Jazz Appreciation Month: Gunther Schuller, 'Transformation'

By Logan K. Young on Apr 11, 2013 10:46 AM EDT

Gunther Schuller, "Transformation"

The best fuse is an indistinguishable one.

Any fusion, when all proportions are satisfied and all ratios achieved, shall cease to exist. The implications inherent in an ideology that endeavors to fuse two or more in the name of fruit more nutritious than its aggregates should incite that very observation. Nonetheless, as a solution approaches homogeneity, blue usurps yellow, or perhaps more germane, John Lewis solos over a pair of juxtaposed hexachords, we're consistently surprised when thousand island emerges, green comes into vision and the Third Stream zygote gets fertilized.

Once a fuse is executed, giving birth to some hybrid entity, this new creation's constituent parts have been vanquished. Furthermore, as the fusion process is repeated--gaining momentum directly proportional to the frequency of execution--the entire synthetic process becomes so rampant, so ubiquitous that assimilation and cross-fertilization get reduced to simple performance practice.

Such is the plight of Gunther Schuller and associates during the late 1950s.

Gunther Alexander Schuller, the progenitor of Third Stream music, first rose to fame at the tender age of 17, when he was appointed Principal Horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The year was 1934. Two seasons later, he accepted the same position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Several years, numerous Verdi productions and countless hours transcribing Ellington later, Schuller recorded with the Miles Davis Nonet on the groundbreaking album, The Birth of the Cool. Therefore, his ascension to the vanguard of the classical/jazz fusion movement makes perfect sense. Even after a Pulitzer Prize (1994), MacArthur Fellowship (1991), induction into the Downbeat and American Classical Music Halls of Fame ('98 and '93)--to say nothing of his illustrious career as a conductor, author, educator, publisher, record producer and scholar--Gunther Schuller remains forever associated with his comparatively brief experiments with the amalgamation of contemporary classical and modern jazz.

Unlike other musical designations (e.g. "minimalist," "spectralist," etc.) the term "Third Stream" has a distinct, easily attributable etymology. Coined by Schuller in 1957, the "new genre that attempted to fuse 'the improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures and techniques acquired in Western music during seven hundred years of musical development,'" was born out of "respect for and full dedication to both the musics it attempts to fuse." [Italics his.]

As Schuller wrote further in the May 13, 1961 Saturday Review: "I felt that by designating this music as a separate, third stream, the two other main streams could go their way unaffected by attempts at fusion." [Again, italics are Schuller's.]

Perhaps the most poetic description of Third Stream music, however, came from George Avakian, producer for the 1958 Columbia release, Modern Jazz Concert, and the '96 reissue on Sony, The Birth of the Third Stream
which both feature Schuller's "Transformation." In the liners to the latter, Avakian wrote of Schuller's oft-cited "tributary-river analogy."

The première of Gunther Schuller's "Transformation" occurred at the 1957 Brandeis University Festival of the Arts. Five other compositions, commissioned works from George Russell, Harold Shapero, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Mingus and Milton Babbitt, were also performed. Schuller and Russell led an ensemble that included such luminaries as John La Porta on alto sax, Art Farmer on trumpet and pianist Bill Evans in pieces ranging from Babbitt's integral serialism in "All Set" (a reference to his combinatorial theory), Shapero's homage to Orpheus in "On Green Mountain (Chaconne after Monteverdi)" and Mingus's extended techniques (à la Igor Markevitch) in "Revelations."

Schuller's work, a self-described "musical reflection of the issue all these works bring into focus," should be heard as a metaphor, musically and psychologically, for the entire Third Stream movement.

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TagsGunther Schuller, Transformation, April Jazz

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