Charles PeltzOn February 13 (canceled) and March 6, Charles Peltz and the NEC Wind Ensemble perform music from the "headwaters" of the musical Third Stream first articulated by former NEC president Gunther Schuller in the 1940s and '50s. Schuller and NEC jazz chair Ken Schaphorst have supplied notes on the works that will receive their premieres on these concerts: From Here to There by Gunther Schuller, and Half-Mast Inhibition by Charles Mingus. Here, Charles Peltz elaborates on the Third Stream idea and two of the other foundational works on this program.

A Confluence of Musical Streams

NEC is a unique place in a unique city. Boston and its educational institutions have been incubators of truly great, transformative ideas. In music, amongst those ideas is the idea once known as Third Stream—the confluence of the musical streams of jazz and classical music running together to form a third. It was at Brandeis that this idea first was born and at NEC it became an actual “major” (now known as Contemporary Iimprovisation); a way to look at all music as a delta of musical streams and tributaries all flowing into—what? A sonic Amazon? A chromatic ocean?

Time past has told us some of what the streams became, and time forward will reveal what is to come. In these concerts we take a look back to the earliest of the fusion attempts from 1920s Paris (a sister city in bold innovation), to the Brandeis of Babbitt, to the Mingus who counted the world his home. At the concert’s center sits an important new work.

Who stands as lock keeper to these headwaters? Gunther Schuller, invaluable Bostonian and NEC guiding light. We are so indebted to him for opening up, for all of us, these great floodgates of music which allow us to drift downstream with joy.

Milhaud: La création du monde

In 1922 Darius Milhaud, raised in cosmopolitan Marseilles amongst the exotiques of the Mediterranean, and a member of the (in)famous group of early twentieth century French composers known as Les six (a group which included Poulenc and Honegger) traveled to America for the first time. Amongst his destinations in New York City was Harlem, where the world of jazz was springing to life—a world that was sensual, exotic, and hot—very, very hot.

This jazz world fired Milhaud’s imagination, and when he returned to France he looked to explore the sounds and feel of this music on his own. Serendipitously, artists in France were in the thrall of another of the avant garde’s movements; that being primitivism. A celebration of “dark” Africa was all the vogue, with painters drawing inspiration from vibrant tropical colors and surreally/abstractly carved artifacts of African artisans. Musicians latched onto the exotic sounds of what they construed as the primal culture—the sounds of jazz.

Milhaud, along with artist Ferdinand Leger, brought the visual and musical together for a ballet—a primitivist’s Genesis—called La création du monde. It premiered in 1923, and the music is a masterpiece of rhythm, melody, and orchestration. It is clearly neither African nor primitive, and its attempt to so define itself is truly naïve. But Milhaud’s real masterstroke is trusting and acting on his intuition: that jazz was music ripe to be used, to be modeled on, to be emulated. He was artistically aware, recognizing that the vibrant rhythms and sense of “hot” was sorely lacking in the world of Western art music, and this jazz-influenced “creation” was going to warm that planet significantly.

Milton Babbitt: All Set

How many Milton Babbitts were there? There was the Milton Babbitt who played jazz sax and clarinet in a Mississippi high school; the Milton Babbitt who wrote a Broadway musical; the Milton Babbitt who was an early and masterful explorer of electronic music; the Milton Babbitt who wrote some of the most sophisticated, dense (impenetrable?) and compelling serial music in the repertoire.

These are, of course, all the same Babbitt, a protean composer and equally protean thinker on music. That he could write for, and love the
music from Broadway to Berg makes him a quintessential composer of the American school—diverse, courageous, outspoken, and always heartfelt.

In the mid-1950s Gunther Schuller, in his quest to find the intersection of the jazz and classical music streams he equally loved, delivered at Brandeis university a lecture on a “Third Stream” of music. Not content to let words suffice where music would outdo, he commissioned six composers, three each from each of the two streams, to compose pieces that would flow in this third stream.

Babbitt, the dedicated serialist steeped in popular and jazz music from his Mississippi musical youth, was a logical choice to be one of these composers. Gunther Schuller, to whom the piece is dedicated, offers this in an interview:

Milton Babbitt’s All Set? Can you imagine? That piece was 150 years ahead of its time. I can’t even begin to describe what I had to go through to get that recording made. No one had ever played anything like it. All Set is just on the periphery of jazz. We couldn’t really play it as jazz …

All Set—the title refers to the pitch “set” from which the piece is constructed—is written for eight players: alto and tenor saxes, trumpet, trombone, piano, drum set, vibes, and bass. These players are tasked with reading a complex hocketing of twelve-tone motives, each with its own identity as it flies by. Even the single notes, on say the bass, each has a unique character as the role of each pitch of the tone row adds an essential word to the musical sentence being declaimed.

There are jazz elements here, not improvisational ones, but gestural: there is a sense of “trading fours” as two instruments pass material back and forth; there are transparent duets of subtlety and explosions of “all in” tonal density and exclamation. Finally there is the harnessing of breathless virtuosity that marked the best of the 1950s boiling Be-Bop.