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.

A Personal Orchestra

Frank J. Oteri: In terms of where you’ve gone as a composer, it seems that pretty much the only music you write is for your own orchestra. Is there some secret stash of other music hidden away somewhere?

Maria Schneider: Not really. Not anything that I’m going to let you hear. There are only a few little things that I sort of try to keep hidden. But now it’s turning [around]. As a matter of fact, right here is this new piece that I just finished for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. They were just asking me today to write an interview up for them about how different it feels writing for the orchestra than for my band. The first thing I said is that I’ve been writing exclusively for many of the same musicians for 20 years. I don’t have to write that many details in the music about articulation and dynamics because they know, and they watch me, so I show a lot of it to them. And also, it changes from night to night with jazz musicians. Sometimes, if a soloist goes a certain direction, the rhythm section plays soft instead of loud like they normally do. The band follows that.

But when I had a meeting with Dawn Upshaw, I said, “You can sing this melody different every night.” We’re doing it three nights. And she was like, “No, no, no. Tell me how to do it.” You know, it’s like the animal in the zoo. You think, “Oh this poor animal, it’s caught in this cage; let’s let it out.” But the animal goes out and says, “I want to go back in the cage again.” That’s what a classical musician wants. She said that every composer is always so picky and gets so upset if she does something slightly different than what they say. And here I’m saying, “Oh, I want it different every time.” So I said, “O.K., I’m gonna put in all the details.” Because what I realized is that the comfort zone for a jazz musician is freedom and not knowing—the comfort zone for a jazz musician is discomfort. The comfort zone for a classical musician is knowing exactly what it’s going to be every time and perfecting that. So you really have to know who you’re writing for. It’s very innate and I do it without thinking when I’m writing for my guys.

FJO: And your guys include some really important musicians who are also composers and band leaders in their own right—Frank Kimbrough, Ben Monder—

MS: —and Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry, Ingrid Jensen.

FJO: So what does it mean to be writing for people who are themselves already decision makers on that level?

MS: It means that a lot of times they come up with really great ideas that I end up adopting. In the case of Frank, it means that a lot of times, instead of writing an introduction to a piece, I let him just come up with it. He’s improvising it and it sets up the music differently every time. Sometimes I say, “I don’t know what to write here.” Frank will figure it out, and he’ll make it great every time.

When I first brought Concert in the Garden to the band, it was just horrible. It was called Quasi Catu, because it was based on this maracatu Brazilian rhythm. I’m telling you, it was a piece of dreck, and I was so panicked. We were rehearsing at Hunter College and there was this little organ, and I was playing this melody on the organ and the guys were taking a break. Ingrid was sitting there diddling on her horn, and I said, “Ingrid, why does this sound so good here and it just sounds like crap in the band?” And she said, “You know, that sounds like accordion; you should get Gary Versace to play that. We should call him and have him play on this.” I was like, “That’s a great idea.” So she’s thinking like a composer, but outside of my box. I was thinking, “I have this big band. I have to write for this big band.” But we called up Gary, and he could do the concert. Suddenly it gave me a whole new way to write because he’s got the high tessitura. He can play high and soft forever. A flute can’t do that. A trumpet can’t do that. Nobody in the band could. A piano can play high, but it decays immediately. So here the accordion can go eeeee super high and just go forever, and it gets this whole kind of ethnic sound going. I fell in love with it. So now I always write for that, but it wasn’t my idea.

FJO: And Gary Versace is now a regular member of the band.

MS: Yeah. So, you know, they all come up with ideas. When we had that gig at Visiones—we played there for five years—I would bring pieces in, not knowing exactly what I wanted. But playing them every week, [the musicians] started developing a way of phrasing—especially Keith O’Quinn on lead trombone, Tony Kadleck on lead trumpet, and George Flynn on bass trombone. These are not guys I’m always giving solos to. They’re good soloists, but they’re incredible lead players. And they would do these things with articulating notes—releasing, crescendoing—and the whole section would then start following them. When I started hearing how they phrase, then when I would come home and write my next piece, I would write to that. You know, I’d say, “Oh wow, yeah, I’m gonna do that and write sforzando-piano-crescendo here.” It was because of this collection of people, playing it their own way, collectively influencing each other, finding a collective way of phrasing without talking about it. There are so many layers of my music that I would have never found if I’d always been writing for a different group. Just by doing it, they made me write a certain way. And I would imagine that my writing and their playing it over the years has helped them find things in their own music, too. So we’ve changed each other. It’s the reason I don’t think I can ever end the band; it’s an organism now. It’s not a collection of people. It’s an old shoe that your foot fits perfectly in. You don’t ever want to throw it away. But it’s also almost like a living thing on its own. I can’t put [another] collection of musicians together and get the same breadth out of the music as what they do. They’re just exquisite.

FJO: And there have been surprisingly few personnel changes considering the amount of time the band has been around.

MS: And I think that’s been good. But here and there I made a couple of changes. At one point, I had a gig and [my regular] rhythm section wasn’t there that night. So it was a different rhythm section, and it pushed the music in such a different direction. And I said, you know what, I need this. I hate to let those other players go who are so amazing—we made such great music over the years and I love them—but I need something new pushing me to new corners. So I made a change. It was very difficult to do. But you have to do that sometimes. So I’ve done that at a few moments, and it usually puts me in bed for a week. I usually get sick after I have to do something like that, because it’s just not pleasant. I hope I don’t ever have to do it again.

