June 22, 2015
Guests: Marc Maron - Gunther Schuller
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. As you may know, comic Mark Maron interviewed President Obama Friday for Maron's podcast WTF. Terry's on vacation this week. But the last thing she did before checking out Friday was to talk to Maron about the interview. The Obama edition of his podcast went up early this morning. Here's Terry.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: When I found out that Marc Maron was going to interview President Obama for Maron's podcast, I thought, what? Marc is a comic. He has a TV series called "Maron" in which he plays a version of himself who's self-absorbed, difficult to get along with and has serious anger management problems. Marc's podcast is called WTF, and he kind of spells out what that stands for at the beginning of each podcast. Does that sound like the typical place for a presidential interview? And speaking of place, Marc records his interviews in his garage, and the president agreed to show up there. Marc is a great interviewer, and I can say that as a fan and as one of his recent interviewees. But he does very personal interviews, not the kind of interviews presidents typically agree to. Needless to say, I wanted to know how this happened and what the experience was like for Marc Maron. So a couple of hours after his interview with President Obama concluded, I recorded this interview with Marc Maron.
Marc, it's great to talk with you again. So you just kind of eased into the interview. It didn't, like, officially start at any point. You started talking as you were sitting down in your chairs. And I thought that was just, like, a really (laughter) nice, sweet moment. I just want to play that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, WTF)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I bet you got, like, snipers on your roof and stuff like that.
MARC MARON: Your sniper is over there and there's one on the roof. And you can sit in the orange chair.
OBAMA: Am I in the orange chair?
MARON: Orange chair for you, Mr. President.
MARON: Who's staying in the room? We're doing pictures. Oh, my gosh.
OBAMA: This is pretty cool.
MARON: This is the place. This is where it happens.
OBAMA: I like this, man.
MARON: You do?
OBAMA: I do.
MARON: It's my whole life - everything.
OBAMA: But you're, like, a big cheese now, man. You can't pretend, like, you're just some...
MARON: What do you mean? Can't I go on pretending?
OBAMA: You can't pretend, like, you're some...
MARON: Well, then...
OBAMA: ...Little guy in a garage.
MARON: Well, should I move?
OBAMA: You're now big-time.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so that's President Obama in your garage doing your podcast with a sniper on your roof?
MARON: There was a sniper on the roof next door. I don't - I think that we decided it would be too noisy to have a sniper on the garage roof walking around. Though, he - from what I'm told by my producer, he had such a good, you know, parameter up - he had good sight lines on the top of the garage. But they found that on my neighbor Dennis' (ph) roof, they were fine. So I believe there were two snipers over there. There was a bunch of LAPD on the periphery down at the bottom of the hill that I live on. There was some LAPD on my other neighbor - on the other sides on their deck. And then there were Secret Service people all over the place, and that's how it went. And there was a Secret Service guy behind me during the interview who I didn't see at all. I was so intent on focusing on the president.
GROSS: Your neighbors must love you (laughter).
MARON: Well, you know, I felt bad at first. You know, and I apologized to people because they closed off the entire neighborhood. They closed off my street and a lot of the streets for the entire route. Though, he did fly from Santa Monica to Pasadena in a helicopter and then picked up the motorcade there as opposed to shut down the entire city. It was sort of a problem. And I - that was one of the things entering this interview is I felt bad about causing people trouble traffic-wise in my neighborhood. It was plaguing me a little bit. And then I'm talking to the president and the load that he carries mentally and emotionally on a day-to-day basis and what he has to compartmentalize, I sort of found strength in that. I'm like, all right, you know what? I'm going to let go of the idea that my neighbors are upset with me 'cause quite honestly, they were thrilled. And by the time it became very public, my street was lined with people with signs welcoming the president. And I think they were a little disappointed that it wasn't a public event, but they were still excited to see the motorcade.
GROSS: So, Marc, how did this happen? How did President Obama end up in your garage recording an interview for your podcast?
