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.

Meanings and Complexity

Frank J. Oteri: You’ve said that visual associations are very important to you, and a lot of your pieces have autobiographical references. How much of that do you want other people—whether it’s other players or the audience—to get from the music?

Maria Schneider: I like it when people get it because I think it helps bring people inside the music and relates the music to their own worlds. They kind of dive into it as a story, especially people who aren’t musicians. I’m writing these long through-composed pieces, but suddenly they can be a part of it. I don’t want my music to alienate anybody. I want it to be reachable by everybody. I’ve heard critics say I don’t want to hear what she has to say about the music. She explains too much; I just want to hear the music. Nate Chinen was, I think, the last person to say something like that. But at nearly every single gig, I have people come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you told the story. I could hear the birds.” Or for The Pretty Road: “It reminded me of my hometown.” And I have e-mails from people. There was even a woman from Rio who ended up writing lyrics in Portuguese about a road like that going into her neighborhood of Rio. And it’s just really beautiful. And if I hadn’t put that story in the liner notes, what would that aleatoric section in the middle of that piece have meant to her? I don’t know. Maybe she would have somehow felt something or maybe not. I can’t say.

FJO: Since you used the word aleatoric, let’s get really abstract for a little while. Music is by its nature abstract, even tonal music, even beautiful-sounding music. And your music is very pretty and you want people to like it and to get it. But at the same time, your use of counterpoint is incredibly sophisticated. Darcy James Argue has even written an extensive essay on his website comparing your Bulería piece to what Michael Gordon might write for the Bang on a Can All-Stars in terms of there being this really sophisticated, polyrhythmic, weird metrical thing going on. But I don’t think that any of this is necessarily something that most listeners are going to notice going on in that music. So why did you put it there?

MS: My mother sometimes says to me, “Your music is avant-garde.” And I’m like, “Trust me, mom, my music is not avant garde.” She thinks that it’s complex. [Other] people have said that [too], but I think it’s almost painfully simple sometimes.

Back to that conversation I had with Cliff Colnot. [We talked] about Daniel Barenboim explaining melody. Sometimes he’ll play a Ravel melody. If you just sing the melody, it sounds so simple; it almost feels like a child’s melody. But if you put the harmony against it, the context of that melody is against something else rhythmically. What’s very simple suddenly has poignancy or confusion or contradiction. On the surface it seems simple, but there is this complexity that’s giving a kind of richness to that melody. I hope that’s what my music has in a way. I think it’s very detailed and I think it’s highly intricate. And maybe that’s what they mean by complex. But the melodies are so simple, they’re almost childlike. But it’s that little stuff inside and the odd intervals that you make or the certain kind of rhythm that you put underneath something that makes something that’s simple just a little bit richer.

Hopefully it feels accessible, human, real. It’s direct, you know, you just kind of tell it like it is. I think in a way that’s what’s Midwestern about it. But if you look deeper, it’s like looking at the landscape of where I come from. It’s flat. You look at it, and it’s very flat. I remember the first time my band played there. We landed in Minneapolis, and we all took a bus down. But [the bassist] Tony Scherr was coming from Denver or something. So he landed later and rented a car and drove down. When he saw me, he came running up to me laughing and said, “Maria, it’s just so bleak.” And I thought, I guess it is, you know, it’s really flat. It’s big farmland. It’s this expanse of nothing, and it looks like that. You go by every town and you think that must be a boring little town. What can be happening there? But if you go inside of it, if you walk through a field, you’ll see the pheasants and the bees, you’ll see the life. All of a sudden, it’s so rich.

When I was a kid, I had a nursery school teacher and she was really amazing: Mrs. Celine. She would have us sit down, and we would sit there for like an hour and a half. Imagine, nursery school! She’d put us each on the ground somewhere and then just ask us to observe all the things we saw. And it was like, I have an anthill! Oh my God, my ant is carrying something down the hole, you know. Suddenly you start seeing what to somebody else is just dirt and ground and patchy grass; you start seeing that there’s a whole world there. So I think my music’s like that. It’s pretty simple in its message, but if you go inside of it, there’s a whole world there.