FJO: I imagine you’re all close friends with each other.

MS: Yeah, it’s like family. But the thing I said to one of the players at that time is: “This has no bearing on what I think of somebody as a musician. But it’s only natural that at a certain point I’m going to need something fresh coming into my world. You’re a musician who is playing with different people every week. I’m a musician for whom you’re my primary group. I’m playing with the same musicians and making my music with the same musicians year after year after year. I have to change it because otherwise you become a little bit stale.”

FJO: Back when you were playing at Visiones, how frequently would you bring in new pieces?

MS: Not that frequently, because I’m really slow. So we played a lot of the same music night after night. It would change a little bit. Every year there’d be a few new pieces. I built up the book slowly. But now we can play several nights and there’s always music in that book we haven’t played in several years. Then we have some things we repeat more often. Luckily I had really creative musicians, people like Scott Robinson, and these guys that would just challenge themselves every night.

Maybe what was bad about that was it might have been torturous for them at certain moments For some of the guys, I think it was difficult to play the same solos week after week. If a player is playing and they’re repeating themselves and basically playing almost the same solo, everybody in the band can hear that. If you’re playing out in different places, you can come up with little gimmicks that really work and get an audience going every time. But if you’re sitting with the same guys, I think it really forced some of these musicians to grow, because they had to. They couldn’t fall into any sort of comfort trap of certain things that worked because it was just way too exposed in front of everybody. There were a few people in the audience that would have heard that, too.

FJO: In terms of the audience, did you notice regulars who’d be in there week after week?

MS: A bunch of the audience was different, but there were some that would come in quite often. So, I think there were different levels of this thing. Over the years, I remember certain people that would plateau and then all of a sudden, one week, bam! I remember when Donny McCaslin went from being a really good player to being a freakin’ incredible player. He subbed in the band, but he was out for a few weeks. And then, all of a sudden, he came back one week and played this solo. I was just like, oh my God. It was so heavy. And every one in the band has gone through transformations like that where I was just like, “Oh my God, this person just became masterful at what they do.” I wish I had a tape recording of every introduction that Frank Kimbrough played last season. He had these open solos I’d give him with no rhythm section on Greenpeace. He never repeated himself, ever. Amazing stuff he would do.

FJO: So here’s a loaded question. You studied piano; you’re a pianist—

MS: —Well, of sorts, passably. Barely. You mean, why am I not playing in the band?

FJO: Yeah.

MS: Because I’m horrible, that’s why. Because I would never hire [myself], I would never want to listen. Say there was somebody out there in New York that was the equivalent of me musically. I would never even think of calling them. If somebody sent them in as a sub to do my band, I’d want to kill them. That’s a good enough reason. I don’t need to play on my music; I don’t want to hear myself playing on my music. It’s enough for me to enjoy slopping through things at home.

FJO: Now in terms of jazz, though, that’s kind of unusual; there are only a few precedents for it.

MS: Yeah. It took Gil [Evans] a long time. He was in his 40s before he started really getting out there and playing a little. I think it took Carla Bley a while, too. But I haven’t been practicing over the years, and it’s not my mode of expression. My way of expressing myself, and the fun that I have making music, is in composing, getting the players together, and almost as a voyeur watching them play for each other and enjoying each other. Sometimes it feels almost like putting on a party, just sitting back and watching everybody interact with each other, and saying, “Wow, what a combination of people.” I put these people together and they’re taking my music and they’re making it their own. That, for me, is just joy. I don’t feel like I’m lacking something or that I want to sit down and play. Not at all.

FJO: Of course, you’re being somewhat self-effacing here, because you are on stage with them and conducting them.

MS: I guess I am, but you know, it’s mainly just to be a visual indication of what the sound is in the front. If you stand back by the trumpets, what they hear back there is just really a distortion of what the music really is. In the trombone section, the same thing. Nobody’s really hearing it as it is, except for me in the front. So I show them what I’m hearing: you guys play a little softer, you bring this out. And psychologically or spiritually, I’m sort of like a focus. Like if you’re meditating and you look at a spot on the wall or something. I bring everybody’s energy to the same concentrated point. I’ve heard the band play without me before. I know what it sounds like. It doesn’t sound as good. I don’t think it’s because I’m a great conductor. I just think because having somebody in front that knows what they want and everybody focusing on that brings the music to a focused place. It brings all the strands together and puts it into one. I honestly think, of course, if I was playing in the band, I’d probably be writing a different kind of music that wouldn’t require a conductor. But because I know I’m writing music and I’m standing there, it occurs to me to do all these things that you can only do with a conductor.

FJO: Your conducting technique is almost like dance.

MS: Yeah, and it’s very different from what I’ll be doing with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I was talking with a conductor, this guy Cliff Colnot who conducts a lot in Chicago, and he’s seen me conduct my band. He said, “Maria, you know, with an orchestra, they just want to see the time.” And I realized that the difference is, with a jazz group, the time is there.

Here and there, especially if I work with a young group, or a new group, and they’re just trying to keep it together, I become more of a timekeeper. But with my band, basically the time is there. I’m more trying to give them the sense of the flow, so that they don’t get too into over-articulating the time. I’m there to remind them that this thing should just feel; they visually see the music somehow in my body. With a classical orchestra, I’m going to have to hold that back a little bit. Maybe I’ll have just a little bit of that in me, but I can’t be flowing all over the place. So it’s going to be a challenge for me.