Friday, February 17, 2006


I’ve been reading a fascinating and searching volume of essays by the scholar, composer, conductor and teacher Gunther Schuller, whose contribution at the recent Mingus seminar at the IAJE 2006 conference was in my opinion one of the most telling of the whole 4-day event. The collection, entitled Musings, was published as long ago as 1986 – yet its analysis of the fields of musical activity and inquiry it encompasses is if anything even more actual and topical today than it was twenty years ago.

Schuller is in some ways unique among contemporary musicologists in not only having a background in routine instrumental playing – he served as a player of the French horn in American symphony orchestras for some fifteen years – but also in possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all the world’s different musics: from “classical”, through jazz, to all the many other musical languages of America and far beyond. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was one of the prime movers in the founding of the Third Stream movement, which aspired to create a new musical polarity that would include classical and jazz modes of musical expression, without being confined to either.

As a composer, Schuller has always sought to bridge the gap that exists in music between the “popular” and the cerebral, the mainstream and the avant-garde. As an educator, exasperated by the onslaught of commercialism which has characterized the musical scene, dominating it and appropriating the label of “popular” for music of the least imaginative kind, he has engaged in combat. The struggle has been primarily with those who would try to narrow the discussion of contemporary music to the “elitism-versus-populism” debate, which seeks to pit the “advantaged” against the “disadvantaged”, attempting to make people “who cherish quality music look like autocrats, snobs and eggheads, insinuating that there is something anti-democratic and un-American about considering Duke Ellington superior to the Plasmatics or Mozart greater than John Lennon.” As Schuller points out, this debate is a spurious one. It avoids the central issue: “namely, that quality, creativity, and high craftsmanship can and do exist in all forms and categories of music. So can and do their opposites: mediocrity and absence of quality. No form of musical expression is either inherently blessed with quality or intrinsically devoid of it.”

In future posts I want to look at some of Schuller’s arguments in more detail, considering in particular the ways in which they apply to music education – increasingly one of the most important areas of human civilisation now.
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