Friday, December 04, 2009

Leaving The Blind: Third Stream of Past, Present, and Future

"It's obvious that I am a contemporary composer, I write in the twelve-tone technique, I write in an atonal language, I write generally challenging, complex music. So, I'm not some hidebound, conservative traditionalist or old-fashioned Philistine, ranting against modern music. I am someone who has both feet - and mind and heart - in this new music all the time. Nevertheless, I'm asking some very serious questions about that new music. I'm not proposing at all some black or white situation of being against modern music or for it. It is more that while I'm for it and composing within that realm, let's see what more I can do that the old composers had in their tool kit, so to speak, and which we subsequently lost or gave up."
Gunther Schuller, December 17, 1985 (Carnovale 48)

The hardest part, arguably, about studying jazz is the lack of knowing what jazz really is. This is the trouble we run into when we attempt to encapsulate something as free-form as art (or in this case, music) in something as restricting as a clear-cut definition. Ambiguity and uncertainty make us uncomfortable; they resign us to a state of being powerless. Often times, we overlook this natural tendency to compartmentalize. It is not an inherently unfavorable thing to do, but it clouds our perception of something like music. Gunther Schuller wrote in his Musings, “Its [music] quality cannot be determined solely by categorization” (Schuller 115). It is an obvious statement, yet I was surprised as to how struck I was by this notion. How much have we restricted our own artistic development because of a resistance to think outside of these categories? It is human nature to designate labels to that which we do not know, and when we encounter something that defies those genres, we can react in three ways: we can accept it, we can push it into a pre-existing genre, or we can deny its worth.

In the mid-1950s and 1960s, jazz artists faced this sort of trilemma. Out of the hard bop genre grew a desire to return to cultural roots with funk-soul, but musicians also began to explore extended form and longer compositions, very European compositional techniques. Out of this trend grew Third Stream, a term coined by Gunther Schuller in 1956 – in its simplest sense, it is the fusion of the first stream (classical music) and second stream (jazz) (Harvey). As with anything in jazz, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact origin Third Stream, but Duke Ellington was a start. Schuller recalled his musical education by saying,
I studied scores. I wasn't sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher telling me what I should learn about Wagner's Ring or Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I was doing it myself, so I really looked at every fly speck in every score. With Duke Ellington's music—I mean, I have very good ears, I could certainly hear what was going on—there was something that made me want to see what that looked like. I figured that it would look very much like a Brahms chamber music score, you know, a small group. The only difference was that there were no strings. And in terms of the way it's notated, it's finding the same thing (Oteri).

Ellington was one of the first jazz artists to begin thinking “beyond category” (Harvey) and his 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige,” for instance – a 40-minute “tone parallel to Negro experience in America” (Harvey) – certainly foreshadowed the compositional techniques that would be used by jazz artists a decade later.
The challenge to merge cultural and classical music was not a novel one – composers like George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky were finding ways of doing this before jazz artists like Dave Brubeck were even born. And while people like George Russell were fusing jazz and classical, composers such as Astor Piazzolla were fusing Argentinian tango and classical; Pablo Cassadó had already composed Suite for Solo Cello, which joined traditional Spanish music and classical form, while most Third Stream artists were just learning how to play their instruments. What was different was that Third Stream was the idea of merging jazz and classical.
Third Stream was about merging jazz and classical music, which had not only musical impacts but major social consequences as well. Third Stream was not without opposition. Schuller himself, who played French horn in the New York Philharmonic and whose father was a classical musician, recalled classical listeners as thinking “Oh, jazz is low music, vulgar music, cheap music” (Oteri). Meanwhile, the “hip” culture of bebop was intent on preserving their music as an art form. For those intent on preserving the purity or so-called “sanity” of their respective genres (and these people constituted the majority), the melding of the two categories of jazz and classical music only tainted the pure forms. Third Stream is not the “Europeanization of jazz” (Schuller 121), nor, conversely, is it the defiling of classical music. To the opposition to this fusion, Schuller argues, “The minuet, at first a simple and often crude popular dance, became a sophisticated classical form in the hands of Haydn and Mozart” and “Bartók’s music – originally compounded of Debussyan and Straussian elements – rose to its greatest heights after he was able to fuse his early style with the idiomatic inflections of Eastern European folk music” (Schuller 118).
The idea of Third Stream is to stretch the boundaries of jazz without losing a sense of identity – many mistook, and still mistake, the fusion of western compositional techniques or performance styles as compromising the integrity of jazz. That is not the case. “What such cross-influences do is to expand the potential resources of the music” (Schuller 122). Third Stream artists, for example, played baroque music with jazz improvisational techniques, or fused modern classical music with modern jazz (Harvey). From the jazz perspective,
When Charlie Parker recorded with strings… or when Mingus consistently uses a cello, or when Lawrence Brown of the Ellington orchestra emulated the sonority and elegance of movement of the cello on his trombone, these musicians were in their different ways discovering and creatively using resources not normally found in the jazz tradition (Schuller 123).

