Maria Schneider is a Grammy Award-winning American composer. Born in Windom, Minnesota, she became widely known through the orchestra she founded in 1992. They appeared at Visiones in Greenwich Village every Monday night for a stretch of five years. The Maria Schneider Orchestra has since performed at festivals and concert halls worldwide, and she herself has received numerous commissions and guest-conducting invites, working with over 80 groups from over 20 countries.
Schneider's debut recording, Evanescence, was nominated for two 1995 Grammy Awards. Her most recent recordings have brought two Grammy Awards, the first for 'Concert in the Garden' (Best Large Ensemble Album; the first record to win a Grammy with Internet-only sales) and the second for 'Cerulean Skies' (Best Instrumental Composition). Schneider's most recent work, 'Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,' was commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for soprano Dawn Upshaw. She is currently working on a piece commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for a 2010 premier.
Question: When did you first discover your talent for music?
Maria Schneider: Well, I guess what I first discovered was a love for it and that was when I was, actually I was four, almost five years old, and I'm from a very small town in Windom, Minnesota, the southwest corner, and there was a woman that moved there in 1965, and she had been a stride pianist and a classical pianist from Chicago. And when she came to town, she was this great pianist, and the only reason she moved to Windom was that her husband and son had both died of cancer within, I think, like a month of each other or something, it was really tragic and her only living family was this daughter in Windom. So she moved to town, and my parents heard about her and invited her over for dinner. And after dinner, she started to play, and it was just, I mean, we had this awful little, sort of spinet piano in our house, but it was like, it was like in the Wizard of Oz when it goes from black and white into color. You know, my life changed at that point, and it was like her spirit just went into the air and was just dancing. I mean, I could see things, you know, beyond, in the music, with her, how her personality just came into the sound. And I said, "I want that, I want to be her." And she had red hair, and my hair was really bright red back then, and so it was just like, "I want to be Mrs. Butler." And so I begged my parents for lessons and maybe in myself I recognized that I had, you know, maybe a talent for it, but it was just an affinity for sound.
Question: What music did you love most as a child?
Maria Schneider: Well, let's see. I mean, it was a variety of things. I mean, classical music, mainly through my mother and my teacher, my mom used to play Chopin around the house a lot and so Chopin, Ravel, you know, Mozart, all the classical music. Not so much modern classical, although, you know, maybe some Stravinsky later on, and Copland, I was a Copland freak when I was young. And then I loved musical theater songs, like Cole Porter, you know, just standards, Gershwin, and, you know, Lerner and Lowe, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I was just crazy about that. And then my piano teacher really, you know, encouraged me to, you know, do piano kind of stride arrangements of, you know, American popular, old American popular song. And so those were the main things, you know, the jazz, I wasn't really conscious of what jazz was. The only jazz I knew about was kind of just old stride piano, you know, playing, and then boogie woogie, which she also taught me to play. You know, it was an odd way to begin.
Question: How did you transition from playing to composing?
Maria Schneider: Well, she really encouraged me. My very first lesson, she was an amazing teacher and my first lesson, I mean, it's funny how all things go back to Evelyn Butler, but my first lesson, she did something where she played a major triad and then she sang, "Bright the day," and then she played a minor triad and she sang, "Dark the night," and she said, "Everything in music has a feeling and there's a reason behind it, you know, and it comes through music theory and I want you to understand why everything you play sounds and feels the way it does. And we're going to analyze every piece that you ever play." Well, of course, when you start out on piano, your first pieces are harmonically very simple, melodically simple. So she started teaching me, you know, a major triad, the notes of the scale, you know, simple things like 1-4-5 chord, which is a very simple progression and made me analyze my music.
And then it kind of got me wanting to write music myself, because what I became interested in, more than the way I played the pieces, I loved playing music and, you know, pretending I was Horowitz or something, even though I was pretty horrible probably, but what I loved more than that was discovering what these composers wrote and, you know, and coming to lofty conclusions that, you know, Chopin wasn't good at writing endings and, you know, I was sort of critiquing composers at kind of a young age, it was sort of ridiculous. And so I started writing songs, just simple songs for friends, you know, and giving them as gifts and things like that. So it was just kind of, it's a pain because of the way she taught me, I think.
Question: Did you encounter any gender-specific obstacles as a female composer?
