Gunther SchullerNew England Conservatory commissioned former president Gunther Schuller to write a work for the NEC Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz, director. From Here to There will be heard in NEC's Jordan Hall in a series of premiere performances, February 13 (canceled) and March 6. The work is paired in these concerts with other music by composers from the "Third Stream headwaters," including a concert premiere by Thelonious Monk. Schuller has dedicated From Here to There "In tribute and memory of Dave Brubeck, lifelong friend and colleague." He explains this dedication in his forward to the score, reprinted here.

Getting from Here to There

The idea for this composition came to me quite suddenly in early July 2013 via a series of sources and inspirations, as well as coincidences, all of which somehow conflated into the final result. The first inkling of such a composition came to me in a flash, namely to write a wind ensemble piece but, on the one hand, not with the usual well-established wind of band instrumentation often called “bandstrations,” especially an orchestra without strings—and on the other hand, a piece that would start very simply and quietly—even hesitatingly—with just one instrument and build in one very long crescendo and instrumental expansion to a gigantic climactic and totally chaotic ending. (I had by this time written over the last half century six different wind ensemble pieces in more or less the standard instrumentation; I thought it was time to do something radically different.) I also thought of Smetana’s Die Moldau or, another analogy—the Mississippi River, emanating as a tiny little stream and gradually growing to immense proportions.

Another inspiration that led to my fleshing out this initial, almost primitive abstract, was the unpredictable and unimaginable coincidence of the particular harmonic language that I had been using in several recent compositions, and—believe it or not—the passing on December 5, 2012 of my great friend and much admired colleague, Dave Brubeck. The linkage between those two circumstances is manifold. Firstly, upon Dave’s death the two nightly jazz programs on Boston’s WGBH—one hosted by Eric Jackson, the other by Bob Parlocha—played quite a few Brubeck Quartet recordings, including one made of a concert in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre in 1999, which featured Dave and Paul Desmond’s Take Five. Brubeck’s improvisation blew my mind, and reminded me that he had over the many years occasionally created a particular type and form of improvisation, that was unusually extensive, that started very simply and calmly, and then grew incrementally in three or four minutes into a gigantic climax, so rhythmically and harmonically complex that one thought that this pianist had suddenly acquired more than ten fingers. (The first time I heard Dave do one of those extended “climbing Mt. Everest” improvisations was in 1952 at George Wein’s Storyville Club, my first encounter with the Brubeck Quartet. It blew my mind then, and led me to use a somewhat similar form in one of my subsequent classical pieces.)

Secondly, what made hearing that 1999 Take Five recording so fascinating and special for me was that right around that time I had written several pieces in which I maneuvered my twelve-tone row into a chromatic amalgam of octotonic, pentatonic, polytonal along with tonal vestiges, which—again, believe it or not—was exactly Dave’s harmonic language in general, but especially so in that 1999 Sanders concert. (It is, of course, well known that Brubeck studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in California and that Milhaud was the reigning “grand master” of bitonality and polytonality.)

Over the weeks and months after Dave’s passing I became haunted by an idea that I should associate my piece somehow with Dave and his music. The next inspiration that came to me was that From Here to There should in some way be a tribute in memory of Dave Brubeck. I was still so mesmerized by the impact of Dave’s Take Five improvisation, when it suddenly occurred to me that I ought to make some of his music a centerpiece in my new work. I decided to transcribe Dave’s Take Five solo from the Sanders performance, a task that took me four non-stop 15-hour days. In the next week I orchestrated Dave’s solo, slightly abbreviated, primarily for brass instruments. At various times I camouflaged Dave’s solo behind a curtain of other sounds, particularly percussion, and my way of surrounding it with some typical Schuller. That section of the piece goes from measure 53 to 125. And is, of course, anchored in e flat minor, Take Five’s original key.

On the assumption that typical wind ensemble players will be basically classically trained and not versed in jazz swing rhythms, I had to note the several jazz episodes in From Here to There in a “classical” notation, tripletizing eighth notes, for example. (Should there sometimes be a player doubling in jazz, he/she might find it a bit odd to have to translate such rhythmic notation into swinging jazz. But that would also be an interesting educational experience).

In the final denouement, where several players are asked to improvise, I urge that such ad-libbing be done with a great deal of irregularity and variation. Getting into repetitious patterning is to be avoided at all cost. Use as much dynamic and rhythmic variation as possible, including even occasional silences.

From Here to There is enormously complex and difficult, with thousands of musical details and notational minutiae of all kinds to be dealt with, especially in what I call “polyphony of rhythmic complexities,” both vertically and horizontally, and often very subtle. This includes, for example that at any given moment in the piece there may be five or six dynamic levels simultaneously in play, something very far removed from the standard classical (especially 18th- through late 19th-century) repertory. The players must be alerted to that aspect and existential reality of this work.