Gunther Schuller

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The American composer and creator of the 'third stream', where atonal music met experimental jazz, talks to Helen Wallace 

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Boston Musica Viva will be playing your Four Vignettes on Saturday 27 March, at Kings Place, London. You and music director Richard Pittman go back a long way I believe?

Oh yes, we go way back to the late 1960s. He has always been involved in new music and went on to form the contemporary ensemble Boston Music Viva, which has been a triumph. He’s amazing in his ability to bring these difficult pieces to life in an authentic way. He has a shrewd sense of what is good, and brings no ideological narrowness about style to his judgements. Richard relishes a challenge and keeps pushing on into the newest music.

The Four Vignettes are influenced by visual art, like so much of your music.

Yes. When I was very young I showed talent in painting and design. I switched to music, but I’ve always remained interested in painting and textures, and many paintings have inspired me to start a new piece. In the case of these pieces, though there is a Dalí influence, the instrumentation of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was equally significant.

How have you developed as a composer over your lifetime?

I started assimilating the language of Schoenberg and Stravinsky as a teenager and it’s taken a lifetime to mature. In the last 20 years, I have found a recognisable voice, which is a great achievement for any composer: I’m proud of that. I’ve written 200 pieces, I’ve refined my style but I haven’t changed. While so many composers have retreated into ‘accessible’ tonality since the 1970s, I have never strayed from an atonal path.

And your new ‘symphony’, Where the Word Ends, has been a huge hit…

Yes, it has – though it was incorrectly sold on the publicity in Boston as Where the World Ends! The point about the title is that it’s a definition of music. I discovered the orchestra was to be playing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë at the same concert – that meant I could make use of eight horns, quadruple woodwinds, two harps and celesta. There was a standing ovation in New York. I’m not claiming it was because they all loved my piece, but there was contrast, substance, ideas and a really convincing performance. I’m always impressed how musicians these days absorb and assimilate such multi-layered music. I’m a fiend when it comes to dynamics, and they played every one of my 10,312 dynamic markings.

At the Edinburgh Festival this year it’s your jazz orchestra works we’ll be hearing…

I’ve lived a double life, always active in both classical and jazz arenas. Duke Ellington’s music changed my life when I was 13 or 14 years old. Then I met Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davies, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. I played in the Modern Jazz Quartet and we were all pushing harmonic boundaries, wanting to advance the language in a significant way. I must be one of the few musicians who have played horn under Arturo Toscanini and Miles Davies!

Interview by Helen Wallace

Gunther Schuller's Four Vignettes is performed on Saturday 27 March at Kings Place.

Image: Bachrach