March 17, 2021
Maria Schneider’s music has been hailed by critics as “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous, imaginative, revelatory, riveting, daring, and beyond categorization.” Blurring the lines between genres, her varied commissioners stretch from Jazz at Lincoln Center, to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, to the American Dance Festival, and include collaboration with David Bowie. She is among a small few to receive GRAMMYS in multiple genres, having received the award in jazz and classical, as well as for her work with Bowie.
We'd like to congratulate Maria for her recent win of two more 2021 Grammys this past week, as well as her multiple accolades from the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, Francis Davis' Top Pick for 2020 and the 13th Annual International Critics Poll.
Here's our chat with Maria:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
That’s a hard question. Each of my albums are like my babies — they ARE my babies. And, they each represent a specific period of my life, so I value them as a representation of times that I hold dear, even if those times maybe had certain struggles.
I am very fond of my latest Data Lords, because it feels so close to the bone regarding issues I’ve been very passionate about over the last decade. But I also am very close to The Thompson Fields, because it represents my home in Minnesota, my love of birds, and a love of native prairie. Concert in the Garden was a monumental record for me. It was my first ArtistShare recording, and it showed me that I could manage to finance records independently, of course with the great assistance of ArtistShare. It brought my first GRAMMY. To me, it’s the first of my recordings that had a real flow as an album, and in some ways I think “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is my strongest work for my band. But there are some people that most like my album Sky Blue, and there is a piece on it called “Cerulean Skies” that I love performing, as it is about bird migration, and it makes me feel the joy of being connected to birds. For many people, their favorite song is “Hang Gliding” on Allégresse. That piece marks an important turning point where my music became much more infused with joy. I can thank my first trip to Brazil, especially Rio, for that. I went hang gliding my last day there, and it came out in a piece that I always love performing, as it almost makes me relive that experience. My album, Evanescence was my first, and we caught a magic on that record. It also gave me my start. I invested in it myself, because no record company would record me. I wrote much of the music while studying with Bob Brookmeyer, and I was thankful that Enja Records released it, putting me on the map in Europe and the States.
I made a sort-of outlier recording that wasn’t jazz, but more classical, Winter Morning Walks recorded with Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. And in some moments, those songs are my favorite. The poetry by Ted Kooser in the title song cycle is some of my favorite poetry in the world, and I feel like the title nine-piece song cycle is almost like a collaboration with Ted Kooser, whose book Winter Morning Walks is my favorite book of poetry. Dawn’s performance is also sublime. Like I said, all my albums are my babies. They are the work of many extraordinary people. And even the part that is me, my compositions — somehow, after all the incredibly hard work that goes into them, in the end, after all the stress and meticulous writing is complete, they feel like I didn’t do it at all. I am hugely thankful that any of them arrive at all. Writing is incredibly hard work, but there’s the mysterious part that we have to trust will always be there. Many of us struggle knowing that the next is never actually a guarantee.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
I am the composer, the conductor and producer. I am involved with every iota of sound to a degree that is almost unfathomable and that probably makes my engineers crazy. My latest double album, Data Lords, was such a mountain of work that there is simply no describing it. It was dense music and complex to mix. Also, my projects go so far beyond recording. These days, you can’t just make music, but you really have to find unique ways to be able to sell it, and so I put a lot of time into creating interesting online content to accompany my projects. I’ve conducted many interviews with my musicians, and created videos of myself to open a window to the music for composers, performers, educators, and listeners. My job description has maybe become "plate-spinner.” I spend years composing the music, and then I spend endless time arranging rehearsals and rehearsing the music, and going back and rewriting as well. Then when I make a recording, well, it’s so much work, the scheduling, the planning, the recording, the decisions on what takes to use, and the many months mixing and then mastering. I also put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into packaging. And after each one I swear that I’ll never do it again because I feel like each one literally takes years off of my life. I tinker endlessly. Until I feel it’s “right,” I am in actual pain. People ask sometimes how I know when it’s done. Well, it’s done when the pain stops and I can look at it as a separate entity, like one of my babies, forget the years of pain and ask, “How did that happen again?” But then it’s not over, because then one starts with the whole marketing process, because if you can’t pay for the insane bills you incurred, you’re gonna be in deep financial troubles. I think that if most normal people experienced the level of work, pickiness, and stress that I put myself through this year, they’d run for the hills.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
