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Gunther Schuller: 19 Commissions and Still Counting


Gunther Schuller at 88 is in the midst of an unprecedented confluence of commissions and creativity. He is still working and in high demand—busy with an unusually high number of commissions, premieres, and conducting and speaking engagements. Last Thursday, for example, NEC premiered his “From Here to There,” and on Sunday February 9th, the Boston Symphony Chamber players performed “Games” [BMInt review here], a work they commissioned for their 50th anniversary. On Saturday February 8th, in between rehearsals, Schuller and Louis Andriessen [BMInt review here] met at the NEC to discuss the art and mystery of creativity before an enthusiastic audience of students and local composers. There it was revealed that Schuller has received fully 19 commissions since a premiere at the Tanglewood anniversary in July 2012. Guinness World Records should keep track. What’s the story?

Schuller is visibly, candidly feeling his age. Fortunately, he remains a committed educator (and gifted raconteur). We called to see what could be learned. How did he end up with so many commissions all at once? His response was, “I have no idea….” It is hard to imagine Gunther Schuller with no idea. The man has 245 compositions and half a dozen books to his credit. We backed up and asked about the details: 19 commissions, about nine a year.

John Kochevar: What is the average? How many commissions do composers usually receive?

GS: Haydn, Bach, Mozart sometimes received eight or nine commissions in a good year. But remember, they were young. And that’s all they did. Sibelius didn’t write anything for his last 19 years. I’m old now. After I received the Pulitzer and the MacArthur I had a flurry of commissions, but that was a long time ago. I never, for the life of me, expected to receive all these commissions at this age. I remember once in the 1940s I was talking with two famous composers; they were in their prime. I mentioned I was having a really good year with four commissions. By coincidence, they both had four commissions each and they counted it as a good year as well. So you see why I am so flabbergasted by 19 commissions. I don’t get any sense from music history or anyone I talk with that this has ever happened to a composer so late in life.

Who are the commissions from?

From all over. We kept a spreadsheet for a while but they’re hard to categorize. Tanglewood and the BSO were first. There are five from other orchestras. There is one from the Mirò Quartet; one or two from NEC. Here’s an interesting one. I have a commission for a piece with trombone and flute for a husband and wife, one is a professional and the other an amateur. If that is not enough of a challenge, as far as I can tell there are no other compositions for trombone and flute. Oh yes, Tanglewood commissioned a piece for trumpets for their 75th anniversary. I always wanted to do a piece for 12 trumpets but never got around to it. And here it is.

At first I thought maybe [the quantity] is because I am the last of the old 12-tone composers. But that’s not it. I am not strictly a 12-tone composer any more. It’s a mystery!

Mark Hewitt, moderator of the Boston Conservatory discussion between Schuller and Andriessen, asked about their sources of creativity and inspiration. In Schuller’s case there were many, but he emphasized that as you reach old age you become a more aware of the “extent of your music and your talent.” Thus you become a better judge of how much work you have to do to achieve something important. Schuller knows his limits and what he can accomplish. He still has inspirations; they sometimes come in dreams. And talent still plays a role. He described himself as “fluent” as a composer. But, at this point in his life, hard work and learned composing skills seem to be paramount.

Gunther Schuller in 2011 (BMint Staff Photo)
Gunther Schuller in 2011 (BMInt Staff Photo)

Have you ever become blocked?

No, I make a deadline. It comes up. I say, ‘Gunther, today’s the day.’ I always wonder for a while ‘What if nothing ever comes?’ But it always comes. More often I find myself writing and I get to a point where the composition can go in three or four different directions. I sit and ponder what to do next, and I say ‘Gunther, you better take a rest.’ I stop, and, after a little while, it comes again and it just flows out.

So how’s it going? How many down and how many left to go?

At this point, 13 of 19 are finished. But they are still coming in and I am not going to turn any down. I’m still working like crazy. I get up in the morning and I start working. I do go to the bathroom; I make something simple to eat. Otherwise I work, 12, sometimes 15 hours a day. I still try to read the New Yorker and Die Zeit. I like to read, and for a while I kept buying books. I didn’t expect the commissions to continue. But there isn’t enough time. Now, there are nearly 60 books stacked next to my bed. I had to give up reading the New York Times. All I do is maybe go out for dinner once or twice a month. I lost almost 60 pounds in the last two years. All I do is work.

What lessons are there here for other composers?

I don’t know. It’s a unique situation.” But he went on, “It seems like commissions sometimes come unexpectedly, and you have to be in shape to work hard. What can I say? Stop drinking beer. Forget about sex. Be ready…

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Gunther is also the world’s most traveled musician. He is intimately known in many communities, including his 30 year run with Spokane Washington. So many of us know and love him and would, of course, want a piece from him. The man who says Yes to music says Yes to all of us.
    Verne Windham (commissioned his “Sandpoint Rag.”)

    Comment by Verne Windham — February 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm

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