In conversation with maria schneider

by Eugene Marlow

In the annals of jazz history there are a few notables who are so well known and respected that the mere mention of a first or last name or nickname immediately identifies them. ďPops,Ē ĒBird,Ē ďBenny,Ē ďThe Judge,Ē ďDuke,Ē ďMiles,Ē ďTatum,Ē ďEvansĒ are a few that come quickly to mind. In more recent times, particularly in New York Circles, mention the name ďMariaĒ and people know who you are talking about: Grammy award-winning composer, arranger, conductor and educator Maria Schneider.

                                             Maria Schneider

                                      Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Like Ziegfield Follies star Eddie Cantor many years before, it has taken Maria several decades to become a hit, seemingly, overnight. But this slight of frame bundle of musical creativity has established herself as a major force in the world of jazz composition, in some ways transcending the genre. Observing her at a rehearsal of the Maria Schneider Orchestra bears testimony to the impact of her centered and focused presence. At times conducting as if in a dance, at others leading her band of players with a Bruce Lee sharpness, she moves as though envisioning a scene in her head as she conducts, and the music is spontaneously transmitted from her heart and mind to the players in an instant. Each note in each composition counts, despite the room she gives her players to improvise. There is a deep connection with her musicians, a relationship she works at. She is at once encouraging, smiling, rewarding, acknowledging. She takes pleasure in her players. And the feeling is reciprocated. The musicians enjoy and respect the music ó- it is no mere gig. The feeling is palpable. When there is a problem, a mere glance from Maria is enough for a change to be made.

The music itself defies standard definitions of jazz. The inner musical lines reflect her own inner voices. The music is full of characteristic ďSchneiderismsĒ: undulating waves of piano to forte to piano, especially in the brass, and highly textured orchestrations evoking visual imagery and musical colors. It is very personal music.

In a recent conversation, Schneider discussed her approach to her work, the inspiration behind her music, as well as her aspirations and plans for the future.

I was listening to the ďSky BlueĒ album again and I wrote down some words to describe it. I want to use ďSky BlueĒ as a jumping off point because I want to talk to you about you as a composer and how you get to your material. So, here are some words and please respond to these words. You tell me if Iím on target here or not: Contemplative. Personal. Moody. Serious. Searching. Reaching. Feminine. Emotional waves. Expansive. Symphonic. Mahlerian. Filmic. Full of musical scenes. Very American. Great use of brass. The question I want to ask you is: How much of your material is autobiographical? Thatís really two questions. Do those words describe you as a composer?

Itís hard to say because when I write music, more and more I realize I follow my music, rather than lead it. Years ago, I had a conversation with Brazilian-born composer-guitarist Egberto Gismonti. You should listen to his music. Youíll flip out. Youíll just love it, I know. He said, ďYou should never lead the music. You must follow the music.Ē I didnít really know what he meant then, but Iím starting to know what he meant now.

I think my music tells me what it is and very often itís something about my life. And itís either going back in time or itís just expressing where I am in the moment. So I would say itís very autobiographical, but some of it is real time autobiography, some is like a diary almost. And then some is a kind of historic autobiographical. I donít know why or how or if this is similar to other people, but a lot of times when I sit down to write, Iím not thinking about writing about anything. Like, ďOh, Iím sad. Iím going to write a sad piece now.Ē Thatís simplistic, but it isnít like that. Itís more like I sit down to write and sounds come out a lot of times in the way a daydream will just come up. Youíll be walking and all of a sudden, you just find yourself thinking about a certain person or something comes up.

                                                           Maria Schneider
                                                      Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

A lot of times when Iím writing, as Iím coming up with the music, some scene will come up in my head and Iím not even consciously looking to imagine what Iím going to be thinking about when Iím writing. I can find the subject, but a lot of times as that scene comes up in my head, as Iím working on the music, the music becomes almost like a film score to that thing. And then before I realize it, Iím consciously writing about memory or Iím writing about something that happened. So itís like the music conjures up a memory and then the memory feeds the music. And it almost feels as if some past memory wants to be manifested into something to be shared which for me means music.

Do you ever feel you ever get in the way of the music?

I donít know. I hope not. Sometimes I feel certain limitations. When I was writing ďCerulean Skies,Ē I had ideas about a certain freedom and what I wanted the music to be and I was wondering if I had the technical capability to get across the feeling I wanted. Sometimes I feel limited -- that the music wants to be more than I want to make it.

Your music sounds very flowing as if itís easy, as if one idea flows into the other, very casually. It doesnít sound forced. It sounds very natural. Is it because youíre that disciplined in the writing of the music?

What youíre talking about is incredibly hard work, to make the transitions and everything feel navigable and like it just happened. That isnít to say you donít want surprise in your music, but you want the kind of surprises that feel like you want them to happen. That is just very, very, very difficult. It does not come naturally to create those changes and those shifts, and all of a sudden youíre in a new place; but it feels like it just flows into it. Itís very difficult.

