In the midst of loss, we remember the power of music
We've had two big losses in the music world this week. First was news of the passing of Gunther Schuller, a giant of American music and a teacher/mentor to so many. And then, this morning, we learned that film score great James Horner was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed.
I was already composing a tribute to Schuller when the news of Horner hit. The proximity of the two led me to reflect on the role of music in our society and the power that it exercises in our civic life. More on this in a moment; first I need to share some memories.
The first film where I encountered the music of James Horner was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. This score, along with John Williams' brilliant work that same year in E.T., first opened my eyes to the role of music in film. I bought both sound track albums and listened to them repeatedly. Something I had previously taken for granted suddenly leapt into the forefront of my thinking: great music was not limited to the concert hall. Through film, music steeped in the classical tradition could break out of the confines of those stuffy venues and land squarely in the heart of our popular culture. For a high school kid just beginning to explore his own musical voice, this was nothing short of an earth-shattering revelation. To this day I think about the harmonic language, the orchestration, the use of melody, and the exquisite pacing of these scores.
Horner is probably best known for his score to Titanic. This makes me smile a little: it would seem that for many composers, their most popular work isn't necessarily the one that "insiders" would rank the best. (A favorite example that comes to mind was Ravel's Bolero, which by all accounts was nothing more than a compositional exercise -- a throw-away piece, if you will. When it became a smash hit it Ravel was reported to say he wished he'd never written it, given all his true masterpieces that were being overlooked by the broader public.)
For me Titanic has some wonderful moments, but the best Horner scores -- the ones that have most stuck with me -- are the Star Trek films, along with lesser-hailed gems like Patriot Games, Glory, Field of Dreams, and Deep Impact. But for me, his crowning achievement will always be Apollo 13, where the grandeur and heroism of the story is infused with the humanity of the characters and the mysterious vastness -- the utter stillness -- of space. Three pretty disparate things that are perfectly joined together in some of the finest film music I've ever encountered. There are very few pieces of music that can inspire a body of goose bumps and a flow of tears every time I hear it, but Horner's Apollo 13 is one of them.
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I had the pleasure of spending four weeks with Gunther Schuller in the summer of 1994. His Festival at Sandpoint (now defunct, I'm sorry to say) was both the summer home of the Spokane Symphony and the venue for summer studies in composition, chamber music, conducting, and jazz. It was a small group of us students, and our composition teacher was Donald Erb; Gunther focused mostly on the conducting students and coaching the chamber music. But we still got to see a lot of him, whether it be joining him for a cup of coffee on the patio of the ski lodge that housed us or sharing a beer in the evening while the jazz folks jammed upstairs in the bar. I was lucky enough to turn pages for the pianist in the Brahms F-minor Quintet and for a performance of his piano concerto, and so I sat in on rehearsals and coachings and learned much from how he approached the music.
What struck me most about my time with him was his wry sense of humor. I had heard stories about how harsh he could be with students (and witnessed it in some of the conducting classes), and so I was initially quite intimidated. Further adding to my unease around him was the fact that he had a glass eye, and I could never remember which one it was.
Consequently, I was never sure which eye I should engage and, worse yet, where he was directing his intense gaze. While I never got over this particular idiosyncrasy, I quickly realized that I needn't be intimidated by him. Gunther loved music -- all music -- and anyone who shared that love was a kindred spirit. He laughed and expressed joy over music far more often than anything else, and when he showed his temper it was clearly borne out of love for the music. It never felt like it was ego on his part, despite his imposing presence and imperious voice.
One of my favorite stories from that summer was the night we went down into town for a performance of Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, which Schuller was conducting with the Spokane Symphony. The venue was outdoors, with a shell over the stage and the audience on lawn chairs and blankets. We were near the shore of beautiful Lake Coeur d'Alene, and there was an active BNSF rail line nearby. Well, just as we were well into the thick of the piece a train whistle blared...and kept blaring. It didn't seem to be moving, just...blaring. Eventually Gunther stopped and waited patiently, and after a few minutes the train was silent. He picked up his baton, told the orchestra where to pick it up again, and resumed the performance. A moment later the train whistle resumed, and Gunther stopped again. A nervous twitter ran through the audience, but Gunther remained calm; after the whistle stop he once again picked up his baton and resumed conducting.
Then for a third time the whistle started up, and this time we were sure that Gunther's cool was going to evaporate. He put down his baton in exasperation, and we all waited for what we were sure was going to be another legendary Schuller tirade. Instead he took a deep breath, let it out, and then turned to address the audience for the first time. I remember my friends and I holding our breath, and somebody nearby whispered, "Uh oh...this'll be good." And then Gunther's face broke into a kind of mischievous, maniacal grin and he said, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, it would appear that tonight we're performing Death and TRAINSfiguration."
(The epilogue to this story is that one of the festival sponsors was BNSF, and their President was in the audience that night. Words were apparently exchanged after the concert, and for the rest of the festival trains were held back from passing through Coeur d'Alene during concerts.)
Personal reminiscences aside, what I really wanted to talk about today is how struck I've been by the media and social media responses to these two men's passing. While most of the commentary on Schuller has come from what I call "the insiders" -- other musicians and cultural historians -- the volume has still been considerable. And for Horner, whose scores are known to a far greater number of people from a broad cross-section of society, the number of accolades has been prodigious. I'm glad for this -- and not just because both men are so worthy of praise. I'm glad because it shows that music still matters, and not just to a few aficionados. Music brings movies and video games to life, gives breath to our night life, is a uniting force when communities mourn or are hit with calamity, feeds our soul.
In the case of Horner and Schuller -- two enormously important figures, neither of whom focused their activities in the concert hall -- we are reminded that so much of the music that speaks most potently in this modern age is that which defies boundaries and reaches across constituencies. This truth is one the music community must embrace, and the more entrenched the sub-community the more this is the case. Classical music is of course the worst offender, stuck in a hopelessly outdated mode of presentation and facing structural issues that make fundamental change difficult. But if it's to survive, performers, presenters, and patrons need to band together and find new ways of connecting their music to their communities. Considering the careers and legacies of James Horner and Gunther Schuller would be a good place to start.