Maria Schneider: No, I think for me, you know, it's funny, I never even asked myself about that until I was first asked by a journalist and it was when I, after I made my first record, so I was already, I think 32 years old before I really even thought about that. And then I had to go back and think, wait a minute, I was the only girl doing this in college and writing for big band. I mean, it wasn't just composition, it was jazz composition, which is maybe even more male, you know, dominated, or whatever you want to say, or peopled with men or something. And I think the reason was because my first mentor was a woman. And in my home town, my sister, I had two sisters, one was an artist and her mentor, who was a really wonderful painter in Wyndham, was a woman. And I think I kind of, my very first feeling was that women are the artistic ones and that men are the more practical ones. Even in my family, my mother was the one who loved art and music, so I just kind of was oblivious to the fact that when I went out in the real world that it was all men. It's like, "Oh, well, it's a lot of men around here, whatever." You know, and I just kept going. So I'm glad I never felt any complexity about it. I did, I will say I was conscious when I was first writing in New York for some of the groups in New York that were all men. I remember saying to my teacher, Bob Brookmeyer, that, you know, I didn't want my music to sound too feminine, I really wanted to be able to have it really sound male. So I was conscious of, you know, a lot of people would scream and say, "What does that mean?" You know, and get upset at me. But I was a little bit self-conscious that my music was too feminine and he said, "Listen, you are what you are and you should just embrace that." And he even went so far as to say, "You know, this music has been so dominated by men that if there's something through your music that is female, if you can even make that judgment, we need it, because it hasn't been represented very much."
Question: Is music becoming less male-dominated?
Maria Schneider: Yeah. Well, I do, because I mean, jazz came up, you know, when jazz came up, the way it was passed on was, you know, people playing jam sessions or playing in clubs late at night and in that era, what were women doing who were in their 20's, they were raising families and how many women would've, back then, made the choice to, instead of having a family and raising kids and being married and everything, to have the life of a jazz musician, hanging out in clubs late at night, a lot of drinking and, you know, drugs maybe, and who knows what? And just hanging out all night and playing. So I think it wasn't, at that time, culturally, you know, what it meant to be a jazz musician was very different than what it means to be one now. So it seems logical to me that it would be more men, you know? And I even have just some crazy theories just about in the arts, and maybe this gets me in trouble, too, but I've noticed so much people with young children, like what goes into children's brains when they're young, about, that gives them indication about themselves. For instance, if you see a little girl and she's in front of you, you're more likely to say something, "Oh, Susie, what a beautiful little dress you have, I love your hair, and oh, you got your ears pierced?" You know, all the things that she's getting, you know, attention for, are about how people perceive her from the outside in. What do we say to the little boy? We certainly don't very often say, "Oh, what a cute, little outfit you have on, I love your boots." You know, you wouldn't say that to a boy. You'd say, "Well, what are you making? Oh, look at that train set! And you built that?" You know, so the boy gets, you know, what he feels he's getting attention for and love or adoration for is what he's creating, what he's making.
And I think that for young girls growing up, they get very confused because of course, every human has this impulse to create, to have the energy to develop those skills and to be by yourself and spend intense amounts of hours in solitude working on your craft, at the same time being concerned constantly about how people are perceiving you and that you're not going to be loved unless you're considered to be beautiful, you know, like me being worried about coming to this interview and not thinking that it was video, you know, those things! We women get completely distracted by that stuff and I think that thing keeps a lot of women from doing what they would need to do to develop themselves as a jazz musician. It takes a lot of lonely hours to do it.
Question: What’s the relationship between composition and improvisation in jazz?
Maria Schneider: I think that's one of the hardest things I do, because what I'm looking for in a piece of music, is inevitably. I want, when somebody hears a piece, to feel like it takes them to all these places, even surprising places, but that the surprises feel inevitable. But at the same time, if you're including improvisation, there's this huge, unknown factor. So the question is, "How do I create inevitability when I'm giving somebody all this freedom and how do I have all this freedom yet somehow keep control on the thing?" And I will tell you, I love writing for improvisers because the feeling I have when I make music, and now I've started to do some classical music, so I've been able to compare the world, and one thing I love about having improvisation is at the end of a performance, the performance belongs to all of us. I mean, the rhythm section, even though they have in their parts what the harmony is and the basic rhythm and the outline, there's a lot of room for them putting their own ideas and playing it differently every night. And then the soloist can go somewhere and even the ensemble makes decisions about what volumes to come behind people, you know, when they join behind the soloist, sometimes the solo section gets really strong, sometimes they go to some really like soft, sort of ethereal place and then everybody behind them puts a different attitude behind the written music.
