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Composer shares insights on creativity, performance

September 20, 2005 By Barbara Wolff

How hard it is to get your arms around, as they say, such elusive concepts as love and creativity? American composer Cole Porter tried his musical hand with the former. American composer Gunther Schuller is taking a scholarly academic approach to the former this fall at UW–Madison.

As UW–Madison’s Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence, Schuller is teaching two courses, “The Process of Creativity” and “The Complete Performer.” He has ample experience in both the creation and performance — the re-creation — of music, as well as in the studying and teaching of it. In almost 70 years in the field, Schuller has left a stout and indelible mark on music and on all who appreciate it.

He began his professional life at age 16, playing French horn in the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini. He continued to perform for 21 years.

“I had to give it up, finally. I had no time for it. By 1963 I had become so successful and busy as a composer that I realized that I had to give something up, and that turned out to be the horn. I had so many commissions that I was at work 29 hours a day,” he says.

Having begun composing at age 11, Schuller has amassed an enormous canon of 160 original compositions.

“Composing and performing are in no way alike,” he says. “Composing is creating something new. Performing is re-creative, articulating someone else’s work. You have to be respectful of the composer’s work, although performers inevitably bring elements of themselves to the performance.”

Not limiting himself to the classical genre, he also has distinguished himself as a master interpreter of ragtime and jazz, and has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Lewis and others. Credited with coining the term “third stream,” the fusion of jazz and classical music, he is the recipient of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in music and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Award in 1991. As a conductor, he spans the globe leading major ensembles in a widely varied repertory.

What drew Schuller to Madison, he says, was the opportunity to teach his pair of unique courses.

“I hardly ever teach now, and I miss it,” he says. Schuller was one of the main teachers at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer music school. He also taught extensively when he was president of the New England Conservatory of Music.

He promises that he will expose his UW–Madison students in both classes to a very analytical perspective on the art of creation and re-creation in music. That approach appeals greatly to Mustafa Ozkaynak, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial engineering in the creativity class.

“I understand the creative process in engineering research,” Ozkaynak says. “But I think it will help my work — human factors in agronomics — to have an idea of what it means to be creative in other fields.”

In Schuller’s course, about 20 students will gain insights into the creative techniques and talents used by artists as varied as Mozart and Picasso. Nevertheless, Schuller thinks some universals will emerge about creativity.

“What does it take to be a great performer? You need a certain degree of talent and concentrated hard work, which will develop your craft, your skills,” he says.

Schuller believes that he inherited his own talents. “I’m the fifth generation of musicians in my family, so I suppose it was inevitable that I become a musician.”

Amber Dolphin, a master’s candidate in violin, says that she hopes to hear more about Schuller’s own experiences. “I’d like to hear about the particular path he took,” she says. “I plan to play and teach, and it would help me to find out what somebody else did to make that happen.”

Steve Larkin, a special student, says that he also is looking to Schuller as a model and for inspiration. Larkin spent 30 years playing bass trombone in such venues as the orchestra of the Miami Opera and the Elgin, Ill., Symphony. He currently is turning his attention to conducting and voice, and studying at UW–Madison.

“It’s just a coincidence that our careers are following the same pattern,” Larkin says. “Gunther Schuller is an icon in the field of music. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, to take a class with him.”

Schuller says that one of the points that he wants to make in class is that an individual can be creative in some aspects but not others.

“I recently listened to a piece by Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven. I was amazed at how good it was — in places,” Schuller says. “I’d hear a passage, just a few bars, and marveled at its high quality. Then it would fall back into routine, but for those few notes it was astonishing. Ries clearly had a degree of talent, and had absorbed something of the technique of his teacher. Beethoven, of course, was a revolutionary.”

Some of Schuller’s works will be featured in a special concert by UW–Madison music faculty on Thursday, Oct. 27. “The Music of Gunther Schuller” will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Mosse Humanities Building’s Mills Concert Hall. Tickets, $9 general/$7 seniors and non-UW-Madison students, are available at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office, 262-2201.

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, Schuller will join the UW Symphony Orchestra to present a free, public lecture-demonstration on score interpretation. Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel,” the subject of his performance class, will be under discussion; the lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. A reception will follow.

For more information about Schuller’s residency, under the auspices of the UW–Madison Arts Institute and sponsored by the UW–Madison School of Music and co-sponsored by the Center for the Humanities and Wisconsin Public Radio, visit or call 263-9290.

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