In my tiny rural town of Windom, MN where there wasn’t obviously a music culture. Records were sold in the clothing store. And of course, we got all of the records that were the big hits in the 60s. What I most loved was The 5th Dimension, their beautiful recordings, great orchestration and fantastic songs by greats like Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro. My mother also had a lot of classical music in her collection, and some music from South America, and some very old jazz recordings from the 30s. Beyond school programs that were actually were pretty darn good, I had the great fortune of having an extraordinary piano teacher named Evelyn Butler. She’d spent her whole life and career in Chicago where she had encounters with the likes of Art Tatum. But sadly, her husband and son both died of cancer within the same month in the 60s. I think she must’ve been born around 1910, but I’m not sure. She of course was deeply devastated, and her only other family, her daughter, lived in Windom, MN where she’d married a chiropractor. So Evelyn Butler transplanted herself from Chicago to Windom, MN. What a shock it must’ve been. So in 1965 or ‘66 when I was little, my mom threw a big party for my dad’s birthday, and Mrs. Butler came with her daughter and son-in-law. A few others brought instruments, word having gotten around. What a night! I have pictures from that night. Mrs. Butler brought my life into living color that night, laughing as she’d toss off runs and pretend to go off the end of the piano. She had IT! Her personality was just soaring in the sound and I was hooked. I wanted to be her! And to think of the kind of devastation she suffered. Clearly the music was healing to her. Maybe she helped me see early on that music is maybe a healing art more than anything. The fact that she could find joy bringing music to a very simple little farming community, coming from a great career in Chicago — well, only now can I really appreciate how difficult that must’ve been. What she gave to Windom was like Babette’s Feast (the movie), but with music. She showed me early on that the most important thing in music is personality! Oh, and she started teaching me theory right from the start and got me writing music from a little music-writing notebook. How lucky I was! How sad it is that Mrs. Butler’s suffering was the catalyst for others great joy.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
So many. Firstly, I had great parents who both inspired creativity and a love of nature. I was immensely lucky for that. I am so grateful to so many people: My nursery school teacher, Mrs. Solien, who had us sit in the dirt with a string circle in front of us to just observe how many little miraculous things we could find in that circle. Mort Smith, who recognized my love of birds as a very little girl and took me birding with him. Mrs. Butler, who showed me to power of music to bring joy and heal, and who taught me to love many different kinds of music, from classical to the great American songbook. My music teachers in school, Mr, Vogel, Mr. Perrier, Mr. Foley (orchestra, band, choir). They each gave me so many opportunities, and I loved playing and singing in ensembles. Mr. Lindaman, who I loved as an English teacher, but also selected me as editor of the school paper that widened my world. College: Paul Fetler who taught me composition and suggested I watch the big band rehearse and write for it. He also had a fabulous advanced counterpoint class that I loved. Dominick Argento who taught such a great orchestration class, Reginald Buckner, who taught me jazz piano at the University of MN. Manfredo Fest, with whom I studied outside of school, and he opened the world of Bill Evans harmony. Whit Sidener who recorded my music at the University of Miami that was such a tremendous opportunity, Gary Lindsay who taught me arranging at the University of Miami at a very high level, and Rayburn Wright at Eastman, that raised the bar so high, that his students went into the real world extremely well prepared. Then of course, Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, who both gave me so many wonderful opportunities. Bob’s music was so far-reaching in its development and ingenuity, that it will inspire me for a lifetime. He taught me to take control of every aspect of the music, and I credit him with helping me find the “me" in my music. And Gil, when someone like that puts their trust in you like Gil did when he hired me to be his assistant, it’s beyond a gift. Gil’s individuality is like another galaxy. It’ll never stop inspiring me. But the mentors and role models start when one is young, and my role models were many, and it’s one of the great blessing in my life. When I was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, I gave a speech that speaks of some of these people.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I have gone through periods of having very little output throughout my career. Many times it’s pretty depressing and scary. But where I come from (Minnesota that is — though I’ve lived in NY since 1985, I’ll always feel like a Minnesotan), every farmer knows, you can’t just push and push the soil into high production. Fields must go fallow from time to time in order to produce effectively. And for me, music is something that comes from life, and I have to live life, feel a full life, full of inspiration or passion about something in order for my music to flow. When I just push and push for the music, those other things that inspire me start to move to the background. And I’ve come to see that dry periods often come after making a record, which I have said, sometimes just wrings me dry. I may be entering another hibernation now after Data Lords. It’s painful to experience, but when I think of farming and the regeneration of soil, I understand that I shouldn’t expect any more out of myself than one would from soil. As I get older, I maybe get better at accepting my own process, and trusting that the next will come.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project?
