New Frontiers in Music:
One on One with Maria Schneider
Friday, January 11, 2008
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
1608 Walnut Street, 18th Floor, Philadelphia, PA
On January 11, 2008, PMP brought Maria Schneider and music writer and radio producer Eugene Holley together for an intimate discussion about her work. The talk coincided with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra's regional debut at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that evening, presented by the PMA's "Art After 5" series with support from PMP.
View printer-friendly excerpts from Maria Schneider’s conversation with Eugene Holley:
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One on One with Maria Schneider
The more I asked myself, "Why did I do that? What else could I do?" without even realizing it, my music, I think, became my own, because suddenly you're not accepting somebody else's dictum for what you should do. -Maria Schneider
Eugene Holley: When do you as an artist realize that you're sounding like yourself?
Maria Schneider: Well, I could start out by saying that when I finished college in 1985, my biggest frustration was I felt like my music could be just about anybody's, you know. I was writing a piece here and there that was influenced by Thad Jones, and a piece influenced by Gil Evans, and I didn't really know who I was. We had had many guests come through the Eastman School of Music and one of them was George Russell. When George was in front of the band playing "All About Rosie," it was like he was just rising out of this music. Keith Jarrett came. He's got a personality, but his music, no doubt, it's Keith Jarrett, you know? And I remember Dave Holland came and when he played, I realized all the music that I loved, it was infused with personality.
When I started studying with Bob Brookmeyer, I would bring music in, it might be a tune with a solo, and he'd look at it and say, "Why is there a solo there?" And I'd say, "Well, you know, this is something from Mel Lewis" band, and there's a tune, and then there's this little sendoff and now comes the solo." And then he'd say, "A solo should only happen when the only thing that can happen is the solo." And I'd kind of say, "Okay. Yeah, yeah I know what you mean." I really didn't quite understand what he meant. And then it would be, "Well, why are there chord changes here?" "Well, you've got a solo over the chord changes." The more I looked into every aspect of the music, I realized kind of subliminally, we've developed this template from the history of jazz: you have a tune structure; everybody solos on that tune; there are chord changes; the bass line has its functions...so it almost becomes, for a lot of people...
A script...a template...almost like a prefab house: these are the walls you have to choose from, and then okay, some people can do some really creative things by putting it together in a different way. But if all of a sudden you really break down every aspect and you say, "Well, I can do anything. Why does someone have to solo using chord changes as the context? What if it's a motive, or what if it's something else?" And so the more that I asked myself, "Why did I do that? What else could I do?" Without even realizing it, my music, I think, became my own, because suddenly you're not accepting somebody else's dictum for what you should do. Then over time, more and more influences...I went to Brazil. Of course you cannot go to Brazil without having every aspect of your life changed.
And it changes you molecularly, you know? And the shift, the biggest shift that came to my music in Brazil...these are things you don't even realize when you're going through it...you realize it two records later. All of a sudden I realized joy came into my music after I went to Brazil. Before Brazil my music was dark, intense, dance heavy, minor, Phrygian, with small intervals towards the bottom. Brazil happened to me and all of a sudden everything started to lift and be light and...
The Carnival effect.
What really blows me away about what you do; you have this natural counterpoint that goes on. In "Hang Gliding," from your Allegresse CD, the way you voice your horns in certain.
There ain't nothing natural about it! It is hard work!! I remember I really suffered. I mean, so many things are going through my head, and then I was looking at myself and going, "You're insane! Who are you?" All the shifting of the keys and keeping it constantly moving, I remember, "Okay, should I go up a half step there, or should I go up two steps? I need to clean the sock drawer. Now I gotta eat. Oh man, a manicure, then I'll feel good." You know, it's so crazy how much avoidance I go through, and those decisions, it's like, "Okay, if I go up a whole step and a half step instead of a half step for that last key, what if I regret it?"You know, so I can spend three days worrying about if I regret it. It's insane.
How did the training that you got from studying classical music help you to at least make the contrapuntal stuff sound easy?
Okay, when I was back at the University of Minnesota, first of all they didn't have a jazz program. They had a big band there, and I wrote for their big band, but I had no jazz training whatsoever, except I studied with Manfredo Fest, who's a Brazilian pianist, a blind man. Those lessons were amazing, but I learned the jazz thing just by listening and studying on my own.
