Per­fect ana­log

Com­poser Maria Sch­nei­der has lit­tle time for tech­nol­ogy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY COR­MAC LARKIN

Maria Sch­nei­der is re­ally pissed off. It’s an un­ex­pected con­fes­sion from a com­poser whose “pretty pas­toral mu­sic” (her own words) speaks with such warmth and hu­man­ity, has won her five Gram­mys and, just this year, the pres­ti­gious NEA Jazz Masters award. It is mu­sic that, over the last three decades, has made her one of the most re­spected com­posers in con­tem­po­rary jazz. Sch­nei­der? Pissed off? Surely not.

“Ev­ery­thing in life comes out when you sit down to write mu­sic, and lately, a lot of my life has been ob­sess­ing, you know, in­vol­un­tar­ily, about Google, and all this big data stuff, just feel­ing trapped in the world of email, this world that I feel takes such ad­van­tage of us in so many ways. So the pretty pas­toral is now slowly start­ing to make way for the, you know, ‘I’m re­ally pissed off’. Ac­tu­ally, I’m more than pissed off, I’m creeped out, and my mu­sic is start­ing to ex­press that.”

Born in 1960 in Win­dom, a small town in ru­ral Min­nesota, Sch­nei­der spent her child­hood sur­rounded by the spread­ing fields and in­fi­nite skies of the Amer­i­can mid­west. It is that land­scape, and the plain-spo­ken sim­plic­ity and di­rect­ness of mid­west­ern­ers, that she has ten­derly evoked on award-win­ning al­bums like Sky Blue (2007) and The Thomp­son Fields (2015).

The Maria Sch­nei­der Orches­tra, which fea­tures some of the lead­ing in­stru­men­tal voices of the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can scene, is per­haps the most highly re­garded and in­flu­en­tial large en­sem­ble in jazz, while Sch­nei­der leads the busy life of a suc­cess­ful jazz mu­si­cian, di­rect­ing her band, or­gan­is­ing re­hearsals, tour­ing the world as a guest con­duc­tor and giv­ing mas­ter­classes to the next gen­er­a­tion of com­posers and ar­rangers.

But lately, as the fi­nan­cial re­turns for jazz artists from their record­ing have come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure, Sch­nei­der’s ca­reer-long ad­vo­cacy for artists’ rights has come more to the fore. She has be­come a clar­ion voice for a bet­ter deal for mu­si­cians from the record­ing in­dus­try, tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore Congress on be­half of the Na­tional Academy of Record­ing Arts and Sciences, writ­ing elo­quent open let­ters to govern­ment of­fi­cials and gen­er­ally rais­ing a stink about the ever-di­min­ish­ing re­turns for those who record cre­ative, non-com­mer­cial mu­sic.

“On Spo­tify and all these [stream­ing] sites,” she says, “I’ve asked around and I’m sure there isn’t one clas­si­cal, jazz, world, folk, or blues al­bum that has made even a tiny frac­tion of its bud­get back. There’s no way, be­cause we all have much smaller niche au­di­ences. Ninety per cent of the mu­sic on Spo­tify gets one per cent of the fi­nan­cial pie that they’re split­ting up. This is ridicu­lous! For me, my records cost about $200,000 to make. If I had my mu­sic on Spo­tify, I don’t know, maybe I would make $8, maybe I’d make $101, I don’t know, but I do know that it wouldn’t even make a dent in a $200,000 bud­get. So what’s go­ing to hap­pen to these gen­res of mu­sic, what’s go­ing to hap­pen?”

In the early noughties, Sch­nei­der be­gan work­ing with Artist-Share, one of the first record la­bels to use fan-fund­ing to fi­nance record­ings, and she has be­come one of the la­bel’s star per­form­ers. Artists re­ceive 85 per cent of the gross sales from their al­bums, and in re­turn for their up­front in­vest­ment, fun­ders get a unique in­sight into the cre­ative process – and the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing that the ma­jor­ity of their in­vest­ment is go­ing di­rectly to the artists. In 2005, Sch­nei­der’s Con­cert in the Gar­den be­came the first al­bum to win a Grammy without be­ing avail­able in con­ven­tional re­tail out­lets.

Un­less you are will­ing to sit in si­lence, will­ing to face bore­dom, you can’t ignite your imag­i­na­tion. You need space, un­com­fort­able space, in or­der for ideas to start to bub­ble up, so that you feel your own ideas come alive

In that and other record­ings – Win­ter Morn­ing Walks, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with so­prano Dawn Up­shaw, net­ted her an­other Grammy in 2014 – Sch­nei­der has as­sid­u­ously mined that rich seam of mem­ory con­nected to Win­dom and the sim­plic­ity of a ru­ral mid­west­ern up­bring­ing. But even here, there is an edge. Com­po­si­tions like Bomb Shel­ter Beast and Night Watch­man on her sec­ond al­bum, Com­ing About, hinted at a darker side to her child­hood.

“It wasn’t like it was all Pollyanna, all sweet­ness,” she agrees. “There was a good share of ten­sion too. I spent a lot of time be­ing scared, re­ally scared as a kid. At that time, it was the Cold War, there was the Viet­nam War go­ing on, and there was the fear of atom bombs. My fa­ther built a bomb shel­ter in our house, and the door was right next to my bed, and it was re­ally creepy.”

A much-beloved pi­ano teacher in Win­dom in­tro­duced her to jazz, and from an early age,

the life of a mu­si­cian beck­oned, so it was in­evitable that she would some­day make her way to the big city.