Every once in a while, youíll come up with a transition or something that comes easy. Iím sure youíve experienced that in your own composing. Some things just come easy and youíre like, ďOh, Iím a genius.Ē You know? And then the next minute, you turn around and you just for the life of you canít figure out how to get from point A to point B in a logical way. And itís very, very difficult. I really struggle as a composer. And Iím happy if the music sounds free because I donít want the music to feel the way I feel when Iím writing it. I want it to feel the way I feel behind the writing of it. But I think a lot of my complexities in writing music arenít that writing music is so difficult. And maybe itís like you said, I get in the way of the music. Thatís my own psychology. ďDo I get in the way of my music?Ē My own self-doubt gets in the way of the music.

What doubts do you have even at this point in your career?

Plenty, plenty. That Iím going to write a horrible piece and that the people who commissioned it are going to be dissatisfied and Iím going to embarrass myself and the whole band and everybody in the universe is going to laugh at me. Everything that everybody else worries about, I worry about. At this point if I write not the greatest piece, itís not going to destroy my entire reputation or whatever, but I want every piece to be something special. With every piece Iím trying to reach further and further and I always feel like we get further and further, but thereís an infinite distance to go. Itís like going around a circle. Weíre just at a different point in the circle.

How do you get yourself out of the way then? How do you deal with those doubts? How do you push them aside so you can get to the work?

The best is if I can just get the enthusiasm for the idea, if I can forget myself and make it about the music and not about me. If I can just get myself to express what Iím expressing and forget about how Iím being perceived. Itís the same as like public speaking. Years ago, when I was in high school and weíd have to read in school out loud I used to get so nervous my voice would shake. I couldnít breathe. It was horrible. You probably canít believe that because on the mike at a performance Iím so bordering on obnoxious and inappropriate -- and maybe not even bordering on it. It seems probably very easy for me to speak to a room of people, but when I was a kid, it was not.

I had a girlfriend who had been a Miss Aquatennial Queen in Minnesota. I think she was probably 16 years old or 17 at the time and she had to give all these speeches all over the place for various groups and I was like, ďCathy, how do you do that?Ē And she said, ďWhen you speak, you have to just think about the message. If you start thinking about yourself and how youíre being perceived, youíre going to implode, but you have to think about what youíre getting across.Ē And I realize itís the same in anything, in writing or just being natural. If you just go to your heart and youíre just expressing, your self-doubt goes away. The minute you start thinking about how they are perceiving you and you get out of your center, youíre lost. Itís probably like martial arts or gymnastics or skating. You have to be centered. You have to know where your center of gravity is for everything. And in writing music, or creating, your center of gravity is this elusive spot in yourself. Itís this point in yourself where youíre highly alert to your ideas and your energy is really there. Itís very much internal. I really think itís almost learning to meditate is learning to write music.

Am I correct in saying that your music has become increasingly symphonic, broader?

I think so. Not consciously so, but I think it is.

I remember you telling me once you had gone to a Mahler Concert. I donít remember which one of the symphonies. But it gave me the sense that even then you were reaching for that kind of sound, that kind of concept in writing for your orchestra.

Iíve had more people say that the ďSky BlueĒ album reminds them of Mahler and Iím not sure why. There are people who know every Mahler symphony well. Iím not one of them. So it certainly isnít conscious. I should really listen carefully to Mahler and see what people are hearing, because youíre not the first person whoís said that.

I love trying to make my big band sound like an orchestra, not like a big band, getting all these subtle colors out of the group. I donít want my group to sound like a big band because to me a big band doesnít have a lot of emotional subtly and expression in it. Itís got power and energy and itís fun and it can be beautiful, but itís not often very moving and I want my music to be very expressive and very moving.


Because thatís what Iím trying to do, thatís the reason I write: to express, to say something. Itís like storytelling for me.

Is this what youíre always reaching for? To try to tell some kind of a story?

I donít think it always is; because there are pieces on the album that have no story, so itís not specifically a story. But Iím just wishing to share a sensibility. All I know is that if Iím not doing it for too long, Iím not happy and if Iím doing it too much, Iím also not happy because Iím stressed. Itís just one of those things. It is who I am at this point. And writing these pieces, itís like a person who just canít keep from having babies. They just keep coming.

Is there something youíre consciously aware of that youíre trying to get to in your music or are you just tapping into some creative drive and it comes out as a musical composition?

Itís completely not premeditated. Thereís nothing Iím trying to do. I have no idea whatís coming next. I used to really panic about that, thinking I donít know what I want to do, maybe thereís nothing else. Iíve just grown to trust that thereís a spring there and whatever comes out needs to come out. With each of my six albums, I didnít really plan to write them as an album. But each album has a certain cohesiveness about it and I think the cohesiveness comes because what Iím putting on these albums, what Iím actually writing is sort of a chronology of my life. So the pieces that came about during, for example, the Concert in the Garden album, that music was probably largely influenced maybe by having gone to Brazil. For some reason I was getting deeply into dance. Iím not sure, but thereís something those pieces have in common.

This album, Sky Blue, is something else. I think the music on this album is probably emotionally my most provocative and Iím not really sure what thatís about. Maybe in five years, Iíll look back. Somebody asked me what music Iíd been listening to in an interview and I said, ďIíve been listening to a lot of singers.Ē And then all of a sudden I realized thatís a real trait of this album, the melodies are simple and singable.