So, you know, I love the idea that the music in the end is where, you know, you and I meet and this is what we create as opposed to, I put a piece of music out there and I say to all the musicians, "Okay, I want you to play loud here every time, I want you to do this every time, I want it to be just how I want." And at the end of the performance, the feeling is, "Okay, we played our music well." You know? Which is a wonderful thing, you know, but it feels lonely to me. I did something with Don Upshaw in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, it was my first orchestral work and we did several performances and I felt a little lonely or guilty. I think I felt guilty that at the end of the night, you know, everybody was just trying to play the music right, but I didn't feel like the music was giving each of them a chance to do something that was uniquely their own. So that's where the improvisation comes into the composition and being a jazz composer, seems a little bit like an oxymoron to say that it doesn't really makes sense. But there is a meeting place that makes something really rich, if it's done right.
Question: How do you begin composing a piece of music?
Maria Schneider: Oh, it's just, it starts with just groping in a dark, you know, you feel like you're in a dark room just looking for a light switch. And, you know, it's just such a difficult process. But what I'm just looking for is just an inkling of a personality in sound. You know, I'm just searching for sounds, something that grabs me and says, "Hey, I could be something, you know?" And I'm looking for that sound and trying to find something that is good enough that I'm willing to take the journey that it takes to create a whole piece with that idea.
Question: Do you construct a piece part by part, or as a unified whole?
Maria Schneider: Well, in my case, I've worked with my own orchestra for so many years, I'm really composing for all the sounds and the people and the talents and the creative impulses I know all those people have, as opposed to just composing a piece and I can't really separate myself from that. So I would say that the individual sounds of the people, the abilities that I know they have for improvisation and everything, I'm composing to that. That being said, you know, sometimes I will, when I perform a piece, I'll mix solos around and change the piece around and suddenly somebody over here that I never imagined playing a certain solo, they bring something so magnificently new to the piece and I realize, "Oh! You know, I shouldn't typecast people because everybody has such a broad range of what they can say."
But, yeah, I love writing for people that I know because again, it's like that, it's the social aspect. You know, it's not me just writing a piece and wanting them to play it how I want it, but it's kind of almost like me giving them a gift and saying, "I hear all these beautiful things about you, I love you like this, I want to, you know, I see it sometimes like designing clothing for a beautiful model or creating a dance for a beautiful dancer and you just want to enhance their beauty.
Question: Do you hear ordinary sounds in terms of musical ideas?
Maria Schneider: I’ll say something and I’ll turn it around. What I’ll say is that when I’m working on, when I hear music and when I’m writing music, I see things. Like almost geometric, sculptural things. I once said to Terry **** actually, I said that I see my pieces like ephemeral sound sculptures. You know, that I see music like, that it has different levels of translucency, different hardnesses or softnesses of angles and maybe it’s even thinking about it architecturally.
Question: At what point do you move from solo composition to collaborative work?
Maria Schneider: Oh, I am working on a new piece and I have a rehearsal, I’ll bring in eight bars of something, if I want to hear it, or I’ll bring in half the piece. A lot of times I like to hear something when it’s not completed, because when I hear it and it’s suddenly pops into three-dimensional, four-dimensional space or whatever, then it really helps me feel where it needs to go. I think, especially from the timing aspect, the hardest thing for me is to figure out how long sections should be. Because when you’re sitting and you’re writing, you tend to, I don’t know, you work so hard maybe on a few seconds of music that it expands in your mind, but it goes by so quickly. So, you know, to me it’s like, what’s interesting about music is that it’s art in time. So you have to, in order for a piece to be successful, you have to grab somebody at the beginning of the piece in some kind of way, whether you’re enticing them or shocking them or seducing them, who knows that it is. And then once you have them, you have to bring them, you know, keep them interested. So it means not doing something for too long that their mind wanders, but not doing it for so short that it doesn’t, you know, give them that feeling of building. So it’s really, yeah, timing is a tough thing.
Question: Do you ever get “composer’s block”?