In a 1985 interview with Norbert Carnovale on the occasion of the premere of Schuller's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra with the New Orleans Symphony, Schuller said, “I am for the opportunity, the capacity, to make a choice, out of many alternatives. … I feel for a long time there wasn't that feeling of opening, that encouragement to make choices out of a wide spectrum of conceptual, philosophical, and technical possibilities” (Carnovale 45).
Third Stream is truly about freedom – freedom from musical boundaries, freedom for musical exploration, and also freedom as a musician. “I felt we had reached a sort of crisis point, partly because we were never given any alternatives by these avant-garde propagandists” (Carnovale 45), Schuller said of the modern state of jazz. Freedom allows for the musical possibilities that Schuller spoke of to open. But the freedom is not chaotic or spontaneous –
The combining [of jazz and classical music] has sometimes been done linearly – that is to say, in successive sections of a piece; or vertically – when disparate elements may be fused simultaneously, perhaps in concurrent layers or strands. Finally, there can be Third Stream pieces that represent a combination of both approaches, but in all instances the concept suggests an in-depth fusion of musical elements or techniques rather than a superficial appliqué or mere grafting of one technique onto another (Schuller 130).

The decision-making process in Third Stream compositions is conscientious, thoughtful and done with a sense of purpose. One of the best examples of the thoughtfulness of Third Stream is Charles Mingus’ epic two-hour long composition, Epitaph, published and performed posthumously. While a clear definition is difficult to conjure, it is easy to see that Epitaph is definitely not easy listening. The fifth “section,” “Better Get It In Your Soul,” is really the epitome of Third Stream – organized chaos (Mingus). Consisting of a repetitive, underlying rhythm, it signaled a return to African tradition and includes furiously fast solos and a novel compositional device – background handclapping – at the end. Sharply contrasting that is the following section, “The Soul,” a subtler, moodier piece which emphasizes Mingus’ exploration of atonal harmonies. What Epitaph did was solve the problem that faced jazz artists in the mid-twentieth century. “It is the problem of how to create large extended forms in jazz, a problem that was solved in much earlier times not only by such great classical masters as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and above all, Beethoven – not to mention Wagner – but also by the anonymous creators of African ritual dances…of the millennia-old improvised classical music of India” (Schuller liners 7).

Another prime example of solving this problem that first presented itself in the 1950s is a composition by Gunther Schuller himself, his Concertino For Jazz Quartet And Orchestra. In particular, the third movement shows the merging of two genres through the use of jazz rhythmic qualities like syncopation and “the ability to swing: not simply to count beats and play at the proper time, but to do so with the freer feeling of jazz” (Ledbetter). The jazz “feel,” however, is represented through an orchestra. Starting off relatively slow, the piece eventually rapidly picks up speed, and this accelerando – a technique of Western music – continues until the end of the piece (Boston Modern Orchestra Project).