I think youíre right.

And I think it has to do with because Iíve been going through a phase of listening to singers singing simple things, and not necessarily jazz singers. I think whatever you immerse your life in in terms of either what you do, what kind of conversations you have, the way you live, emotionally where youíre at, with friends or family or your own life or whether your healthy or ill or what -- all these things come into your world and it creates something. I canít know what I want to work towards because I donít know where Iím going to be. Iíve lived long enough to know that you really canít predict what things hit your life from one day to the next.

That is true.

The music follows that. To predict where you are creatively is kind of crazy.

What are you working on now?

Iím not. The album had me completely, insanely busy until the end of July [2007]. And then we started the whole publicity thing because itís very important that I pay for this thing. So there were a lot of interviews and then I started this marathon of traveling and touring, working with a lot of other groups, and clinics. And I was going to be doing a huge flamenco project next summer and I pulled out of it. I even talked about it in interviews and I was very excited about it, but I realized I just overdid it. I really overdid it this year, actually the last two years. And I needed some space in my life.

So right now Iím just trying to catch up on endless desk work and Iíve been just in my apartment getting rid of things, books, and I want to organize all my music. I donít even know what I have here. Iíve got so many CDs here that itís such a pile. It becomes this blob and I know there is all this great music there that I want to listen to. So I just have to have some space in my life for those things. Iíve just been like a production machine here for the last couple of years.

You also had a very successful last couple of years. Several commissions, an armful of awards from the Jazz Journalists Association, a Grammy, and now another Grammy nomination for Sky Blue and another for one of the cuts on the album, ďCerulian Skies.Ē

Yeah. Itís been great. Itís been really great, but I just need a little bit of a rest and Iím trying to figure out what gigs and commissions Iím going to take. Today, a commission came in that will be something I can actually use for the orchestra. Iíve had some really unusual people talk to me, but Iím going to hesitate to say what it is because I donít want to do that thing of talking about something and then pulling out from it again -- that is things other than the big band, things that include strings and stuff like that are possible in the future.

A closing question. Ever since Iíve known you, you seem to be very much in touch with yourself. I donít mean in an egotistical sense, but very much attuned to yourself and things around you. Am I correct on that? I think that informs your music in some way.

In touch with myself? In what kind of way do you mean?

You donít ignore yourself.

Youíre probably right. Everything I do, from the way I run my business now and the way I do my music, I donít give it away. In terms of the way I live, Iím very concerned about my house, and my diet and exercising, so I really watch and take care of myself. I expend a lot of energy. When I go and work with a group someplace, I expend so much energy, mental energy and kind of heart energy. You meet all these new people, youíre making the music happen and itís really fun, but sometimes I donít realize how exhausted Iíve become or how much Iíve depleted myself until I come home. And when I come home, I really have to recharge. And when youíve always got more work on your plate, itís very hard to do that.

Iím actually trying to get better about that because I think to some degree Iíve been a little bit out of touch with myself. Iíve been more focused on the project at hand and needing to do this or that, or focusing on that this person expects this or that, and a lot of times Iíll take on all these projects, and my head is spinning when it should really be on me, assessing my energy and asking myself what I truly want to do. Iíve found sometimes I make the mistake of doing things because Iím obligated to it because I told somebody I would do it, therefore I have to do it. Iím not really stopping to think, ďMaria, do you really have the energy for this?Ē I think I have to be more careful about that. So, Iím not sure how much itís true that Iím so in touch with myself. Iím actually working on being more in touch with myself.

Terrific. Youíve given me enough material for a chapter in a book. Thank you, Maria Schneider


January 05, 2008 · 4 comments

  • 1 Phil Kelly // Jan 11, 2008 at 08:22 PM
    excellent interview - very inciteful questions and equally informative replies from ms. schneider. i dont know her personally,but as a composer myself, i found not only some insights into her work processes,i discovered possibly some new ways to examine my own methods.
  • 2 Bill W. // May 21, 2008 at 08:20 PM
    Wow! I'm new to Maria's music, having just recently heard her name mentioned during an Ingrid Jensen residency at Brown University. "Makes me wonder what else I don't know." I plan on driving down from RI with my son [trumpet] to see Maria's SUNY-Purchase performance in March of '09.
  • 3 Chris W. // Jan 22, 2009 at 02:08 AM
    This thoughtful interview reminds me of a remark attributed to the writer Ron Carlson (see Wikipedia's article on him): ę In regards to his first "good" story, he wrote: "I did not understand my story; many times you donít. Itís not your job to understand or evaluate or edit your work when you first emerge from it. Your duty is to be in love with it, and that defies explanation." - Ron Carlson Writes A Story Ľ
  • 4 Tony Mlcoch // Apr 03, 2009 at 05:06 PM
    Great incitefull intreview. I heard and saw MS Orchestra at the Elmhurst College Jazz Fest. I was mesmerized. Maria's explanation of Cerulean Skies added new incite to the piece, one that I had listened to many times and always came away with a different emotion. She is the Berstein and Copeland of our times. I am a musician and her music is a genuine inspiration.