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Maria Schneider: A Tale of Two Worlds

On her latest orchestral masterwork, the composer and bandleader worked to dramatize humanity’s (and her own) struggle between nature and technology

Maria Schneider (photo: Briene Lermitte)
Maria Schneider (photo: Briene Lermitte)

“The roughest thing is my mom,” Maria Schneider says over the phone on a recent summer morning, answering the first question of almost every conversation in the COVID-19 era: How are you holding up? The New York-based composer/conductor has been in grateful, high gear, safe and healthy at her country home while preparing the release of a new two-record set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords. But Schneider, who grew up in the small farming town of Windom, Minnesota, misses her mother, who’s turning 96 in Minneapolis, “in a place where nobody can visit her because they’re protecting people.

“And that’s good,” Schneider goes on. “But I had this dream where I was in a hotel trying to see her and the elevator went to a negative-50th floor and I couldn’t get back to her.” She laughs brightly, something she does often in conversation. “I woke up and thought, ‘Well, I know what that’s about: When am I going to see Mom again?’

Schneider, 59, will not see the road or be in the same room with her orchestra any time soon. But she is pressing forward with Data Lords, her first album since 2015’s The Thompson Fields, out via ArtistShare, the fan-funding platform that has issued her work since 2004’s Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden. Consisting of 11 pieces over 97 minutes, Data Lords is a boldly conceptual immersion in a critical duality of modern life, now compounded by truly viral calamity: the corporate and political manipulation of our internet addictions (the first disc, subtitled The Digital World) and the endangered wonder and sanctuary around us, made even more remote by lockdown (the second disc, The Natural World).

“I was just writing,” Schneider says of the album’s thematic genesis. “It’s what I always do—write music, then think, ‘It’s time to record again.’” But it was “a struggle” to make sense of the growing “hodgepodge” until visual artist Justin Freed, a friend and ArtistShare participant, suggested she make two albums. “I started analyzing the music, analyzing myself: ‘You’re thinking about Google a bit too much, girl. And here I can tell you spent some time weeding and watching your bluebirds’ nest.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this is the struggle, the yin and yang of our life.’”

Schneider recorded this expansive, elegantly turbulent music—bleak and menacing in “Don’t Be Evil” (a phrase actually in Google’s code of conduct until 2018), verging on apocalypse in the title track, gently swinging into the serene and hopeful in “Sanzenin” and “The Sun Waited for Me”—over just four days last year with her Orchestra. But the composer acknowledges the irony of her jazz life. In a music so associated with spontaneity and improvisation, Schneider, who apprenticed under Gil Evans after graduating from the Eastman School of Music in 1985 and launched her own orchestra in 1992, is committed to the long view: building epic-scale work over years (three pieces on Data Lords began as commissions in 2016 and 2017) while maintaining an extraordinary band of loyalists including pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Steve Wilson, and low-end-reeds master Scott Robinson.

“This is why I love to go outside and weed—I pull the weeds and it’s done!” she exclaims. “Then I come inside, and everything is moving at such a glacial speed.” At one point in this wide-ranging interview—with stops at Schneider’s university days, her activism for musicians’ just compensation, and that Grammy-winning studio adventure with David Bowie in 2014—Schneider confesses that every time she completes an album, “I always say, ‘I’m never doing that again.’” She lets out another laugh. “This time, I feel like I mean it.”

We’ll check back in five years.

JT: “A World Lost,” the opening piece on Data Lords, features guitarist Ben Monder in a prominent role—at once plaintive and aggressive in his playing, a compelling contradiction. Do you write with particular soloists in mind?

MARIA SCHNEIDER: As much as I can, I want to write something that allows each musician to bloom in the way they do. With this record, I actually did something I haven’t done before. On a few pieces, I got the rhythm section together and brought them a few ideas, things I wanted to experiment with, looking for sound and color. I had that piece and I asked Ben, “Can you bend tones?” What he does, somebody might do with slide guitar. But bending tones and pitches, half-stepping—I don’t know how he does it. Ben is very hard to put your finger on. He never does the same thing twice.

