Composer Or Ethnomusicologist? Maria Schneider: An Example of the Human Experience Captured Through Music

As I sat at the kitchen table reading the article below aloud to my wife, over last night’s leftover guava pastries and a couple of  home-made cafe con leches, it struck me that I wasn’t just reading an article about music.  The way the story takes us through prominent contemporary Jazz composer Maria Schneider’s trip home to her farm-town and how she sought to capture the experiences of existence in that space – with all of its natural and human inhabitants – it reads as almost ethnographic.

I often gravitate towards more experimental Jazz and music in general – and I think it’s because there is something about setting our psychological and sociocultural context to instrumentation that strikes a deep chord in this culture-nerd’s heart.  And I think Schnieders newest piece, “Thompson Field” sounds unique in that it captures a distinctly rural, middle America experience that is atypical in Jazz music, where you are more likely to be listening to a distinctly urban or , in the case of Bluegrass or New Orlean’s style Jazz, distinctly southern sound that is rooted in the experience of a different kind of struggle and celebration.

I look forward to listening to it.  If it’s anything like the description, it sounds challenging and picturesque.  Both of which sooth the soul of the savage narcissistic anthropologist.

Prairie Jazz Companion

This article can also be found at the New York Times website by clicking here

A few years ago the jazz composer Maria Schneider traveled back to her hometown, Windom, Minn. She climbed a ladder with a childhood friend named Tony Thompson and found herself at the top of a silo. She looked out over the fields: acres of Thompson’s bean plants moving over and past one another in the breeze. Windom, population 4,646, is the seat of Cottonwood County, near the state’s southwest corner. The Des Moines River flows leisurely through it. The land is smooth prairie, in all directions. “The mistake people make,” Schneider told me about this flat place she came from, “is thinking that it’s flat.”

When Schneider looks at Windom, she sees not endless plains but an infinity of barely noticeable hills and tiny ponds, slight inclines in the topography, little nuances in the landscape. She sees layers. “I thought about the stories, the intersecting stories, and the lives, the generations,” she recalled about that moment gazing over Tony Thompson’s bean plants. “I think I was having feelings about our parents.”

The melody of what eventually became “The Thompson Fields” rises through six notes in a gentle zigzag and then lands, safe and warm, on the solid emotional ground of an F-sharp chord. It’s a heartland lullaby, as simple and lovely as Pachelbel’s Canon. But then things get more complex. Schneider didn’t just want to make the soundtrack to an idyllic country vista. She wanted to hear the movement of the plants and the darker, stronger feelings underneath: the beans overlapping in the wind, the generations of Schneiders and Thompsons on the land.

So she asked her longtime pianist, Frank Kimbrough, to improvise not in relation to the rest of the band, as jazz instrumentalists are trained to do, but completely independently of it. The band plays a series of low B chords, and then Kimbrough enters in a mood that has nothing to do with the key of B. He keeps playing over the others: the band as one layer and the piano as another, with no relationship other than their presence in the same space and time.

On a freezing night in February, Schneider and her band played “The Thompson Fields” in Elmhurst, Ill., a sleepy Chicago suburb. Though Schneider has won two Grammys and may be the most prominent woman in jazz — even, as the writer Devin Leonard has called her, “the most important composer in the jazz world” of any sex — she often ends up in out-of-the-way places. She plays small towns like Elmhurst and small, jazz-hungry European cities like Tromso, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, or Bielsko-Biala in Poland, where she discovered a young pianist she says is one of the most remarkable she’s ever heard. She and her band, which has remained remarkably close to intact over its two decades, had come to Illinois as the prime-time Saturday-night attraction at Elmhurst College’s annual jazz festival, which brings hundreds of high-school and college students together for a long weekend of competitions and showcases. The school’s modest chapel was full and boisterous for Schneider’s set.

Schneider, one of the few big-band leaders who only conducts and doesn’t play, led with gentle motions and slight, dancing bends at the knee. When solos began, she backed modestly to the side of the stage. The band eventually got to the strange, bitonal part of “The Thompson Fields.” The result was sumptuous cacophony, like two records playing at once.

After the performance, a long line of students waited to greet the musicians and pose for photos. A girl with a nose piercing stood in front of Schneider, crying so hard she could barely speak.

“I grew up on a farm,” she finally choked out, “and with every note I could see my farm.”

For a long time, big-band jazz relied on a swinging but implacable wall of brass: the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Schneider absorbed what she calls that “frontal load of decibels and power and energy,” and she has never abandoned it completely. But the music she began composing when she moved to New York in the late 1980s took on a different character.

“I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors: the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,” she said. Schneider wanted the muscle and precision you get with 15 or 20 loud instruments, and she wanted the backbone of improvisation that is fundamental to jazz. But she was also drawn to the colors of the orchestra: shifting, ethereal prisms out of Ravel and Debussy. “The Thompson Fields” was composed in a broad arc, rather than in the choppier style of big-band jazz.