MARON: I know, it's crazy. What happened was months ago - you know, quite a few months ago, the White House reached out with an idea. There was a fan among - in his staff of my show and thought it would be a fun idea, an idea that the president would do my show. And that was shared with my producer, Brendan. And he said to me that the White House called. I'm like, all right, well, that's fine. But, come on, what - he's not going to do my show. And I just didn't think that it would ever happen. I would never think to necessarily try to get the president on the show. I don't really do a political show anymore, and I wouldn't think the president would necessarily want to do my podcast. But I just never thought about it. And then all of a sudden, here it was. And I was like, well, it's not going happen. And as months went by, clearly, it was, like, well, they called again and it's going to happen probably. And I'm like, well, what do I do? Do I go to the - Washington? Am I - do I go to his hotel? What happens? And Brendan says, well, they said they want to do it in the garage. I'm like, that's insane. So you're telling - the president's just going to come over to my house, my two-bedroom, one-bathroom house and sit in my broken-down garage, where everybody sits? It is the place where it happens, but I just couldn't even wrap my brain around it.
GROSS: He - I'm assuming the president knows that the title of your podcast is WTF...
GROSS: ...And that you say all the words that that stands for at the beginning of every podcast. That would scare away most presidents.
MARON: You know, out of respect and I think out of, you know - I'm forgoing that at the beginning of this episode. And while I was with the president, I was happy - I'm happy to report that I did not drop any F-bombs or say any bad words, which is amazing for me, really. But I think, innately, I know when that's appropriate.
GROSS: I want to play another moment that shows how you handled the interview. You know, President Obama was talking about how when you're the president, you have to kind of come to terms with the fact that you can't make big changes. You can't have everything that you want and have the bill, you know, completely happen the way you want to. You have to be happy with shifts and with the feeling that you're moving things in the right direction. And then you basically say this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, WTF)
MARON: I don't know how you deal from day to day. I was panicking all morning. You know, I don't imagine you were flying in here on the chopper, thinking, like, you know, I'm nervous about Marc.
OBAMA: No, I wasn't.
MARON: OK. Well, that's good. That makes - (laughter).
OBAMA: Yeah. That would be a problem.
MARON: It would be a problem.
OBAMA: If the president was feeling stressed about...
MARON: Coming to my garage.
OBAMA: ...Coming to your garage for a podcast.
MARON: But you deal with that stuff all the time. I mean, like, you know, what you're saying is this incremental progress. But, I mean, you had a Congress that was, you know, dead set on not giving you anything.
MARON: And then, you know, then it got to a point where they really - even if they wanted to work with you, they couldn't 'cause their constituents say...
OBAMA: That's exactly right. They had their constituents all stirred up.
MARON: They thought you were Satan.
MARON: And so you had that obstacle. And then you're coming into, you know, a country that was depleted. And I just - it's fascinating to me that you were able to maintain this hope. And now again on Monday, when this posts, the Supreme Court's going to make a decision...
MARON: ...About your - about...
OBAMA: The health care bill.
MARON: The health care bill. I mean, that's a huge thing. This is a slightly very crazy case.
OBAMA: Yes, shouldn't have been taken, in my view.
MARON: But it could dismantle your big thing, the thing that you gave everybody.
GROSS: That's Marc Maron with President Obama.
I thought you did such a nice job of having, like, comedic touches in the interview but getting to serious things with him.
MARON: Yeah, I was worried about that. You know, I probably could have got a few more laughs, but it just wasn't - it was not the focus of my interview was to make the president laugh. I think I got a couple of good ones, and I think I engaged him well. I felt - I know there were a couple of moments where we had real connection, but whether or not he felt that, I don't know. But I felt it and that was very exciting for me that I could see him as a person. It did not - during the entire interview, once we got started, I was never like, oh, my God, it's the president of the United States. What's he doing here? It was like this is a guy I'm talking to, which is all I really hoped for. I don't know if you can hear that, but that's how I felt.
GROSS: Did you have to worry about, like, what am I going to wear? I'm meeting the president. I always wear, like, a plaid shirt or something.
MARON: I just wore a plaid shirt.
GROSS: You wore your plaid shirt (laughter)?
