SCENA Jazz

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Composing with the Moment: A conversation with Maria Schneider

May 3

Marc Chénard: In late June, you will be performing in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal on three consecutive days; this will be the first time for you and your band to play in Canada.

Maria Schneider: Actually, we played once before, that was at the festival in Ottawa a couple of years ago.

M.C.: It can't be easy for you to tour with an orchestra that size.

M.S.: That's true, but we still manage to get out and do concerts here and there. Last summer, we even did a tour in Europe, but it's a little tough with the state of our economy, and it's going to get a little rougher, too.

M.C.: But even at that, it has to be difficult to pull off a tour, regardless of the prevailing circumstances. In logistical terms alone, you have to have 16 or 17 people find holes in their schedules.

M.S.: That's true. The band in fact has 18 musicians, including the accordion, and then there's me, our soundman, a road manager, so we are in fact 21. It's quite an adventure to go out on the road and it involves a lot of work just to make it happen.

M.C.: Last October, you premiered a new work that was commissioned by the Saint Paul's Chamber Ensemble in Minnesota. Now this was quite a departure for you in that it is a through-composed piece written for classical musicians, including a vocal soloist, Dawn Upshaw. Tell me a bit about this project and how it came about.

M.S.: The inspiration for this piece (entitled "Carlos de Andrade Stories") came from the writings of a Brazilian author I like to read. And the idea just came to me. Dawn knew me personally as well as my music and band, so she asked me a while back if I'd be interested to write something for her. At first, I was a little bit apprehensive because it was so different for me, since it would performed by classical chamber ensemble with her as a soloist. But in the end, I really loved doing it and it turned out very well, too.

M.C.: Did you immediately say yes when you were first approached, or did you give it some thought first?

M.S.: I didn't say yes on the spot. I mean, we talked about it for a long time, and I had to be talked into it in a way, because of the fear factor.

M.C.: To actually compose this, you had to shift gears, because you had to write for people who don't improvise, unlike those you have been working with until now. Because of that, did you have to rethink yourself as a composer?

M.S.: Well yes, but there's more than that. For one, the whole performance experience is different. With improvisers, you feel that everyone has kind of contributed to the music making by the end of the evening. But the improvisation part was not the biggest issue here; it was the rhythm section instead. I had none for this piece, and I didn't want to tack one on either, because I've never liked that kind of thing. What you have to do here is to figure out ways of putting all that rhythm and movement inside the orchestra. I was actually quite surprised how well it came to me.

M.C.: So once you got started on it, did the actual writing flow?

M.S.: It did. But there's one thing I really didn't count on to be help me here, and those were the words. These enabled me to find a real sense of direction in the piece, because they give meaning to the whole and suggest a lot of the rhythm, in that the sentences have rhythms, which then suggest ideas for melodic contours. The words really helped me to find a lead into the music.

M.C.: Until that time, you had not really worked that much with words.

M.S.: Hardly at all.

M.C.: I can assume then that this project enabled you to look at composing in a different way.

M.S.: That it did.

M.C.: A couple of days ago, you had a performance in Pittsburgh with your band and you're heading out for another gig in the next few days. I find it pretty remarkable in these times that an orchestra of this size can do a couple of gigs in a week.

M.S.: I'm pretty lucky. And with that work I did last year, I hope it will in a way broaden the audience. Personally, I love the idea of not having a genre-driven audience, but more one that just likes good music.

M.C.: It goes without saying you were playing in front a very different audience than the one you having been playing for.

M.S.: Well yes, but there were also a lot of my regular people, who come out to hear my band, who also attended that concert, but I hope it also brought new ones to the music as well.

M.C.: But the premiere was in Minnesota, which is where you're from, so it was something like going back to play for the hometown crowd.

M.S.: That's true in a way.

M.C.: How did it come about that the premiere took place there? Was it you who made the contact.

M.S.: No. It came from the Saint Paul's Chamber Orchestra. It commissioned the work.

M.C.: Are there any other performances of the work now in the offing?

M.S.: The next one is slated for Carnegie Hall, but it's a long way down the line, something like two years from now, and with me conducting. There are other dates also being talked about at this time. In fact Dawn also wants me to write something else for her and another orchestra. So there's a continuation to this.