I studied out of this Inside the Score book that Ray Wright had written, who eventually I studied with, but basically was analyzing scores by Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, and Sammy Nestico. And then I studied the Lydian Chromatic Concept by George Russell. I remember just getting into that book. And then I just listened like crazy. Listened to Mingus try things, listened to just everybody I could. My classes at the University of Minnesota were fantastic; I had such great teachers. My orchestration teacher was phenomenal, Dominick Argento. He was such a great teacher: classy man, funny, intellectual. And then I had this fantastic counterpoint teacher, Paul Fetler, who had studied with Hindemith. I was kind of shunning my classical because I just got so into jazz. I just wanted to do jazz and he was teaching my comp lessons, and he said, "You know, you're listening to so much jazz, why don't you go write for the big band and watch them rehearse? But in the meantime, you know, take my advanced counterpoint class."
His class was amazing. It was a whole year of going through Bach's Art of the Fugue. All those fugues are all made with the same subject. They all have the same motive. But they all use a different technique. One stretches it out longer, and it's like putting it through different mathematic formulas. Finally, by the end, it's a mirror fugue, you can turn it upside down and play it backwards and forwards and I forget how many ways. And every technique we studied, we'd have that week to then write a fugue. It was difficult, but I learned so much, and I loved it.
I feel like jazz really suffers from "voicing-itis." I remember this guy I was taking lessons with once, and I wrote some kind of structure. He said, "Oh, why don't you throw in one of these boys?" One of those boys? I mean, I can't relate to that. You know, because to me, a voicing isn't just a voicing. The beauty of Gil Evans is everybody thinks Gil Evans is about voicings and woodwinds and mutes. Well, he is about woodwinds and mutes, but he's not about voicings. It's all about lines. Lines on the bottom...the tuba's always playing the melody. And it's how those lines converge, and everything's always moving. There's never anything that's not part of almost a stepwise line coming in contrary motion and sometimes parallel motion, and then it goes like this, and that, and because of the logic of how every single part is moving, something that might be startling if you just took a slice, just like if you took a picture from a film of some beautiful actress, but you caught her in a weird moment, she might look odd. A voicing can be like that too. If in music, all you are concerned with is every voicing sounding strong or powerful, then you get this sort of milk toast effect.
And everything becomes "ba doop ba ba ba ba doop ba." I call it testosterone big band. I like nuance and beauty and lightness. That does come from classical music, and more and more jazz musicians are getting hip to doing that, and yet maintaining whatever we perceive as being "jazz."
I want to add something to this because, one thing about your music, you adhere to dynamics. I can't tell you how many times as a reviewer that I listen to big bands and somehow there's a green light just to be loud all the time, and I guess this is what you've gotten from studying with Gil.
Well, my whole reason for doing music - it's expression. It's not to make cool sounding music or hip tunes - it's storytelling. It's sharing something through music. The problem with big band music is so few writers are writing with that serious intent that the music really means something beyond just being a really cool sounding chart, so the players are going to play like that because there's not that other level to play from. But it's also come through years. My first music was much more bombastic. You know, it's become softer and part of it is I'm just so tired of that sound in my ears.
Audience member: Could you talk about your creative process? Do you use pencil and manuscript, or a computer?
I have a board on my piano and a huge piece of score paper, with clips so I can expand the paper, and I use score paper that has lots of little staves with no bar lines because I don't want anything to pin me down. I think if you see bar lines you tend to start thinking in a set meter. I want my ideas to just flow freely and then figure out where the bar lines need to be in order to make the music sound like what I'm hearing. And then I just usually throw down an idea, fool around playing what I'm hearing, writing it down. When I find an idea I really like, I try to go off of it spontaneously.
Audience member: Are the ideas melodic?
They might be melodic, or could be a rhythmic thing, or could be a vamp, harmonic, a chord textureâ€¦ and I just try to go spontaneously off of it. And when I get stuck I try to analyze it and say, "What's inside this?" Because I believe if you love something or it resonates with you, it has math inside of it. We live in this mathematical universe. Everything has order. I believe our intuition does too. I always tell students, you don't have to sit and write from math from the beginning. In the end, analyze. If you analyze your ideas, you will find out that you're a mathematical genius. And then once you understand that, you can pop your intuition to another level. So I go back and forth between this intuitive...pushing it, writing myself into a corner, go back, analyze it, and develop it.
