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

You studied composition and theory in college. Was leading and writing for a big band part of the plan or a vocation that came over time?

I started as a theory major. I dreamed of being a composer—I wanted to be Aaron Copland [laughs]—but felt that was way too lofty. I thought there was no way. Then a student teacher heard a theory exercise I did and said, “You should be a comp major.” Wow, permission to have my dream. And I was listening to so much jazz. I discovered Bill Evans and Gil Evans. My piano teacher taught me stride, and I had all the American songbooks: Cole Porter, Gershwin, Harold Arlen. I loved to dress up the arrangements in stride.

I came to jazz through rock, so the first big band I heard was the Don Ellis Orchestra, which was all action, subdivided rhythms. Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington’s suites introduced me to the pictorial magic that I now hear in your band and music: the colors and metaphors unfolding over a long canvas, especially so on Data Lords.

Often I just start by finding sounds I like. I don’t set out to write a piece about Google. The music becomes a soundtrack to my subconscious, conjuring interpretations of what’s there. Then before I know it, that story in my head is driving me to complete the piece. It’s like how I found my way to composition—following something inside of me. I am not a methodical person who says, “I have a commission for a piece that’s 20 minutes long. Let me get to work on that.” I’m trusting some internal process that has always worked for me. But I always wonder if it’s not going to work: “Is there going to be anything else?” I never know. 

Why don’t you play piano in your own orchestra?

Because I’m not very good [laughs]. It’s pretty simple—I never developed into a great pianist. I was a good student, but I never worked on my playing like I should. It’s funny. In this period of COVID, I am playing more, for fun at home. Mark [Righter, her longtime partner] took up the bass, and we play together. But I always hated playing in front of people. I used to hate speaking in front of people. I have an easy time talking on the mic now. But as a kid, I could not read in front of a class without falling apart.

How did you transition to grabbing a baton and telling a bunch of guys what to do?

Because I had to. At Eastman, my great teacher Rayburn Wright forced me to lead my own piece in front of the school’s big band. I was terrified. But it all somehow happened. Honestly, some of my music wouldn’t need conducting. But a lot of it does. “CQ CQ” could never be played without a conductor. “Data Lords” couldn’t. Even music that rhythmically might not need a conductor—interpretively it does. It benefits from it.

Leading an orchestra is basically running your own business. Did you take business classes in college?

I didn’t. But my mom was very methodical. When I left for college, the first thing she gave me was a file cabinet to organize things [laughs]. I have a bit of that side in me. But it became necessary. The interest in copyright came out of being connected to my own business, to be aware of what was happening.

As musicians we all have our heads in the clouds, and the rest of the world knows it. For many of us, the less money we make, the more we think our music is valuable because those who make it big commercially have sold out. We’re the perfect target.

In your keynote address at the 2017 JazzConnect conference, you brought up the Second Amendment to the Constitution, arguing that the original language—which guarantees the right to bear arms by a citizen militia in defense of the nation—was a model for musicians in the fight for compensation, a unity without guns but in purpose and force of numbers.

Thank you for reminding me of that. It’s actually pretty good [laughs]. I have to say it’s true. I was reading a book suggested by a parent of a student at a clinic I did. It’s about how movements rise against dictatorships and it is, in the end, about the collective understanding and knowledge of the people. Once people come together and say, “We’ve had enough,” there is a tremendous power in that. The problem is that the internet is such a mind controller. You have to change the mindset.

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.