M.C.: It seems like a new door has opened up for you.

M.S.: Yes. And it's one I'd like to keep pursuing because of how much I enjoyed doing this first work. Maybe I'd like to include a little bit of improvisation in the future, unlike this on, which was through composed.

M.C.: You mentioned conducting before. What then was your experience about standing in front of a group of classical players? How does it compare to a group of jazz musicians?

M.S.: Conducting is totally different. Actually it kind of threw me for a loop. I do have a lot to learn in this respect, but I still did okay. I'll definitely be taking some classical conducting lessons by the time the next performance comes around.

M.C.: You have to show the beat all the time.

M.S.: Much more. What really struck me is how much they play behind the beat, so I had to find a way to push them along. In jazz, everybody plays much more on time because they have a rhythm section, so I had to kind of smooth these players out and create expression in the music. Orchestral musicians want to see the beat.

M.C.: So you find jazzers to be much more in time, or maybe even ahead of it, than the classical players.

M.S.: When you put your hand down the jazz players are right on it. Boom! The orchestra players are just a bit behind it, they play the 'boom' just a bit after you put your hand down. It feels like you're dragging this big horse, it's very weird and even frustrating. But somebody showed me how to move them along. I thought it was by marking the beats more firmly, when in fact it's creating a more flowing sense of time. It's fun to discover a world where I have so much to learn, because it opens up new paths.

M.C.: In retrospect, it was an eye opener for you, both in terms of composing and actual performance. Turning now to your recordings, your most recent one "Sky Blue" is about two years old now, so I'm wondering if you have written new material since and if we can expect to hear any of this during your upcoming Canadian tour.

M.S.: I haven't written that much new stuff for my own band. What I wrote for Dawn Upshaw is pretty much the newest material I've done since the record, aside from a work written for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Once you've done a record, then you want to go out and play it on tour. Then, you give interviews and what not to promote it. You know, I didn't have a minute to compose in the year following the album's release (2007). That's the life of leading an orchestra and trying to compose. You'd be surprised to see how little of my day goes to composing. I can go even weeks on end without devoting myself fully to composing, I mean morning, noon and night, and never even get to the piano. My God! There are all the e-mails and business matters to take care of, it's insane.

M.C.: And with the Website and label added to that…

M.S.: That takes a lot, too. It's so labour intensive.

M.C.: Speaking of the label (ArtistShare), it's quite an original concept when you look at the site. How did this come about?

M.S.: Well, I did not develop it and the concept is precisely that, "artists share". Brian Camelio started it and he approached. I got very excited about the concept after he explained it to me, and I was the first artist to utilize it. He developed the idea, started up the label and is now its CEO. Basically, he's responsible for bringing all of the ideas to my own Website. And I can only say that it has worked very well for me. For instance, I managed the funds for "Sky Blue", a total of $170 000 to make that record.

M.C.: By what I have gleaned from the site, funds are raised through online CD purchases and a range of participant package deals. In fact, the highest participation level was to the order of $18 000 dollars given by a single donor.

M.S.: And it came from somebody I never met in my life. You know, there are people out there in the business world who also love the arts and want to contribute to it.

M.C.: Over the years, other orchestras have performed your music as well, for instance the radio big bands in Europe. What's your experience of working with such publicly funded bodies like these and how does it compare with you own, which, after all, doesn't enjoy any public financing at all.

M.S.: Those orchestras are really wonderful and it's a great they have them, too. To me, these largely benefit the local audiences. People are generally more informed and thus enjoy culture and music much more because they are more exposed to it. To me, the biggest upside is not for the musicians, but more how it benefits the community. That said, I don't lament the fact that my band is not that kind of a group, because when you run something on your own, it's really your own baby; and with all of the blood and guts that it takes to get that off the ground, it gives a certain intensity to it that, maybe, doesn't happen to the same degree when it's being run by someone else. There's an appreciation, or a feeling throughout the whole band of knowing what it takes to do it. So there can be times when there's a little bit of apathy happening when you have an organization running things. I, for one, have never applied for grants for my band. Mind you, I've received commissions, but these came through other organizations that did the applications. I'm not one to say that grants are a bad thing at all, but funding a record through a fan base appeals to me. I want my music to be able to turn a profit rather than depending on public money. I'm a capitalist! (Laughs) I may be a liberal one, but I'm a capitalist in the end.