To think that Third Stream was a finite era of music is a complete misconception. The term “Third Stream” is an adjective, not a noun (Schuller 114), an expression that is just as relevant to music recorded last year to music recorded decades ago. The problem that jazz artists faced today – how to join two separate streams of music, socially and technically – is still one that current musicians face. It will always be a challenge for musicians. I picked up the record Punch last year – They look like a bluegrass band, I think as I glance at the cover, and I prime my ears for a quick, rollicking folk lick, or perhaps a slower, classic country-blues song. But what I hear at the beginning of The Blind Leaving The Blind, a four-movement suite by the Punch Brothers, is – of all things – a fugue. There is no harpsichord here, though – no cellos, no horns – the closest instrument to a classical one is the fiddle. And in the midst of this fugue-like, classically-composed first movement, the fiddle improvises, throwing in dirty shifts while the banjo, double bass, guitar, and mandolin play underneath. Suddenly, the tempo slows, and Chris Thile, the primary composer of the piece, begins singing that country-blues song I was expecting to hear. “Tell me why I haven't been healed/I haven't changed and nothings been revealed/And what's in the blood of the way and the light/That takes my sin Sunday morning and makes me drunk at night” (Punch Brothers). I like to imagine that my first reaction to this piece was not too far off from those of the audience at the 1954 Newport Jazz Festival, hearing jazz sounds coming out of a string quartet or classical structures in a Mingus piece. Traditionalists would say it is a miracle that The Blind Leaving The Blind works, just as how the union of seemingly-polar opposites Beaux Art String Quartet and MJQ managed to work in Gunther Schuller’s “Conversation.”

In a 2006 interview, Chris Thile told Guitar Player magazine of a current project of his, a “string quintet” (which would later become The Blind Leaving The Blind):
It’s mostly orchestrated, but there are sections set up for improvising, so the piece will evolve from performance to performance. Nowadays, there aren’t many lines in the sand between musical genres, but if there’s a line that’s drawn anywhere, it’s between classical and everything else. It’s starting to break down, but it’s still there, and that’s really upsetting to me as someone who loves classical as much as bluegrass. I’m ready to step all over the line, though, because I honestly believe that’s how the best music is made. Classical musicians could benefit from the freedom of everything else, and everything else could learn a bit about discipline from classical musicians. I hope my musical future—and the musical future—is the marriage of those ideals (DeMasi).
The extent to which Thile’s remark parallels that of Schuller’s comment in his 1985 interview is uncanny. And the extent to which the compositional techniques used in The Blind Leaving The Blind mirror Concertino For Jazz Quartet And Orchestra – from the rhythmic freedom to the tight sense of direction.

Just as Schuller defined Third Stream by what it was not, the Punch Brothers’ work is best defined by what it is not. It is not bluegrass played by classical instruments (the fiddle and double bass are amphoteric in this case and can be considered classical or bluegrass), nor is it classical music played by bluegrass instruments (although the latter definition is the lesser of two evils). It is not an insertion of classical music into a bluegrass song, though Thile quotes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in the second movement, similar to Ornette Coleman’s quotation of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in “Congeniality” (Harvey). Despite the fugue at the beginning of the piece, it is not simply a bluegrass in fugal form. Most importantly, it does not do away from bluegrass or classical music. “It is,” as Schuller himself described Third Stream, “just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians” (Schuller 120).

Perhaps the more important, and unfortunately more difficult, questions to address are: What is The Blind Leaving The Blind, then? And Why do we care? The piece is multi-sectional and is through-composed. Like Mingus’ “Epitaph” or “Fables of Faubus,” you have to listen to all four movements to really understand it. It is programmatic and has an extended form – The Blind Leaving The Blind is inspired by Thile’s divorce, which ended a relatively young marriage. But it is more so an illustration of young, naïve love gone awry, a theme made more explicit through lyrics like “Goodwill's coming by to collect a box I filled with things I hate about myself/Things I liked before I got here” (Punch Brothers). It is largely instrumental and improvisational, especially in transitions between vocal parts. It is not a patchy amalgamation the two juxtaposing puzzle pieces of bluegrass and classical music, but rather a blend of the bluegrass and classical traditions.