Audience member: Is it in sections, or do you see and hear the piece in its entirety?
I wish. It's like a puzzle, so I've got this little chunk, and I'm like, "Shit, how do I break out of this?" It's like you have a puzzle and no one told you what the picture is going to be, and you have five billion pieces and most of them are shades of yellow, brown and black, and then there's a few red pieces, and you're like, "Okay, find all the red pieces," because otherwise what are you going to do? So you find the red and put them together and you see it's a scarlet tanager - okay, it's a bird, so maybe it's trees and grass. Sometimes you have these miraculous days where everything fits perfectly together, and you're like, "Oh my God, the key just miraculously modulates to this, and look, this is a motive of this upside down." And then you"re like, "I'm a genius." Then you become cocky as all hell, and like, "I'm going to get a pedicure!"
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About Maria Schneider
Born in Windom, Minnesota, Schneider arrived in New York City in 1985 after studies at the University of Minnesota, the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music. She immediately sought out Bob Brookmeyer to study composition, and at the same time became an assistant to Gil Evans, working on various projects with him.
The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra came into being in 1993, appearing at Visiones in Greenwich Village every Monday night for a stretch of five years. Subsequently, her orchestra has performed at festivals and concert halls across Europe as well as in Brazil and Macau. She’s received numerous commissions and invites from American and European orchestras, guest conducting in Brazil, Italy, Portugal, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Slovenia, Austria, Canada, Scotland, Australia, Greenland and Iceland, as well as across the U.S.
Schneider has had a distinguished recording career as well. Her debut recording, Evanescence, was nominated for two 1995 Grammy Awards. Her second and third recordings, Coming About and Allégresse, were also nominated for Grammys. Allégresse was chosen by both Time and Billboard in their Top Ten Recordings of 2000, inclusive of all genres of music.
Concert in the Garden, released only through her Web site (an ArtistShare site), was a watershed in her career when she won the 2005 Grammy Award for “Best Large Ensemble Album” and became the first Grammy winning recording with Internet-only sales. It also received Jazz Album of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Awards and the Downbeat Critics Poll. Both also awarded her Composer of the Year and Arranger of the Year, and the Jazz Journalists also named her group Large Jazz Ensemble of the Year.
Her newest fan-funded ArtistShare recording, Sky Blue, was released in July 2007 and received unanimous praise. With this project, Schneider continues to deepen her relationship with her fans through sharing her creative process and utilizing their participation to fuel her work. The composition of the centerpiece work, “Cerulean Skies,” as well as the album’s entire recording process was fully documented through her website www.mariaschneider.com.
“Maria Schneider’s orchestral jazz is about feeling. Like Wayne Shorter, she somehow expresses compassion through tones.” —The New York Times
“Like the music of her most obvious predecessors—Duke Ellington and Gil Evans—Schneider’s reaches toward a significant new level of imagination, making hers the first truly novel approach to big jazz band composition of the new century.” —The Los Angeles Times
“She now has become entrenched among the ranks of America’s leading composers. ... For Schneider, the question is no longer whether she can sustain the heights she has attained on earlier recordings; it is now how far her musical journey will take her.” —Downbeat * * * * *
About Eugene Holley
Eugene Holley, Jr. is a freelance music writer and radio producer. He contributes to All About Jazz and Amazon.com, and has been published in Ebonyjet.com, Down Beat, JazzTimes, Hispanic, The New York Times Book Review, Philadelphia Weekly, Vibe, and The Village Voice. He has written over 15 CD liner notes, including The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings, and contributed essays in The Da Capo Jazz & Blues Lover’s Guide to the United States, and Jump For Joy: Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates the Ellington Centennial, 1899-1999. He served as Music/Program Director for WCLK-FM in Atlanta from 1990 to 1992, co-produced the NPR documentary series Dizzy’s Diamond in 1992, and two installments of PRI’s Duke Ellington Centennial Radio Project in 1999. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.