“My pieces, many of them, at least the newer things, are through-composed like classical music,” she said. “They go through different sections, so the soloist has to bring the piece from here to there. It’s not ‘This is my solo, I’m going to show you everything I know about the instrument,’ which most big-band music is: kind of an ego show for each soloist. In mine they have to carry the piece and tell the story.”

In a way, Schneider has been trying to reconcile invention and rigor since childhood. Her first piano teacher happened to be a raucous stride pianist who exposed Schneider to the virtuosity of Art Tatum, along with the expected Chopin études. Though Schneider studied classical composition at the University of Minnesota, she turned increasingly back to jazz.

After graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, she moved to New York and began working as a copyist, churning out instrumental parts from orchestral scores. It was through a copying gig that she met and started working as an assistant to Gil Evans, who was Miles Davis’s arranger of choice in the glory days of “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain.” Evans was a revelation. He would regularly bring in instruments that weren’t part of the big-band palette — French horns, flutes, oboes — and his writing willfully stretched the abilities of his players.

“Gil wanted me to reorchestrate one of his pieces for big band,” Schneider recalled. “I was in my 20s and feeling completely out of my league. And one day I came in with what I wrote, and he was horrified. He said: ‘No, no, no. I want these low instruments at the top of their range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.’ He wanted people playing completely at their opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, Oh, my God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn. That’s the stuff that comes from a personality searching for his own inner world.”

At night, she composed her own music for a band she started with the trombonist John Fedchock, a classmate at Eastman. (She married Fedchock too, but both the marriage and that first band dissolved after a few years.) Following the lead of Evans, she tweaked her band to include various winds. She also played with orchestration, so that a fluegelhorn might share a melody line with a trombone and a bass flute, making an alluring blend of brassy and smooth. “I started mixing people, mixing the colors,” she said, “so when you listen to it, it might sound like a French horn — and there’s no French horn in the band.”

Back in the early 1990s, Schneider’s band played a weekly residency at a club in Greenwich Village. Every Monday for five years, she loaded all the music stands and the scores into a cab and packed them up again at the end of the night for the ride back to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The members of the band each got $25; she would pay herself $15. “Every week it was a logistical hell,” she said. “I don’t know how I had the energy for that. You’re different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.”

She worked for years to flesh out the orchestral elements in her style of jazz, through her debut, “Evanescence” (1994), a combination of brassiness and lightness; “Allegresse” (2000), with its Brazilian accents; and her 2004 masterpiece, “Concert in the Garden,” whose pieces have the sweep and drama of tone poems. But what she had not done until recently was write for an actual orchestra, with its full complement of strings and its lack of improvisation. It was not long after “Concert in the Garden” that she met the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who came to prominence singing Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and emerged as a bold advocate for contemporary music. Upshaw had gotten in the habit of attending Schneider’s band’s annual Thanksgiving-week performances at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan.

“It was about the third year that I was there when I thought to myself, Wow, I wonder if she would ever consider writing anything for me.” Upshaw said. “I know that our worlds don’t collide typically, but what would happen if we tried to do something together?” Schneider had never incorporated lyrics before, and Upshaw sensed she was anxious. “But she was game,” she added. “And it’s one of the best musical experiences that I’ve ever had.”

The relaxed, seductive “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” which Upshaw sang with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, was the first product of the collaboration. Three years later there was “Winter Morning Walks,” settings of the poetry of Ted Kooser. This was a more daring combination, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the score as written, as members of her band improvised.

Schneider’s new album combines the two song cycles. If it seems like an unusual bet for a record label to take — even with renowned figures like Schneider and Upshaw, this is, after all, an idiosyncratic amalgam of jazz, contemporary classical music and poetry, requiring studio time for two separate orchestras — that’s because the album, like her previous two, was never released by a record company. “Concert in the Garden,” “Sky Blue” (2007) and now “Winter Morning Walks” were financed entirely by her fans.

A little more than a decade ago, after Schneider released “Allegresse,” she realized that her arrangement with the boutique German label Enja Records, which had taken a chance on “Evanescence” when no one else would, was actually costing her money. Making albums the way Schneider wanted was expensive. She found herself paying a third of the recording budget and getting nothing back. “Allegresse” got great reviews, but Schneider didn’t have the money to even consider another project.

Around the same time, a musician friend named Brian Camelio (who did work as a computer programmer) was coming up with the idea for ArtistShare, a crowdfunding scheme that predated Kickstarter by years. Camelio’s idea was to offer fans something that couldn’t be pirated: an intimate perspective on an artist’s creative proc­ess in exchange for financial support. He lived down the street from Schneider on the Upper West Side and went over to her apartment one day in the spring of 2003 to show her the math. “I put pencil to paper,” he recalled. “If we get X amount of people to contribute X amount of money, we could do it.” Camelio would take a 15 percent cut of the gross revenue; Schneider would get the rest. Even if an album released through ArtistShare sold fewer copies than one released by a prestigious label like Blue Note, her take-home would be substantially greater.