M.C.: You started your orchestra some 15 or 16 years now, if I'm not mistaken.

M.S.: Well that depends. I started my first one with someone else back in 1988, so that's 20 years ago. But my first record under my own name I did four years later.

M.C.: Looking back at the early history of big bands, Ellington or even Basie for that matter, composers wrote not so much for instruments but for the people who played them.

M.S.: I've been dedicated to having this group grow over time, but I've made changes, or somebody may have left along the way…

M.C.: My question here is to know whether the players themselves have an impact on your writing, as if they are conditioning your way of composing.

M.S.: When you've have had a certain number of players around you for so many years, it's impossible not to. For instance, when I hear a tenor sax, I have Donny McCaslin and Rich Perry in my ear, I know their sounds. It would be hard for me to imagine that played by just any other player; those two musicians are voices in themselves and each have their own specific sound.

M.C.: It's like knowing their idiosyncrasies.

M.S.: Absolutely! It's more than just knowing it: it's all I know. What's hard for me is to write for some other group, and when I do, I just wind up writing for my own group, it's what I know after all. You can say it's ingrained. It's like growing up with a family: you are functioning according to the relationships you have in your life and what you know from these. My first real deep musical relationships are with these people; they are under my skin like you can't believe.

M.C.: When it comes to composing, do you use the computer?

M.S.: No. I use paper and always will.

M.C.: Any particular reasons?

M.S.: First of all, I'm not adept with it to that degree. Secondly, paper enables me to sketch out things, draw arrows and see the whole picture. I could never imagine music watching go by on the screen like that and being able to be creative. No way.

M.C.: Do you have a certain procedure, or way of going about things when composing? Or is it more intuitive, like making little sketches and tinkering with them as you go.

M.S.: I start that way and try to draw out something from that, play it out, think about it, examine it. A part of it is intuitive, another part is trying to put it together is some logical way. It's hard work, whatever way you look at it.

M.C.: There are composers who can write out their music without the benefit of an instrument, they say they can hear it all in their head, while others need to work it out, like on a piano.

M.S.: I use a piano. I do a combination of things, like playing something, pacing around for a while just to hear it in my head, then recording some of things I've played, or I might even dance to try to figure things out. In any event, I could not write what I write without using a piano. Yes, there are people who can do what you say and that blows me away, but not me.

M.C.: There are some composers who are also able to write clean copy, without ever scratching anything out, or hardly.

M.S.: Not me. I'm constantly reworking things and trying out this and that.

M.C.: The examples of Mozart and Beethoven are interesting in this regard. The first hardly ever made a change while the other was constantly rewriting, to the point of tearing up manuscripts. This tells me that there are composers who rely on their instincts and just go for it, while others are constantly questioning them.

M.S.: I do both, or am somewhere in between. I just don't write stuff and Bam! That's it. I would say I'm always questioning, but I lot of what I do is very intuitive. It's very hard to describe; in fact, it's amazing how hard it is to put it in words.

M.C.: When you bring in a new piece to a rehearsal, I gather there are changes made with the players, corrections, improvement and what not.

M.S.: Almost always.

M.C.: That would differentiate the jazz composer from the classical composer.

M.S.: Well, I'm not so sure about that. You hear about different versions of pieces that Ravel or Stravinsky revised. I think a lot of composers do go back and fix things.

M.C.: You said earlier on that you haven't done much composing lately.

M.S.: I'm starting to again, or I'm trying to get myself back into a composing mode. I have to say that I hit a burnout when I finished the Dawn Upshaw piece. I spent six obsessive months working on it; it's a 24-minute piece. I did several trips to Europe while I was in the middle of writing it, plus clinics and all of those other things. I have to say that I've been going nuts in the last six years of my life, from the moment I did my recording "Concert in the Garden", with all of the time spent writing the music and recording it, then the touring, preparing the next record, and the Website. I've been working like a fiend, so I kind of crashed after that concert and needed a little bit of time away from it. I've been busy since, and people keep sending me CDs, too. I've listened to hundreds of them and am trying to get back to people because I feel guilty not having followed up with them. The honest truth is that I'll have to start saying to people "I can't listen to all this anymore." There's music I want to study on my own, and it's very frustrating not to. I'm now getting back to people who sent me stuff three years ago. I've been catching up. But now I'm getting that feisty thing again, like getting angry that I haven't been writing. That's good for me, because it's time, or I feel like getting back to it again, even if I have no idea of what the hell I'm going to write.