But why do we care? How is Third Stream relevant to jazz, to bluegrass, to music in general? The significance of Third Stream composition and playing comes from the idea that it is built upon the foundation of musical freedom. The idea of musical freedom opened up the idea of “sonoric individualism” (Schuller 32) – that a musician is not and should not be restricted by the instrument they play or the role they have in a band. It is what allowed saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to all have entirely distinct sounds despite playing on the same instrument. Likewise, trumpet players Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis have wholly unique sounds as well. The significance and success, to some degree, of these musicians themselves emphasize the importance of musical freedom, which is the foundation of Third Stream and “Third Stream-like” thinking. It is also an idea that allowed musicians like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to develop their “free jazz” compositions. The ability to think beyond category does not ensure popularity or immediate success necessarily. The Blind Leaving The Blind certainly had some opposition, and as the Times Online said, “It takes only a cursory listen…to guess why a section of fans may have been startled. Few musicians – well, none – have intertwined bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical” (Paphides). But it does impact the influence you have on posterity. The jazz artists we remember are the ones who were able to think beyond their category, people like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

I started taking piano lessons when I was four, and not because I was a particularly self-driven or gifted preschooler, nor were my parents as motivating as perhaps those of, say, Coleman Hawkins or Gunther Schuller. No, I saw my friends learning how to play “Twinkle Twinkle,” and I wanted in. When I was 11, I chose the cello because it was the biggest instrument I could effectively carry. I had a very traditional music education, and there is nothing wrong with that. I can decently carry a tune and speak somewhat competently of Brahms, Beethoven and Bartok thanks to it. But it has led me to believe, up until now, that somehow my teachers will always have an answer for me, and there will be a “right” way to approach music. In retrospect, this is actually a relatively dangerous state of mind to be in as a musician, and the point is, until recently, my relationship with music has been relatively average. I had, as Schuller once reflected about avant-garde jazz artists, “just went ahead in sort of a blind, headlong way, dictated from ‘above’” (Carnovale 46). It was a pretty sobering experience to realize that I had been playing music for about 14 years without any sense of musical independence. The thing that I see in people like Gunther Schuller and Charles Mingus and Chris Thile is a very heightened sense of awareness when they approach music. Perhaps if all musicians were able to do this, we would all be able to leave the “blindness” of categorization.

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"Chris Thile." Interview by Vincent DeMasi. Guitar Player. 22 Jan. 2007. 17 Nov. 2009
"Concertino For Jazz Quartet And Orchestra." Rec. 10 Oct. 1999. Gunther Schuller: Journey Into Jazz. By Boston Modern Orchestra Project. BMOP Sound, 2008.
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Harvey, Mark. "Hard-Bop/Funk Soul Reaction & Charles Mingus." 21M.226. 4-156
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Harvey, Mark. "Third Stream Music and MJQ." 21M.226. 4-156 MIT, Cambridge. 12
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Harvey, Mark. "Third Stream Music and MJQ." 21M.226. 4-156 MIT, Cambridge. 12
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Havighurst, Craig. "Bluegrass Suite Packs a Progressive 'Punch'" National Public Radio
29 Feb. 2008. Public Broadcasting Service. 17 Nov. 2009
Ledbetter, Steven. Gunther Schuller: Journey Into Jazz Liner Notes. Boston: BMOP
Sound, 2008.
Oteri, Frank J. "Gunther Schuller: Multiple Streams." New Music Box 1 July 2009.
American Music Center. 30 Nov. 2009
Paphides, Pete. "Chris Thile and his mandolin." The Times Online 25 Jan. 2008. The
Times. 17 Nov. 2009
Punch Brothers. Punch. Rec. 26 Feb. 2008. Nonesuch Records, 2008.
Schuller, Gunther. Epitaph Liner Notes. New York: CBS Records, 1989.
Schuller, Gunther. Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.


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