It has worked remarkably well for Schneider, paying for her past three records and earning her, for “Concert in the Garden,” the first Grammy ever awarded to an album available only over the Internet. But the cost of making “Winter Morning Walks” is still not entirely recouped; recording two orchestras is an expensive proposition. “By the time I pay the publicist and everything, this new one is around $200,000,” Schneider said. “It’s a lot of money. It’s just really expensive. I’ve got a ways to go on this.”

And the ArtistShare model cuts two ways. Schneider’s fans, for the first time, have a say in her music at an early stage, and some have disapproved of her recent orchestral collaborations. “I got a couple of e-mails from people that said, ‘Don’t write to me again unless you did something with your big band,’ ” she said. “I guess there are some people who just don’t want to see me do something they’re not used to.”

ArtistShare has also made communicating with her backers a new obligation. Over the past 10 years, Schneider has become a tireless producer of behind-the-scenes content to share; in one video clip she scrubs her toilet to demonstrate how appealing domestic tasks become when you’re procrastinating. At first she resisted publicly exposing her highs and, especially, lows. “I said, ‘Maria, that’s part of the story,’ ” Camelio said. “From very early on, she’s been willing to be honest with her fans, to be honest about her struggles.”

But it hasn’t always been pretty. Schneider is prone to insecurity and can get deeply unhappy when she’s working. It’s not unusual for her to break down in tears in the studio or in front of the band when she’s frustrated with herself. “It’s not easy to share your creative process when you’re having four weeks of writer’s block,” she said. When she was working on the title piece for “Concert in the Garden,” she posted a video in which she was particularly morose about her progress. Her father watched it and berated her: “Who’s gonna want to buy this album if you’re telling them it’s crap?”

Schneider still lives in the same cozy one-bedroom on the Upper West Side that she hauled music stands to and from all those years ago. The place just barely fits an old upright piano, which for a long time was the only major purchase she ever made. The walls are decorated with her sister Kate’s paintings of vampiric rabbits and melting globes, factories and fields that recall the flax-processing plant next door to her childhood home and the open spaces of Windom. The sinister, almost apocalyptic images fit her current situation: for months workers have been jackhammering in the garden of the building facing her windows. The noise from the construction is surreal, and the project shows no sign of ending. It is hard to imagine how Schneider will be able to compose there once the long process of releasing and promoting “Winter Morning Walks” is over and she turns her attention back to writing new music for the band. Most weekends she escapes with her boyfriend, Mark Righter, a lawyer for New York University and a jazz aficionado who knew Schneider’s music long before he knew her, to a house in the Catskills, where she can finally compose on a grand piano looking out at the trees.

It’s a bucolic scene up in the mountains, seemingly an even better fit for Schneider than the city. She is preoccupied with the destruction of the environment, and birds are her passion. She sits on the advisory board of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and claims, half-jokingly, to care more about it than music. “I mean, the planet is so amazing,” she said as we watched a video clip of herons hatching. “You see some of this stuff and you think, It doesn’t even matter if the humans survive, as long as this does.”

Though Schneider’s ArtistShare fans have seen her frustrated, this pessimism seems not to have entered her music. Much of her appeal is the joy and exhilaration in her records, which is presumed to be a direct reflection of a joyful, exhilarating life. “Hang Gliding,” after all, is about hang-gliding in Brazil. “The Thompson Fields” is about the Thompson fields. “The ‘Pretty’ Road” was inspired by childhood drives home from the Driftwood Steakhouse near Windom with her dad. “Like dreams are a way to process your psyche,” she said, “music is a way to preserve and share memory.”

The energy of Schneider’s music comes from the tension between this impulse to turn things beautiful and the more disturbing stuff, even the pain, that remains. “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba,” perhaps her finest piece, was a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center that she managed to write just after being given a diagnosis of breast cancer. (That was in early 2003; the cancer was caught early, and she reports that it is in remission.)

The suave opening leads to an ecstatic and melancholy sax solo that eventually yields, exhausted, to wordless vocalizing and a serene rumba beat that vanishes into the same quiet rhythm with which the piece began. In 18 minutes, it sums up a life of anxieties and frustrations that nevertheless ends with a final impression of peace.

“My world is about making things nice,” Schneider told me. “It’s just who I am.” But if her heartland jazz is a pastoral, it’s as complicated as growing up in Windom was. She told me with an earnest smile about how her mother took to treating injured birds when Schneider and her sisters were little. She once healed a baby goose with a broken wing, and it became almost a member of the family. There was no fairy-tale ending, though. The family took in a gander as a mate for the goose, but it pecked the goose to death.

“Walking by Flashlight,” from the album “Winter Morning Walks,” composed by Maria Schneider, poem by Ted Kooser, with Dawn Upshaw (singer), Jay Anderson (bass), Frank Kimbrough (piano), Scott Robinson (alto clarinet and bass clarinet) and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Zachary Woolfe writes frequently about music for The New York Times.

Editor: Wm. Ferguson

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