M.C.: I gather you shift gears, go into composition mode and focus only on that.

M.S.: That's the case, and when I do then the business side of things goes to hell in the hand basket. But now, I'm going into this obsessive writing thing.

M.C.: Does this mean you're planning to write new material to present during your upcoming Canadian tour?

M.S.: I don't know. It depends if I'm excited by it, or it's good enough. Since we haven't performed any of my existing music up there, it certainly doesn't hurt to do what we do really well. And the band plays the music so well now, because we've toured it and it sounds much better than on the record. Not only have they got it down, but they bring something different to it every night, because they know where they can be free and where the boundaries are, or aren't. In that way they can really fly with it and have fun with it at the same time.

M.C.: I once read a story about your beginnings that appeared in the German magazine Jazz Podium. In one spot, you talk of writing arrangements for other bands, and there was one you did for Mel Lewis's band. Apparently he had played the piece too fast, and when you told him to do it slower, he kind of got mad at you and said why don't you start your own.

M.S.: Well, it was the other way around: I wanted it fast. When I rehearsed it with the band, I did it kind of slow and once we worked it out, then I asked them to take it up to the right tempo. That's where Mel got upset and said that everybody played things too fast. He was just being his feisty old self. But it was still great advice that I should start my own band. If I have strong opinions about my music, I don't want to be writing for others who then tell me how it should be done; I wrote the music, so I know how it should be played.

M.C.: So you felt very early on that you wanted to write for a group of your own. As you know, there are some arrangers and composers who write for others and are perfectly content in doing that.

M.S.: Not me. So it's true to say I did want to lead my own group to play my music.

M.C.: In your bio, two names always come up as major influences on you, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. For the former, it's mentioned you worked as an assistant. What does that mean more specifically.

M.S.: I first started out copying for him, then organizing his music, after which he had me do some transcribing. Then he asked me to re-orchestrate things, like when he started doing work for those radio bands in Europe. He wanted some of his smaller group music re-written for these larger groups. He also wrote music for the film "The Color of Money" (the project with Sting), and wanted me to write some of the musical cues. As things turned out, he was given me more and more responsibility. Quite frankly, I was not at a level yet to deserve to be in that position, but for some reason he felt like giving me that experience. Gil was just that kind of person: he would just choose someone, a musician or whatever, and stuck by him or her no matter what. And it was not necessarily based on a lot of research on his part.

M.C.: He was a very intuitive person.

M.S.: Yeah, that's exactly it: he lived according to his intuition. He would just do something and that was it. I was lucky that he intuited something about me.

M.C.: How did you first meet him?

M.S.: I met him in a real odd way. I had wanted to take lessons with him, but didn't dare call him out of the blue and ask. I was too intimidated to do that. I was working in a music copying office at the time (mid-eighties), and a composer by the name of Tom Pierson came in one day when I was doing some photocopying. We started discussing a certain score and ended up going out for a coffee. In our talk, he asked me who my favourite writer was, and so I went on about both Gil and Bob, but much more about Gil that day. Then he asked me what I liked so much about him, and so I got into all sorts of little details. So we parted ways on that, but that same evening he called me back to inform me that Gil happened to be his closest friend. Gil had told about Tom about needing an assistant and expressed interest in meeting me because some of his music had to be copied out for a rehearsal, so he asked if I could show up for it. I got his number, just called Gil and that was it. That's pretty lucky, right? It was just so odd how everything came together like that.

M.C.: With respect to Bob Brookmeyer, you went to study with after finishing at Eastman.

M.S.: Right. That was the one time in my life that I actually applied for a grant called the "Apprenticeship Grant". I sent him an example of my music for him to listen to before taking me on. We became really close after that, like colleagues or friends who bounce things off each other.

