Gunther Schuller: Third Stream from the Source

For Gunther Schuller, there has never been one third stream. When Schuller coined the term in his landmark 1957 Brandeis University lecture, he was identifying an emergent sensibility, not a set of stylistic parameters. Beginning in the late ’40s, Schuller, who now just concluded two months of concerts, lectures and symposia celebrating his 75th birthday, realized that composers as diverse as Ellington and Ralph Burns were already streaming. “The die was already cast; there was no one formula at work,” says Schuller of his formative observations. “Since the ideal for me was to create an absolutely new concept of composition in which the jazz and classical would be so blended that you would not be able to identify the jazz roots from the classical roots, I approached this amalgamation process in a different way in each of my pieces.

“Often, especially in a commission situation, my approach was dependent incredibly on who was going to play the music,” Schuller expands. “Writing for Ornette Coleman or for John Lewis and Milt Jackson will result in totally different pieces. When I began writing pieces for the Modern Jazz Quartet, I was already a 12-tone composer. They were certainly not atonal improvisers. I could see immediately that there could be a schism in the middle of the piece if I didn’t do something beyond what I was already doing and what they were already doing to make it a unified piece. In the end with third stream, it is the creative force of who plays the music, and to what extent they can do justice to both sides of these traditions, that the piece depends.”

Schuller’s streaming took a pivotal turn with the arrival of Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Many of Schuller’s pieces from this period stand up remarkably well against those of the new streamers. A case in point is “Abstraction,” which Schuller recorded with Coleman for Atlantic in ’59. What is now astonishing about the piece is how Schuller’s violin parts foreshadowed the plasticity of Mat Maneri’s playing. Schuller maintains that the emergence of improvisers like Coleman and Dolphy caused jazz and classical music “to cross-fertilize in significant ways, technically, conceptually and stylistically, a process that has continued so that we have now reached the point where the borderline between what used to be called jazz and what used to be called classical music is so blurred and so overlapping it defies labeling. You can’t say what either is anymore, using those discrete definitions.

“In the meantime, since my early postulation about bringing jazz and classical music together, the entire world of ethnic, folk and vernacular musics, of which there are several hundred thousand, some of which represent traditions that are 5,000 years old, have come into the streaming pot,” Schuller adds. “So, the third stream is now 100,000 streams. The original thirdstream concept now seems like a trickle, the headwaters, and now third stream is like the Mississippi delta, a vast complex that has been fed by countless tributaries. But the idea of combining the various concepts and traditions of music is still very much at its beginnings.”

Originally published in January/February 2001

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