Maria Schneider: Navigating Comfort Zones

Maria Schneider creates extremely beautiful music, but it’s full of beneath-the-surface complexities.
Read the interview…

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Finding Inspiration

Frank J. Oteri: While the camera and sound recording equipment were being set up, I snooped around and noticed that you’ve got a bunch of recordings in a pile with a note attached to the top that says “Urgent to listen to.”

Maria Schneider: Yeah, except they’ve said that for how many months now? I think it’s unnatural to listen to so much music. So many people send me things and I’ll be in the middle of writing, and I can’t just put on music throughout my day when I’m writing music. And then I get e-mails, “Did you listen to my CD yet?” Centuries and centuries of great composers never had recordings. I think it’s not healthy to always be listening to music as a creative musician. You need space in your life, and so sometimes those piles give me a real nauseous feeling.

FJO: I was lulled into thinking you had this regimen of listening to music.

MS: Never. Nothing’s done really by regimen for me. Some people have a schedule every day. They compose music for four hours a day; they do two hours of business, then they do phone calls. I’m not that way. I’m either writing 24/7—well not 24/7, but writing constantly, and everything else just goes to hell in a handbasket—or I’m doing business for weeks on end and I don’t even think about writing. So, it tends to be one or the other. For me, to go into composing, you’re turning inside out. And it’s a whole different part of yourself that you’re using. It’s a very introspective, introvert self. Listening to music, talking on the phone, doing business, doing e-mails, is extrovert. I can’t turn inside out on a dime every day.

FJO: I’ve never considered listening to be an extroverted activity.

MS: In a way it is because you’re getting into somebody else’s music. It depends. Most of these people are sending me music so that I’ll listen and write a quote for them on their CD. I’m not talking about going and listening to everything I want to listen to. That’s another thing. Then that’s my own world. But this sort of listening is listening as business, and it’s different.

FJO: O.K., I totally misread your relationship with these recordings, but I also noticed the scores on your wall—Beethoven, Mozart, Ives—as well as a Picasso art book and a book of bird songs. I imagine that these are things that somehow inspire you.

MS: Sometimes I like to pull out classical music and just play it. The whole world of harmony that’s outside of the realm of jazz harmony fills me up. It reminds me of a time when I was a kid and I was just doing music because I loved it. I never played classical music professionally, so it’s just fun for me to go back to the part of me when I made music just purely for the joy of making music. My parents never asked me to practice. And then, the bird song thing—I just really love birds. Nature is a part of my upbringing. Now I love being close to Central Park. If I would say that I have a hobby, or something extra-musical that I love to do, that would be one of the things. Then the thing about the art books is that one of my sisters is an artist. She did the paintings that are over the piano. She’s now an architect, but she also still paints a lot. Growing up, we made a lot of analogies between music and art because she also had a really great ear for music. I find the art inspires me musically, because it inspires me in a way that’s not the same as listening to music; art inspires you in terms of texture or your emotional response to something. It’s on another level. It inspires me more because I’m not feeling overly influenced.

FJO: Getting back to your days of playing classical music early on, I would assume that you studied classical music composition before you got involved with jazz.

MS: My beginnings are very strange. I’m from a very small town, but I had the great fortune of having an incredible piano teacher [Evelyn Butler] from the beginning. She had been a stride pianist and a classical pianist in Chicago. From my very first lesson, she wanted me to understand the theory behind music. She said, “I don’t ever want you to play something just reading notes and mimicking, putting your fingers on the notes and just producing the music; I want you to understand what you’re playing.” So she started teaching me theory from the beginning. She’d play a major triad and sing: “Bright the day”; then a minor triad: “Dark the night.” That middle [note] has a darker sound. Or for tonic, subdominant, dominant, she’d go: “Here we go, up the hill, back again home.” Showing that the dominant makes you feel like going back again, and the tonic is home. So she had these little things that she did to make you relate to what makes music feel like it’s pulling away and then coming back—what is inside the music. We would analyze a lot of these books of classical music; every chord was analyzed. She wouldn’t let me play Mozart without writing that this is g-minor and now it’s going to a C7 and now that’s modulating to this. All that stuff. Then, because she played stride, she was also teaching me all that theory and teaching me to play jazz, like how jazz chords are voiced, but in an old Dorothy Donegan kind of style. They were both from Chicago, similar age.

When I went to college, I went in as a theory major because I had confidence about that. I didn’t start out as a composition major. I thought it was too big of a thing to presume that I could even be a composer coming from a farm town of 4,000. It seemed too lofty, even though I dreamt about writing an orchestral piece. I’d try; I bought a big piece of score paper one time in Minneapolis and I went back to Windham—it was three hours away—but all I could imagine coming out was the timpani roll. I just didn’t know how to do it. It seemed beyond me. By the same token, even though I was a pretty good classical player, I’d heard really good classical players and I knew I would never be a great classical pianist.

The other bizarre piece is that I thought jazz was dead. I didn’t know that jazz had evolved. Mrs. Butler was from this old period. She didn’t keep up with the whole evolution of jazz. She was stuck in stride. She was a killin’ stride and boogie-woogie pianist—she had this real exuberant personality when she played—but that’s where it began and ended. So when I went to college theory classes, my teachers started hearing me write little theory examples and they’d say, “Wow, you really have some talent for composition. Why don’t you add composition to your major?” So I did it. And then at the same time, I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio, and I started hearing modern jazz and getting exposed to that. By modern, I mean even just things like Bill Evans and Thad Jones. All these different things started influencing me, and I was just so excited about how that music had evolved.

It was a conflict for me because of the classical world in the universities at that time. I went into college in 1979. At that time, if you were a classical composer and you were writing music with a diatonic melody, it was considered passé. It had to be really complex and almost unreachable unless you wrote a paper to accompany it that was necessary to read to understand the music. If it wasn’t that complex, it was just considered worthless. I loved tonality, and I loved melody, and I loved rhythm and groove. So I said, “I don’t fit in this classical world; I can’t do this.” And the jazz world started sort of beckoning. My classical teacher said, “You’re so influenced by jazz, why don’t you watch the big band rehearse and maybe see if you can write something for them?” And that’s how it started. I started listening to the big band, and I felt that the whole tonal palette that came naturally to me was accepted. As a matter of fact, in the jazz world it almost seemed on the edge, because they had their specific harmony and I was bringing a classical mentality of form into that realm, which for them seemed far-reaching. Yet to the classical people it seemed completely banal. It was an interesting time to try to be a composer.

FJO: I find it so interesting that you said that you thought jazz was dead, but you didn’t think classical music was dead. So many people think classical music is only composers from the past and the idea that there’s a living composer is shocking to them.

MS: Well, when I first got to the University of Minnesota, we were studying Elliott Carter—he’s still alive and writing things—and Charles Wuorinen and John Cage. Those are the kind of things we were talking about, so I was aware of those guys. But I really felt that jazz was this wonderful era. The other thing I loved were songs—Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and all the other songs from musicals. I was crazy about the world of standards. And I loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. How many eight-year olds in the 1960s were in love with Gene Kelly? I was a kid that was out of my time.