M.C.: When you consider it for a moment, Bob and Gil are so different from one another: the former has more of a systematic approach whereas the latter is much less formal.

M.S.: You can say that, but they both had so much respect for each other. In fact they are kind of opposites of each other. Gil told me once that he was kind of intimidated by Bob, who was really flattered when I mentioned it to him. Gil was always this kind of enigmatic character everybody felt was kind of floating in the clouds with the angels.

M.C.: I've always found it interesting how these two composers/arrangers factor into your own musical development, and how so different they were/are in creating music, in that they go about it in very different ways.

M.S.: For me, there are aspects in their conceptions of music that have intrigued me and which I find attractive enough to use in my own. With Bob it's about development and long through composed forms, that's his world. Gil, on the other hand, is more intricate in terms of orchestration. Bob's music isn't particularly intricate, his pieces are like broad strokes made on big canvas. It's something like Miro. Gil's are like tiny little pieces working with each other, lines connecting with each other, a bit like the mechanism of a watch. So it's the details and all of the subtle hues of colour with a lot of space in between, in which there is plenty of texture and even a lot of open spaces and air.

M.C.: So your music is something like putting the minutiae of Gil within the big pictures of Bob.

M.S.: I would say so.

M.C.: There are, of course, many more jazz composers who have made their mark. Let's say I pitch you a name, and tell me what occurs to you. For instance: Carla Bley.

M.S.: To be honest, I've never much listened to her, so I can't really tell you much. People in fact always say that I should listen more to her music, and I've been asked about her before. But I don't really listen to much jazz now, unlike before. I'm more into Brazilian music and classical.
When I use to listen to more jazz, in the years I was coming up, I'd be into George Russell, Thad Jones, Mingus, Ellington, even Bill Evans, Claus Ogerman.

M.C.: In jazz, there is often a distinction made between the 'arranger' and the 'composer'; they have slightly different functions whereas in classical music they are intertwined.

M.S.: In classical music, you do not find that too often, when one person is arranging someone else's.

M.C.: Exactly. If you compose the music, you're arranging it.

M.S.: Yeah. If I win a 'best arranger' award in Downbeat, for instance, I find that kind of strange to me, because I'm not really an arranger, composing is what I do. To me, an arranger is when Bob Brookmeyer arranges a whole album of standards: that's arranging.

M.C.: Speaking of standards, I was wondering about how you approach those kinds of pieces, or any kind of existing compositions others than your own.

M.S.: It's very different. I haven't really done any in years now, and have never really done them that often either, because I'm just interested in composing my own things.

M.C.: But there's one example, your arrangement of "The Days of Wine and Roses". Was it a challenge to you to actually take an existing piece and reshape it? Did you find it more difficult to actually arrange an existing piece than creating one of your own?

M.S.: It's difficult, but in a different way, but not more difficult than actually composing, which is far more difficult to me.

M.C.: Did you decide very early on to be a non-performer, not to actually play an instrument on stage, but just to fully devote yourself to composition? You do play piano after all.

M.S.: It has to do with the fact that I was never a great pianist and I don't want to hear myself play my own music, so I want to have a better player than myself do it.

M.C.: You're now at the same age that Gil was (48) when he decided to sit in front of a piano.

M.S.: I don't think you're going to see that with me. No chance. And even less so now, because I can't find enough hours in the day to practice. One of the things now that has changed a lot of our lives, and which is making it harder for us, is all this e-mail stuff, text messaging, constant distractions. Anybody can contact you at anytime of the day. Way back when, they didn't even have answering machines: if you weren't home, you weren't home and that was all to it. If you want to write, you have to go somewhere where you can't be disturbed. It's really hard now because you have to do so much.

M.C.: So when you get down to compose, you turn off all your machines.

M.S.: I should. What I would like is to work in a different place than here.

M.C.: I guess you'd have to find a little place out in the woods somewhere with just electricity and where no one can find you.

M.S.: With the economy as it now is, I guess it would be time for me to find a cheap little studio somewhere in the neighborhood where I can go to.

Conversation taken on March 23, 2009.

For more information, consult both her Website and the recording label:

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