I want every piece to have a sense of inevitability. I have years of experience with these players and the things they do. But I never know for sure what will happen because they are surprising me all the time. What I love about each of them is they take great care in improvising not just for their own expression but for the expression of the piece. We talk about it a lot. They’ll say, “What do you need here?” And “A World Lost,” as simple as it sounds, was complex to put together. It has this slow arc. It was not easy for the ensemble, especially the rhythm section, to figure out how to shape it.

You premiered “Don’t Be Evil” at Newport in 2017. How did the arrangement evolve on the way to this album?

The biggest challenge with “Don’t Be Evil” is its intensity. I was trying to make it compelling, not just overwhelming. Slowly, it became less about aggression, more about mockery—this extreme vibrato [in the horns], like sinister laughter. It was as if you made a picture that was perfect and decided to smear a few things, to take the perfection out. Towards the end, in the ensemble, I added a trombone doing this wild, glissy vibrato, an out-of-control messiness. I did those things over time, while everyone is thinking about phrasing: how loud to play, when to lay out.

“Bluebird” is even older—a commission from 2016.

I wrote that after I worked with Bowie in 2014. I was conflicted because it was beautiful—lush, bright in a big way—and I felt a bit like “I’m done with that Maria.” Bowie was interested in the darker side of my music that existed more on earlier albums like Evanescence [1994] and Coming About [1996]. We had fun with that when Bowie and I did the big-band version of “Sue (or in a Season of Crime).”

But “Bluebird” crystallized what this album is about: that dichotomy between these two worlds. One, on the surface, is about convenience and entertainment but is also sinister, extremely damaging. It’s the center of a lot of what our world is going through now—politically, socially, everything. I also want to be immersed in beauty—in nature and art, in silence and just listening to my birds. My music is not this or that. It’s both. We’re all both. With this album, I’m embracing this struggle that I know I have.

What did you learn from working with Bowie? In a way, he was a composer/conductor. He brought musicians together in settings where they could intersect and collide, helping him to formulate and extend his songwriting and concepts.

In collaborating with me, he had no idea where it would go. And I was scared. I told him right away, “This is a world I know nothing about.” The biggest takeaway from him—and I will be thankful forever for it—was one day we were working at my place. I said, “David, what if we go into the studio and this thing is just horrible? It could be a catastrophe.” And he said, “If we don’t like it, we won’t put it out. I wouldn’t do that to you, and I wouldn’t do that to me. Maria, the great thing about music is that if the plane goes down, we all walk away.” And he started laughing.

When we were working on “Sue,” I said, “Let’s get the rhythm section, a couple of horns and feel it out. We can just experiment and play”—wrap our minds around this thing that wasn’t really like me and wasn’t really like him. It was something in between that we don’t know yet. He said to me one time that when he was on the outside, starting on the edge of new territory, he eventually found himself on the inside. He was looking for that unfound space. And when other people moved in, he was on to the next space.

David Bowie and Maria Schneider’s Enigmatic Collaboration

One piece on the new album, “CQ CQ, Is Anybody Out There?,” comes from a personal memory: your father’s passion for ham radio. I was especially struck by the vocal quality of Donny McCaslin’s tenor saxophone, reaching out like a message from a more innocent, even intimate technology.

I was in shock. You can’t believe how many people who participated in this [ArtistShare] project have told me they were radio hams. A lot of people still do it. Maybe the analogy with music is how you used to listen to one record again and again with no distraction. And it wasn’t an effort to go to that place. You had space in your life. Going into music, you absorbed it so deeply. You wouldn’t have that many albums, but you would listen to them and know them so well. I’m looking right now at all of my LPs here—how worn they are from the years that I did that.

What was the first album that you loved with that intensity?

Probably Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. I became completely obsessed. To this day, my music has that Americana older-Copland sound. We have all this music we can listen to now, but it’s passive listening while people are doing something else. And that worries me a little about this new record. It’s a bummer because I think it requires commitment. You wouldn’t listen to this while you’re having a dinner party. Originally Published

David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.