MARON: I did, yeah. I just wore a plaid shirt. What am I going - put a tie on? The amazing thing is, is I drive myself crazy. I was actually panicked that we would run out of things to talk about. See, that's how crazy I am. I'm like, well, I got these first few questions in these areas that I want to talk about. But what if we're 10 minutes in, and I got nothing else? You know, with that guy? What, are you kidding me? How is it - you know, like, I just don't know - my big fear was am I going to be able to engage, you know, honestly and in a real way with the president of the United States? And, like, you hear it in that clip you played earlier. Right when he gets there, you know, he puts me at ease. He puts me at ease.
GROSS: Well, here's another example of that. You're talking to him about how when he was in college, he lived a couple of blocks away from where you live now, or from where the garage is where you do your podcast.
GROSS: And so you got him talking about that and, you know, what it was like for him to be a couple of blocks away from where he went to college, and here's how that played out.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, WTF)
MARON: I want to, you know, before - like, I feel like we jumped right into conversation, which is good.
OBAMA: We did. It was quick.
MARON: And I'm honored that you came, and it's an amazing privilege for me to talk to you.
OBAMA: Listen, I'm a big fan and, you know, I love conversations like this 'cause, you know, if I thought to myself that when I was in college that I'd be in a garage...
OBAMA: ...A couple miles away from where I was living...
OBAMA: ...Doing an interview...
MARON: As president.
OBAMA: ...As president with a comedian, I think that's a pretty hard scenario to...
MARON: Couldn't imagine it.
OBAMA: It's not possible to imagine.
GROSS: I think it's hysterical. He's talking about how he couldn't imagine it (laughter).
GROSS: I think you're the one who probably couldn't imagine it.
MARON: Yeah, that's for sure. Yeah, he's, like - yeah, he's pretty amazing - he's a pretty amazing person in terms of - it's always interesting when you meet people who have a sort of personal power or magic, you know, of any kind. It's a rare thing. You know, when - because you read about the president or you see people's reactions to the president or you have whatever your feelings are about the president on a day-to-day basis, like, you know, oh, there's the president again or what - you take certain things for granted. But to really sort of, you know, be in the presence of somebody who is the president and has been for eight years and to wonder, what is that gift, how does just a person do that and to feel the incredible sort of charisma and ease at which this guy handles himself. And I'm completely honest with you, you know, I was a bit of a nervous wreck, and he immediately, you know, put me at ease. I don't know how. I'm not easy to put at ease. You know, I'm a nut bag. I'm crazy, you know, a little bit. And I felt, like - thank God, you know, he did that, so I could have a good conversation with him, you know.
GROSS: My house is a mess. I can't imagine having the president over to my house - not that he's interested in coming - but what did you have to do?
MARON: I know about your house.
MARON: I know about your house, Terry.
MARON: I know about the records.
GROSS: About the records, the vinyl. What did you have to do to get your garage in order so that you thought it was fit for President Obama?
MARON: Well, I have a lot of clutter on the desk, and the Secret Service certainly helped me with that (laughter). They came...
GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah, right.
MARON: I have, like, a pocket knife on my desk. I have, like, half a hammer, like, this weird hammer that's broken.
GROSS: Oh, the pocketknife was just in an episode of your show.
MARON: Right. I think it might've been that knife. But, like, and apparently when Brendan was walking them through when I was out of town, they're like, yeah, the knife and the hammer got to go.
GROSS: (Laughter). Definitely.
MARON: Those got to go. And there was a lot of boxes of clutter on the floor, stacks of books, a lot of - I imagine what your house looks like, and we had to move them out. And it was really interesting because apparently it was about we don't want anything that he can trip over, and we don't want any of the obstacles in the way. We had to clear out the entire driveway of everything and clear out anything in the pathway of the president's walk, so they helped out a lot with that. You know, my amp had to go. The guitars had to go. We had to de-clutter the garage, but it was, you know, everything was still intact. It was just the stuff that was sort of loose and on the floor and the stuff that could be construed as dangerous on the desk that had to go, and it looked pretty clean.
GROSS: You and I are the same, I think, in not wanting to have anyone in the studio or the garage in your case beyond the person who we're interviewing, and, like, for me it's because, like, I don't want my guest picking up on anyone else's vibe. I just want them in their own head responding to what we're talking about, and I don't want to be picking up on the vibe of their publicist or their manager or their spouse or anyone else, you know. I don't want to be thinking, like, what's this third party thinking about my questions? So when the Secret Service person had to be in the garage with you and you wanted to get rid of basically everybody except for one Secret Service person, how did you tell them that they had to leave? (Laughter).
MARON: Well, I think it was an understanding, you know, I don't - I was happy there weren't more people in 'cause there was some talk that maybe a staffer would be in or that two Secret Service would be in. And also it's interesting because I might've learned something interviewing you in a public way that we did our conversation in front of people that there is a way to focus. Despite the fact that there were at least six people on my deck next to the garage with headphones on listening to the interview, and one of them was archiving it for the White House and one of them was a staffer. One of them was Brendan, my producer, and then there was other people who are out there. So and, you know, and there was Secret Service all over the place, and Secret Service are pretty good at being invisible, so I didn't even feel that guy's presence. And also there is something inside of you, and it was something that the president actually spoke to around, you know, doing something enough that where I wanted just to make sure that all I was focused on and listening to and seeing was him and that happened. Even I think at another point in my life, I would've made myself crazy knowing there was five people listening to it and that there was a guy standing behind me and that my windows had to be taped up and there was a sniper on the...
GROSS: Your windows had to be taped up?
MARON: Well, yeah. I had - that was the one thing that they left to me and Brendan for some reason is that they got a sniper or two on the roof next to us, but there were still sightlines. There's a window that goes right out to my neighbor's yard, and then there's one goes right out to my backyard, and the Secret Services, they said that, yeah, you got to put some garbage bags on those. You got to tape some garbage bags. So the day before the interview, I was up on a ladder 'cause the back part of my garage is about 20 feet up and up on the roof of my garage duck taping garbage bags to my windows so the president wouldn't be in the sightline of any potential snipers while in my garage, so it was a hands-on thing for me. I was very active in that.
GROSS: So we had talked about this once before, like, what happens when the interview's over? Like, you talked about this in the...
MARON: I cried.
GROSS: Did you really?
MARON: Yeah, a little bit right in front of Brendan. It was a weird moment for us, but he handled it pretty well. He's like - they all left, and the Secret Service was still getting their stuff together, and I'm walking out of the garage. And I was just like, oh, God, and I just, like, started crying a little bit, and I was, like, hiding it from Brendan because he was just standing in front of me talking to me, and I was, like, holding my eyes, you know, just - my voice was cracking. And he's like what? Are you just, like, you just letting it out? And I'm, like, yeah, man. I'm just - I don't know what it is. I'm just overwhelmed with emotion. So, you know, I pulled it together pretty quickly, but, yeah, I felt that, and then I felt, like, you know, now I was like was it all right? Was it all right? Did we do it? Did it happen? Was it OK? You know, 'cause I don't - this is why it's hard 'cause I don't know, you know, sometimes. You know, I know this is the president, but he is, you know, the best of the politicians. These are politicians. I don't know sometimes, you know, what I got and if it hasn't been said before or if I got, you know, steamrolled sometime somehow or I got sort of taken off track. I don't know any of that stuff, and I just didn't want to second-guess it, but he said it was great, and I think it felt great to me, and I just I have to learn how to sort of do what the president does and kind of just let it be its thing now and be OK with it.
DAVIES: That's comedian Marc Maron speaking with Terry Gross last Friday after Maron had interviewed President Obama for his podcast WTF. Here's another excerpt from that interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, WTF)
MARON: You've gotten an amazing amount of stuff done and in a time in the last year you got some big stuff done where people didn't think you were going to get anything done.
MARON: And now this horrible thing happens Wednesday and, you know, you have, you know, these police actions in Baltimore and Ferguson. I mean, where, you know, coming from where you came from...
MARON: ...And, you know, trying to define yourself in terms of the African-American community...
MARON: ...And in terms of racial relations, where are we with that in terms of when you came in, in your mind?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, I always tell young people in particular do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s or '60s or '70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed.
OBAMA: That is a fact.
OBAMA: What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that's still part of our DNA That's passed on. We're not cured of it.
OBAMA: Racism, we are not cured of.
OBAMA: And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. We have - societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior. And so what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave commemorating the march there...
OBAMA: ...Was again a notion that progress is real, and we have to take hope from that progress, but what is also real is that the march isn't over and the work is not yet completed.
GROSS: So you know how you said that you were in tears when it was over? This is something, like, I know you've teared up in other interviews, too.
MARON: It's happening a lot lately.
GROSS: So here's something I really want to understand about you. How is it that the Marc Maron that you portray on your IFC TV series "Maron" is a guy who's really aggravating? Do you know what I mean? He's kind of abrupt to people. He has real, like, anger management issues. He's very kind of self-centered, very much in his own head, not a lot of empathy or sympathy for other people. But the Maron who I hear on your podcast, the Maron who I met when you interviewed me is this really empathetic person who is capable of tearing up and who seems just exceptionally interested in what the people who you're talking to have to say. You seem to really want to know about them. So why is the persona that you have on TV so, like, radically different from the person who you are in the podcast? Which isn't to say - I mean, you're both - you're very funny in both settings, so, like, that's definitely a commonality.
MARON: But why? I think that was an older version of me. And I think that having not known, you know, really how to go about, you know, creating a persona of myself on television. That sort of seemed to be how it evolved. And I was obviously, you know, 100 percent part of that. And it really became - especially this season, you know, where we see this sort of full - the well-rounded comic character of that Marc Maron. I think it's sort of representational of me, you know, probably a decade ago and because I needed to find something organic within my personality that could live on that screen but also to be funny. I think it's a little easier to write for that guy to be funny and to be sort of a bit more of a victim of himself. But I think that is an old, less-evolved Marc Maron, a less, you know, humbled by time and also a Marc Maron with less self-esteem that came through validation of doing the work that I've been doing. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know how it really serves me in the big picture other than to be a comedic character and to try to explore, you know, the way that I made mistakes. And people seem to like it for that reason. But there is a difference. I don't think he's fundamentally not me, but I do think he's a more immature me and somebody who is not as onto his psychological and emotional issues as I have become in more recent years.
GROSS: So, you know, I watch your TV series. And I think my favorite episode of the season so far is the one where you interview your ex-wife because she has a new book that's out.
GROSS: So, like, you and your producer - you and your intern, I should say, debate whether to have her on or not. And you decide, OK, like, let's do it. And what's the closest you've come to interviewing somebody who you were not only that close to at some point, but you also had such a kind of drama with, like a personal drama that had to get played out? And ex-wife, that's a pretty big deal to do an interview with her. I'm sure that...
MARON: She would never talk to me.
MARON: She would never do it. My ex-wife would never do it. The ex-wife that that was based on - and oddly, you know, I worked through a lot of emotional pain in that episode that - that's a conversation never happened. The ex-wife that that is based on will not engage with me at all and that's fine. But, you know, I haven't seen her at all, you know, in seven or eight years. And I think I had some things in my heart that were still - I wanted forgiveness, and I don't know that I'll ever get it from her. But I think by building that episode and actually having that conversation in a fictional way really gave me some closure. But, like, I don't know what I would do if I saw my real ex-wife, even on the street I think I would just fall apart.
GROSS: Well, you know, your character, the Marc Maron that you portray in your TV series, has to decide whether he's going to honor his ex-wife's wishes to take out a part of the conversation 'cause it's just too personal and too hurtful. And so, like, your character has to really puzzle through what's he going to go for, like, the best radio, like, the most dramatic radio or to be the most human about it and not humiliate your ex-wife in the podcast? And it's a hard choice for him. Have you gone through that yourself, that trade-off between - were there times that you talked about other people in ways that you knew would hurt them but you decided but it's going to be funny or...
GROSS: ...It's going to get applause, I'm going to do it?
MARON: I don't know about applause, but I thought it would be funny.
MARON: And I do it, and I did it. And then, you know, I would hurt people. And then people would be afraid of me. And then I would have to have those conversations with wives and girlfriends, like, all right, I won't do it. I won't do it. I won't do it. And then sometimes...
GROSS: Have your values changed about that?
MARON: Yes. But, like, sometimes it was weird. Sometimes I'd do them - I'd do it at, like, poorly attended shows. Like, it'd be like, this stays in the room. You know I mean?
MARON: But my values have changed because a woman that I was with at a different time made it very clear to me that when you do that, they have no recourse, that, you know, that's your side of it, and it may not be right. It may be what you think happened. It may be your point of view. And it may be your opinion. But it is not my experience, and I don't get to say my experience. So - and that's hurtful, and it's also unfair. So that added something to how I process that stuff now.
GROSS: So I want to get back to the Obama interview for a minute. You've said - and I started to ask you this before - you said in your interview with Conan O'Brien a long time ago, so what happens when the interview ends? Do you, like, have a cup of coffee together? Do you go out, you know, have a sandwich? Do you hang out and schmooze a little bit more in your garage? Do you invite them into your actual house? So when the interview was over with President Obama, was that, like, it? Did it - like, when the recording was turned off, was it over? Did you schmooze some more afterwards and talk about the interview, reminisce about how it went, ask him other questions?
MARON: Yeah. Yeah, no, he was, like - he was very concerned about how it went for me. And I said, I think it went great. And I go, how did it go for you? He goes, it was good. It was good. And he said it was a little intense at the start. And then we went outside, and he took pictures with me, and he took pictures with my producer, Brendan. And we did a selfie. And then one of his staff brought a book, a children's book from - apparently a little kid was next door across the street and wanted him to sign it, and he signed that. And I said, so what happens now? And, you know, I got my arm on his back - where you going? I don't know. I felt like I was touching him for a long time.
MARON: And then he said, well, I got to get the plane. I'm going up to San Francisco to do a fundraiser. And then all of a sudden, a crew of people came, and they started disassembling the tents that were on my driveway. And then all the Secret Service stuff got their stuff, and they just, like, were gone. It was all gone. And I let my cats out of the bedroom. And they're like, what's up? Are we good? And I'm like, how you doing? And they're like, OK, is everyone gone? Can we have our house back, please? And, you know, and now it's back to life.
GROSS: So I'd like to end with another part of the interview that you recorded with the president. And this is a part where you were - you said something like so when Michelle says to you, OK, that's enough, what's she talking about? And he starting talking about, you know, their relationship and when they were dating and about how she'd be really angry with him when he'd show up 15 minutes late, which he often would. And so I'm just going to pick it up from there 'cause it's just a really, really nice story.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, WTF)
MARON: You know, like, when she goes - like, if Michelle says, would you stop that, please, what is she talking about to you?
OBAMA: Yeah. I mean, there - being late.
MARON: Yeah. Do you isolate - like, for some reason I see you as a guy that's sort of, like, in your head and just sort of, like, you know, will just detach a little bit.
OBAMA: No, no, no, I'm very engaged. That's not - she will say stop that - when we first started dating, you know, I'd always give myself kind of a 15-minute leeway, right, in terms of showing up and getting to stuff and partly 'cause Michelle's dad had multiple sclerosis. It was really interesting. I used to say, you know, why are you stressing me about, you know, being late? I'm just 15 minutes late, 10 minutes late. What's the big deal? And then, I don't remember how long we were in the relationship when she described how her dad had to wake up an hour earlier than everybody else 'cause he had multiple sclerosis. Just to put on his shirt and button his own shirt was a big task.
OBAMA: And if he - if the family wanted to go see Michelle's brother play basketball - it was before the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act - you know, they'd have to get there early so that her dad, on crutches, could hobble his way up the stairs to their seat. And that mentality of not wanting to stand out and not wanting to, you know, miss something had instilled in her, so it was a very emotional thing, right?.
MARON: Wasn't just about being late.
OBAMA: Right, it wasn't just about being late.
GROSS: Well, Marc, I really thought you did a terrific job with the president. It's just - it's got some funny moments. It's got some really sweet moments. It's got some very interesting moments about his life as president and about the kinds of decisions he has to make, about the political divisions in America, about racial issues. You really cover a lot of stuff. I just found it very, like, totally engrossing. So congratulations.
MARON: Thank you, Terry. That means a lot to me.
DAVIES: That's comedian Marc Maron speaking with Terry Gross last Friday after Maron had interviewed President Obama for his podcast, WTF. Special thanks to WTF producer, Brendan McDonald, for his help.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Gunther Schuller, the composer, conductor, teacher and music historian who coined the term, third stream - for his synthesis of jazz and classical music - died yesterday in Boston from complications of leukemia. He was 89. Schuller grew up in a musical family and studied French horn, playing professionally in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera. But he also became interested in jazz, and for a time, combined his classical career with performances in jazz ensembles led by, among others, Miles Davis. As a composer, Schuller was self-taught, once describing himself as a high school dropout without a single earned degree. He taught music and composition at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music, wrote several books, directed the Berkshire Music Center, and served as president of the New England Conservatory. He was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation grant. Terry spoke to Gunther Schuller in 1988.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: I knew you first through your work with third stream music. I'd like to talk with you a little bit about that. First of all, let me ask you to describe in your own words what you meant when you coined that expression.
GUNTHER SCHULLER: Yes. Well, it was the bringing together of two main streams of music - classical and jazz. I perceive them as equivalent in their quality, although different in style. And the marriage of these two main streams begets - as the Bible would say - an offspring, a child, and that is the third stream. Now, what I was not talking about was some kind of simplistic or superficial overlays of one kind of music on top of another, but a real integration at the most fundamental, technical and conceptual and expressive levels.
GROSS: Did you run into resistance on both sides - resistance on the part of people involved with jazz and classical music about the idea of merging the two in some way?
SCHULLER: Oh, absolutely. And a resistance was in some cases very fierce. This is called often territorial protection. The people in classical music - many of them - didn't want their music "contaminated," in quotes, by jazz, and jazz purists particularly didn't want any of the influence of what they considered effete or academic music in the classical area. But of course, what they neglected to understand was that both musics have a lot to learn from each other even to this day. I mean, classical music can learn a hell of a lot about rhythm and swing and momentum and motion in music, and spontaneity, through the improvisational aspects of jazz. On the other hand, jazz can learn an awful lot - and still has to learn it, I think - about form and how you write or improvise extended pieces, you know, pieces beyond three-minute or 10-minute duration.
GROSS: I want to play something that you wrote that is in a third stream style, and it's part of a larger piece that you wrote called, "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee." Let me ask you to just describe what's happening in this excerpt of the piece.
SCHULLER: Well, this is one of many third stream pieces that I've written, and I've used a different approach to this idea in all these pieces. This is one that happens to have been written for a symphony orchestra, which means that you could not use improvisation, certainly not in 1959, when I wrote this piece. Symphony musicians are not trained in improvising, certainly not in a jazz style. So this piece is entirely written, but of course it tries to emulate the whole feeling of a jazz piece, only now not for a big band or a small group, but for a whole symphony orchestra. And the idea came to me - this is one of the Paul Klee paintings, it's called the "Little Blue Devil." And blue and the blues sort of immediately makes me think of jazz of course and the blues, and so this has a kind of blues, jazz feeling. And particularly through the rhythm, the walking bass line and the muted trumpet solo and so on - various elements that relate to jazz.
GROSS: OK so this is from the "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee," composed by my guest, Gunther Schuller, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. And I should mention that this one of Gunther Schuller's most widely-performed pieces. So let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, FROM SCHULLER'S "7 STUDIES ON THEMES OF PAUL KLEE")
GROSS: An excerpt of Gunther Schuller's "7 Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee."
How did you find a drummer like that in an orchestra?
SCHULLER: Well, at that time they had a drummer named Tommy Thompson, whom I knew from my days in Cincinnati who was always sort of oriented towards jazz. So we were lucky in having that. I'll tell you, if you mess around with jazz, you better have a good drummer and a good bass player (laughter)...
GROSS: Really. (Laughter).
SCHULLER: ...Otherwise, you're in trouble.
GROSS: You know, you talk about opening up different worlds of music. I think many of us have you to thank for introducing us to different forms of music. You've played an important role in expanding the repertory of jazz and pop music. For instance, you were at the forefront of, you know, the - excuse the expression - ragtime revival (laughter)...
SCHULLER: (Laughter), that's all right.
GROSS: ...A few years ago.
SCHULLER: That's what it was.
GROSS: Yeah. And you found all kinds of interesting things that were, well, that had been totally forgotten by history. And I wonder what inspired you to look back to the turn-of-the-century music.
SCHULLER: Well, I've been asked that question many times, and I always find it difficult to explain. Again, a lot of the seeds for these kinds of interests I guess were sown in my childhood somehow, and I don't recall exactly how all that happened and developed. But many people think of me as a modernist, as a radical in music, you know, someone who's always sort of at the avant-garde of musics, but I'm also quite a traditionalist. And I knew about Joplin's music since I'm a teenager, but I never could do anything about it as a French horn player. There isn't much you can do with piano rags. But when I got a hold of these orchestrations from the first decade of the century, the nickname the red back book of rags, then I went to town - this was during my time at the New England Conservatory - and created a ragtime ensemble immediately.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to play one of the rags that you arranged, from an album called, "From Rags To Jazz," which features the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. Let's play "Heliotrope Bouquet," by Louis Chauvin. Do you want to say anything about what you thought of when you were arranging this?
SCHULLER: Well, my main interest was in keeping the classic style of ragtime pure. I mean, to keep it kind of period authenticity in these arrangements. It would've been very easy to update them or modernize them or to make them very fancy, but I was very interested in keeping in the pure classical style.
GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear the "Heliotrope Bouquet," arranged by my guest, Gunther Schuller.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHULLER SONG, "HELIOTROPE BOUQUET")
GROSS: Now, your father played in an orchestra. What'd he play?
SCHULLER: He was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic - many other orchestras, but primarily in the New York Philharmonic.
GROSS: Did you hang out with him when you were a kid? In the orchestra?
SCHULLER: Yes. He took me to concerts. I suppose I guess I went to concerts in my mother's womb already. (Laughter). My whole childhood was filled with classical music and going to concerts of the New York Philharmonic and other New York ensembles and organizations, but interestingly, I didn't become conscious of wanting to be a musician until I was about 11. I was a rather late starter.
GROSS: Were you intimidated by the caliber of musicianship that your father and his friends had?
SCHULLER: No, that wasn't it. I was interested in art. I wanted to be a painter and an artist. And it's interesting that in some of my later musical works, I refer so often and associate myself with works of art, as in the case of the "7 Studies On The Themes Of Paul Klee." I wanted to be an artist, but at age 11, somehow all this musical knowledge and information and love for music that I had came out, and then suddenly it was very clear that I wanted to be a musician of some sort.
GROSS: Now, you started your career by playing in orchestras, but you gave that up. Why?
SCHULLER: Well, I was playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as principal horn. I was there for some 15 years - one of the most exciting and great musical periods in my life. But by around 1959, if I - I'm trying to make this sound modest - my fame as a composer had become such that I was getting commissions from all over and from so many sources, that I began to literally kill myself physically trying to be a French horn player by day and a composer by night. So I knew something had to give, and most reluctantly 'cause I loved the French horn, and I loved playing in the opera. I gave up the horn. My primary calling, I always knew since the age of 11, was as a composer, and so that had to take priority.
GROSS: Well, Gunther Schuller, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
SCHULLER: Thank you.
DAVIES: Gunther Schuller speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Schuller died Sunday at the age of 89. Tomorrow Noah Charney takes us into the strange world of art forgery. Before Michelangelo was famous, Charney says, he was a forger. He sculpted a marble statue called, "Sleeping Eros."
NOAH CHARNEY: And it was buried in a garden and dug up, broken, repaired and sold as an antiquity.
DAVIES: Forgers, it turns out, are a crafty and colorful crew. Charney's book is "The Art Of Forgery." I hope you can join us.
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