a memory – of a couple days I spent with Maestro Schuller in November 2013 during his residency at The Crane School of Music in Potsdam, NY.
I admit to being a little anxious as I picked up Gunther from his hotel room to take him to lunch. I hadn’t met him before, and I wasn’t exactly sure whether I could sustain an intelligent conversation with a self-taught musician who worked with Miles, Lenny, and nearly everyone on the planet. Knocked on his door, which was open, and there were pages of manuscript paper everywhere. It was as if he had lived in this room for ages.
He bolted toward the door, and suddenly realized out loud, “I keep forgetting I can’t move as fast as I used to!” Those were the first words he spoke to me. He grabbed my arm and I handed him his cane – he mumbled something derogatory about even needing it – and we headed toward the little Thai restaurant down the street. There wasn’t much small talk, he jumped right in and talked about his rehearsal of Beethoven’s 5th with the Crane Symphony Orchestra the night before and the small Jazz Combo he was coaching through several charts from Birth of the Cool.
He was more critical than complimentary: “Everybody plays so loud from the start, that they have no place to go!” I watched the Beethoven rehearsal. Maestro Schuller was meticulous and adamant with the students that they should play softer and softer, explaining that dynamics were about intensity, not about volume. He lamented about the need for student jazz musicians to take off like a shot at the beginning of a solo. “I made one kid play the melody instead. He didn’t know it! How can you solo if you don’t know the tune?”
I chuckled a little, shrugged and started to say something, but Gunther stared at me – not smiling. He was very serious about all of this. Of course I knew he was, but he found little humor in any of his lamenting. He was serious in his concern for the future of music in America. There were no excuses: musicians must know their scores forwards and backwards to the point that even if they were unsure of the next note, they could predict what it would be. (He told me later of a student orchestra at New England Conservatory, who were reading Webern’s Five Pieces under his baton so slowly and thoroughly, that many of the players actually knew what would happen next. “Strings too!” he exclaimed.)
After lunch, Mr. Schuller would give a wonderfully pointed, masterclass to our student composers. He pulled no punches as he directly criticized works and the performers’ interpretations. Later, we would talk about the rich history of the New York Philharmonic, a subject that delighted him (and me!) to no end. The concert the following evening would feature the Crane Wind Ensemble (On Winged Flight and Divertimento for Wind Band), a student jazz combo (Jeru, Deception, Moon Dreams, and Rocker), and perhaps the most dynamically intense interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th (under Maestro Schuller’s baton) I have experienced. The Crane Symphony would sound fantastic that evening.
In the meantime, however, the waitress came to take our order. Gunther insisted that I go first. I ordered a bowl of Tom Yum with shrimp, and a big plate of noodles. Gunther ordered a bowl of ice cream.
“I’m almost 87 years old. So is Pierre Boulez, you know. I’m having ice cream for lunch.”