Well, for checking mixes on Data Lords, thankfully my engineer, Brian Montgomery lent me his ProAc Studio 100 monitors. They were a life-saver, as my speakers aren’t great for mixing. I used Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones, but they were too forgiving in many respects and too generous on the bottom, so I was constantly going back and forth, not knowing what most to trust. I nearly made myself crazy.
What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
Other than mixing, I’m very acoustic. I work at a piano and drafting table, pencil and paper. I am very old school in my creating of music, and when it comes to making a record, I turn into a complete freak for recorded sound.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
It’s so very difficult now because of the new streaming tech giants that trade our music for data. They toss their little table scraps to musicians, or just give us a good kick in the ribs to get us out of the way of their feast. They’ve destroyed the free market for music. I spent $250,000 on my recording for a tiny niche audience, yet in the streaming world, I would be priced the same as the kid that makes music on his/her computer. That’s insanity! My words of wisdom would be to never give up ownership and full control of your works, and fight like hell to change this business to something that sustains art. Because if you spend decades of your life honing your artistry, but then can’t live from it, well, it’s simply not sustainable. We can’t just go about our business acting like it’s OK. Music that you make on a computer and in your home, a sort of mass-produced kind of music can maybe sustain itself, but not recorded music like mine, where I pay extraordinary musicians and record them in an expensive studio with the best engineers. If not for ArtistShare, and the fan-base that I started building in 2003 (several years before YouTube legitimized “free” so they personally could make billions), I would likely be stuck in the streaming world, and wouldn’t be making records anymore. No way. I can’t make my record on a few dollars. I need a few hundred thousand dollars. And the difference is THAT big!
Do you have any stories or points to share about your work with David Bowie? What was that experience like?
I felt so shocked that David wanted to collaborate when he first called. I couldn’t imagine what he had in his head. But when we met, it was just so much fun to play around with ideas. We had a very easy time collaborating — I felt it and he expressed that he felt that, too. The best advice I think anyone ever gave me about music was something David said after one of our meetings playing with ideas. I said, “What if this just comes out horrible and we spend all this money and you or I hate it?!!” First, he said that if it wasn’t good, he wouldn’t put it out, that he wouldn’t do that to himself or to me. Well, that was a relief. But then he said something that is just so obvious, but it had honestly never occurred to me. He said laughing, “Maria, the great thing about music is, if the plane goes down, we all walk away!” Oh my God! Yes! It’s true. It’s actually NOT life and death! What a revelation. Because ask any musician... Most, when in the thick of things, do feel it almost as life and death. So, that changed my attitude, and I think my newest Data Lords recording reflects it. I also remember David’s face when he said it, and it really sticks because of that. It’s freed me up to experiment more I believe.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I largely use them for mixing. I’ve struggled for so long to find a listening environment that’s as true as can be. It’s not an easy thing in an apartment with limitations, and with all kinds of crazy reflection. It can be so confusing. So, I’ve found that headphones help, but I’ve had a problem finding headphones that would be true, and well, maybe I just never spent enough money to find it. But as I said, the Audio-Technicas were worrying me, because I was scared they were too forgiving. They mellowed out harsh frequencies that you simply have to be aware of in order to make a good mix. So many headphones amp up the bottom, and then you end up with not enough bottom in a mix. Oh, I’ve had such a time of it, trying to find a way to listen to mixes and mastering in the most true way possible. If you only knew of my struggles! My engineers know, and as I said, that’s why Brian Montgomery lent me monitors.
I’m very excited about my Audeze LCD-1s. What clarity! It seems like forever that I’ve been looking for headphones for mixing and mastering that don’t give me a false sense of having bottom, or that are too gentle when I’m mixing bright horns with a lot of edge. When mixing and mastering, I want accuracy, pure and simple, top to bottom. And, in my case, I need headphones that are very portable, as I’m often running back and forth to a studio, carrying lots of scores and things. One more thing: I simply can't break the bank. The LCD-1s are checking every single box for me, adding to it that they are very comfortable. I only wish I’d found these a whole lot sooner. It would have saved me a lot of mixing/mastering confusion, and a lot of money as well, over the years!