“I just al­ways fan­ta­sised that some tal­ent scout would hear me and take me away, be­cause of the mu­sic, that was just an on­go­ing ridicu­lous fan­tasy. But I loved Win­dom. I loved my friends. I loved the town. I still love the town. I’m still close to my friends. There’s a build­ing that’s for sale on the square in Win­dom right now, and part of me fan­ta­sises about buy­ing that build­ing and cre­at­ing some kind of mu­sic and art school for peo­ple in Win­dom. Some­times I think what would hap­pen if I just ditched my life and did that, and gave young kids in­spi­ra­tion, not nec­es­sar­ily to be­come mu­si­cians and artists but to be­come the kind of peo­ple that un­der­stand the im­por­tance of cre­ativ­ity and how it makes them feel alive. So I still have a big con­nec­tion to Win­dom.”

But a town of barely 5,000 souls was never go­ing to pro­vide much of a liv­ing for a jazz mu­si­cian, and with a de­gree in mu­sic the­ory and com­po­si­tion from the Univer­sity of Min­nesota in her pocket, she made her way east. She still vividly re­mem­bers the mo­ment, three decades ago, when she ar­rived in New York.

“I hap­pened to fly into New York on the best flight route, and I saw the city from the air, and my heart was just beat­ing out of my chest. I just knew at that mo­ment ‘that’s my city, I’m go­ing to live there’. And then I went to the Vil­lage Van­guard and heard Zoot Sims, and I was so ex­cited, and at that point, there was no turn­ing back.”

Her skill as a mu­sic copy­ist soon found her work and she spent the late 1980s ap­pren­ticed to two of the giants of big band jazz ar­rang­ing, Gil Evans and Bob Brook­meyer. Her first al­bum, Evanes­cence (1994), paid ex­plicit homage to Evans, even as it an­nounced the ar­rival of a new voice in jazz com­po­si­tion, a fem­i­nine voice that seemed to pri­ori­tise the com­mu­nal over the in­di­vid­ual. In 1992, she be­gan lead­ing her own orches­tra in a weekly res­i­dency in Green­wich Vil­lage, and it’s a tes­ta­ment to her charisma as a leader, and her faith­ful­ness to her com­mu­nity of mu­si­cians, that the band that formed around her then is still largely in tact. Sev­eral of the mu­si­cians she brings with her to the Cork jazz fes­ti­val this year ap­peared on that de­but al­bum, in­clud­ing bassist Jay An­der­son, gui­tarist Ben Mon­der and sax­o­phon­ist Rich Perry.

In per­son (we’re talk­ing via Skype), Sch­nei­der is open and friendly, quick to laugh and happy to talk about her own cre­ative process in de­tail. But a cer­tain dis­trust of tech­nol­ogy is never far away.

“I don’t even have mu­sic no­ta­tion soft­ware,” she says brightly. “I give my scores to some­body else to copy on com­puter. For me as a com­poser, a lot of my pieces, they have sort of a flow and de­vel­op­ment to them, I want them to feel or­ganic, like Gaudi ar­chi­tec­ture, where it’s not just right an­gles and rooms and squares and boxes.”

“I re­ally need that process of do­ing de­vel­op­ment on sketch pa­per, and when I see what stu­dents are writ­ing these days, I can im­me­di­ately tell these kids are work­ing di­rectly into a com­puter. It’s a crutch, and it gives them fast re­sults, but it doesn’t give them good re­sults.”

But she protests that it’s not re­ally a case of be­ing en­am­oured with the pre-tech­no­log­i­cal world of her youth.

“What I’m con­cerned about is when the tech­nol­ogy is used to make peo­ple ad­dicted, to use a crutch, it takes away from qual­ity, from hu­man­ness, that’s what con­cerns me. I sit on the sub­way and I can’t find one per­son that’s ac­tu­ally read­ing a book, or just look­ing around. Every­one is just im­mersed in these lit­tle de­vices. And you know that they are us­ing some app that was de­signed to make them ad­dicted to that app.”

It’s a sub­ject that comes up fre­quently in her mas­ter­classes, and her ad­vice to would-be com­posers is to re­dis­cover the value of bore­dom.

“I say to them ‘the first thing is, you see the cell phones you all have, you have to be will­ing to turn that thing off, be­cause that thing is con­stantly want­ing your at­ten­tion, ev­ery app on there is fight­ing for it to make you ad­dicted. Un­less you are will­ing to sit in si­lence, will­ing to face bore­dom, you can’t ignite your imag­i­na­tion. You need space, un­com­fort­able space, in or­der for ideas to start to bub­ble up, so that you feel your own ideas come alive’.”

She says her next project for ArtistShar­e will be a mix of old and new, some, like her com­po­si­tion Data Lords, chan­nel­ing her rage about big data, but oth­ers still min­ing that rich mid­west­ern seam.

“I feel that when I play a lot of my mu­sic, I go home. I think it’s the open­ness, the big sky, the plain­ness of the mes­sage. You know in Min­nesota, peo­ple are plain spoke, they don’t speak in a lot of fancy, eru­dite lan­guage, pretty much what you see is what you get. I think my mu­sic is pretty di­rect in its mes­sage. I don’t try to cre­ate mu­sic that is dif­fi­cult. I don’t think my mu­sic is nec­es­sar­ily easy mu­sic, but I don’t think it’s hard to de­ci­pher. I want peo­ple to sit there and be taken some­where. They don’t have to think. They just should sit and feel.”

“But,” she adds laugh­ing, “if they want to think, hope­fully there’s plenty for them to think about too!”

The Maria Sch­nei­der Orches­tra plays CorkCi­tyHal­lonSun­day,Oc­to­ber28th as part of the Guin­ness Cork Jazz Fes­ti­val. guin­ness­jaz­zfes­ti­

Maria Sch­nei­der: “I sit on the sub­way and I can’t find one per­son that’s ac­tu­ally read­ing a book, or just look­ing around. Every­one is just im­mersed in these lit­tle de­vices.”

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