Maria Schneider: I do. I do sometimes get that feeling. And a friend recently, they shared this story with me and it was really powerful, it was a story about a teacher he had, named Jack Troy, who was a ceramicist, or is a ceramicist, a really world-renowned one. And he described to me something that this teacher did in their class where he brought, shared with the class his favorite bowl he'd ever made and he described, you know, how the bowl was red and it had beautiful lines, it felt like it could breathe, everything about this bowl was so beautiful. And then he told the whole class, okay, you have to make 100 bowls and in the end you're going to pick your favorite bowl, you put them on 10 boards of 10, your favorite bowl is going to be on the end of each board and then you pick your best of those 10 best, and you present it to the class. And so they all do it and it takes, you know, weeks to do it and the teacher, Jack Troy, looked at them all and he was so proud of them, he said how beautiful they were. Then he brought in the front of the class a burlap sack with a hammer and he started breaking something that was in the sack. And when he opened it, it was his red bowl. And it was in pieces. And the students were just like, "How could you destroy that bowl?" You know, they were really upset, and he said, "An artist must always, must never compare today's work to what they've done in the past and they have to always trust that their best work is their work to come. And that the day that an artist kind of ceases to compare what they do to what's in their heart presently, they cease being an artist or cease believing that they can do their greatest work." And that person shared this story with me with regard to when I had writer's block. And so ever since hearing that, I realized that a lot of it is fear. It's fear of not coming up with something as good as what I did before. And that I really have to believe that the richest things in my life are what's yet to come.
Question: How did composing for dancers differ from your usual method?
Maria Schneider: That really kind of was a turning point for me. That piece of music, I’m not sure it’s my most successful piece of music because it was a little tough because we had three choreographers working on the dance and so they were all working on a different piece of, to me that piece sort of feels like three different pieces.
But what was wonderful is, we were in a studio working and the dancers, I would play a sound and normally I don’t play for people. You know, I don’t perform, I’m very self-conscious about playing. But in this situation I had to and so I came in without having really written anything, a couple little ideas. And I ran a tape recorder and I would just play a couple of things and the dancers would start moving and I love dance, I mean, I was a very bad, but, you know, a figure skater when I grew up, I danced, and to me, music is motion. And I largely now figure out my music by dancing. Because what would happen is, I’d play something and these incredibly bodies, it was **** they’d start moving and it would be like, “Oh, my gosh, I played this note and I just made you do that!” You know, so, then I’d watch them and I’d play something else and then they’d move and suddenly I was playing way beyond myself, improving way beyond myself. Later when I listened to the recording I was like, “Wow, that was me? That’s really good!” But it’s because I was so playing to them. So I realized that, and that piece that I wrote, it ended up being called Disillusion, that piece brought textures and ideas out of me and out of the band that were far less typically jazz than what I’d written, because I was writing for motion. I wasn’t writing with a historic template of an idiom coming at me from behind, but I was purely writing to the abstraction of movement, you know? It’s maybe like almost I went to this Kandinsky show at, you know, at the Guggenheim that’s so amazing, and he was looking to music to find abstraction in his painting and maybe the movement helped me really find something, something else in my sound.
So, yeah, and now, like I say, I really, I can’t almost write a piece without dancing. It helps me figure out, when I was talking about timing, it helps me figure out the timing of the piece, because your body tells you. It’s hard for my mind to tell me what’s too long or what’s too short, but if I start dancing and moving around my piano or, you know, I’ll play it into a recorder and put on headphones and then I start moving, I say, “Oh, no, I need more time to do what I want to do!” or “No, that’s hanging on too long, I can’t come up with anything else.” So, my neighbors must think I’m nuts, they see me, you know, it’s New York, you see a lot of apartments looking right in my window, or whatever.
Question: In “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” how did you represent literature through music?
Maria Schneider: Well, those poems, it’s Carlos Drummond de Andrade, is sort of the way, I guess, it’s pronounced, and he’s a Brazilian poet and these poems are, they’re so much like little stories. And I was really scared when Dawn Upshaw came to me and wanted me to write for her. I said, “Okay, Dawn, I’ve never written really for words. I’ve never written for a classical singer. I’ve never written for classical orchestra. There’s nothing about this that’s going to spell success, you know?” But it ended up happening that when I sat down to write, I loved it, because the words, they gave me—first of all, they gave me the rhythm. You know, one poem starts, “Clara strolled in the garden in the morning. Clara strolled in the garden in the morning.” I mean, there’s only, it has to have a certain lilt to it for, to sound like it’s being spoken. Then it also gives you the feeling of what that is, you know, certain kind of tonality that you might want to have, depending on what kind of composer you are and how you view that.
And so, I felt like it just, it gave me limitations, but opened up, you know, worlds in me. So it opened up my imagination, it told me where it wants to go as opposed to me sitting there in that room with no light switch just saying, come up with something. You know, you’ve got a 15-minute commission and you sit there and you go, “Oh! What do I write?” You know, so I love literature, it has to be something I feel passionate about and I mean, these poems are killer poems, they’re wonderful.
Question: What new forms and genres is jazz assimilating?
Maria Schneider: Oh, I think it’s so many, you know? I know for me, flamenco music has really come into my music a lot. It’s the rhythms, you know? It’s the, there’s a lot of rhythms coming out of the meter of 12 and 12 can be subdivided so many ways, in groupings of 4 and 3, it’s, you know, it’s divisible by a lot of numbers. And so you get these possibilities for different subdivisions on top. And I think a lot of the music that’s coming from Africa, which flamenco is rhythmically, Afro-Peruvian music is, Brazilian music, as jazz has, and Cuban music, you know, there’s so, so much music that’s coming from there that the way in which those different musics, I did say musics, music, you know, developed in their own worlds, now it seems like all those things are kind of jazz musicians are using all those tentacles, you know, all those places where African music went and influenced other kinds of, took in things from folk music or European music, or whatever from different places, now it seems like jazz musicians are kind of taking all those things and culling things from that and bringing it back into jazz. In the end maybe it all comes, like everything in life, sort of full circle back to what essentially it was, you know? Plus jazz music is bringing in so much classical music now, you know? It’s really, it’s a really unique time for the arts, you know, because the internet and the world, everything is so global and the sky’s the limit and anything goes and everything is eclectic. So amidst all that influence, how do we each find our own individual voice? That is really something very particular to us and I think that that’s where a lot of musicians, they just get so confused because they think to do something new, I have to try to be that, or maybe if I put this hat on, my music will be seen as unique. And I think what’s unique is one person’s perspective of how they see all those things and put it together with their own personal experience and that’s what we all have to try to do, I guess.
Question: Does jazz connect with young people today?
Maria Schneider: Well, I think it does. If I look at my audiences, they are mostly young people. But, you know, different people have different opinions about that. It’s funny, because I mean, jazz at one time was pop music, you know? And at one time jazz was a culture. And, you know, I think that there’s a danger in somehow in trying to protect jazz. There’s a danger of turning it into something that can’t become something that you can almost turn it into something of obsolete by trying to protect it too much, rather than just allowing it to be and find its own way, I think jazz will always be something vital because it’s improvised music. Improvised music means that what’s in the moment is coming out and it’s being expressed. As long as musicians are doing that, and really being honest about their expression and not just learning a thousand notes and, you know, creating something that’s removed from themselves, I think it will speak to people and speak to young people. You know, improvised music exists in rock and roll, you know what I mean? Improvised music is a natural thing that has to be there. The question is, that comes in, when is it jazz and when is it not jazz? You know, I mean, you can argue that point forever.
Question: What advice would you give a young composer starting out today?
Maria Schneider: I think you just stumped me. The best career advice that I could give to a—run! No, no. You know, I guess it would just be that, that doing everything you do with love and enthusiasm, you know? Music and art, I think it just has to have that passion inside of it and if you do that, I really believe things attract to that. I think one thing we’re just missing in this world are things that are just honest and true, you know, so if somebody is keeping their work, not losing sight and the feeling of honesty, the honest relationship between themselves and their music, they should really trust that and never step outside of what they should, they feel they love to do for what they think they should be doing. That’s always a step away and it’s hard to step back once you do that. I mean, once you step away and you start doing something that you think you should be doing, what happens is you end up attracting an audience to that thing. And then if you want to move back and you say, “Well, wait, this is who I really am, now I have my audience, now I want to show you guys what I really love to do.” You’re going to lose them and you’re going to have to have the courage to completely destroy all of that and start over again. So it’s the best way is just to stick with who you are.
Recorded on December 11, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen