From the Magazine: Maria Schneider ‘Attacking the Data Lords’

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“If everybody gets used to getting their music for free, nobody is going to pay for music anymore,” says bandleader Maria Schneider.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Your writing can be as complex and modern as anybody’s, but you’re also not afraid to write something that’s beautiful, melodic and simple. Does that reflect your priorities as an artist?

I like a wide variety of music. And I never felt the urge to impress people with my music. I think jazz sometimes suffers from that. Young musicians may think they have to have more “thick” harmony, or faster, more complex lines. It’s the idea that, to be progressive, you have to “do more,” and not realizing that the simplest thing can be very raw and profound. I long ago tried to fight off the “need to impress” demons.

Writing music to poetry, as I did with Ted Kooser’s poems [on 2013’s Winter Morning Walks] drew me out of myself. It took away the judgment and fear I often feel. It became all about trying to do justice to that beautiful poem.

It sounds like you have a pretty fierce inner critic.

Ugh. Terrible. I’ve been really struggling lately.

How do you deal with that?

I don’t know. I’m always trying to deal with it. My only comfort is that I’ve gone through this every time I’ve completed a big project … . I always feel like I’m finished, like I don’t have anything else left in me.

As a friend of mine said, it’s like soil: You cannot farm a field continually with the same crop. You have to give the soil a rest, change the crop; otherwise, it can’t keep giving and giving. We really are like soil.

The Thompson Fields has a deeply American sound, especially the hymn-like title composition. What makes it sound American?

I don’t know where it comes from. I do know that when I was a kid, some of the first classical music that I was really taken with was Aaron Copland, the classic stuff like Appalachian Spring. And I love some of the songs of the ’60s that have that, too—Laura Nyro’s songs, and Jimmy Webb’s, like “Wichita Lineman.” I love him. I’d love to meet him.

A lot of that music from the early and mid-’60s had something really “American” in it, a joyful optimism and exuberance, and that’s in my bones.

My partner, Mark, and I have a place in the country that we visit on weekends. I’ve been living in Manhattan, and I’m not a city girl. Spending time upstate transported me back into that place I was when I was younger. All of the sudden I was like, “Oh my god, we have to plant milkweed for the monarchs, and investigate about native plants … .” Then I went back home [to Minnesota]. It reignited that flame inside of me. There’s nostalgia there; there’s that open landscape, the influence of the music I listened to then. It brought me back in time, through the lens of big band and jazz. The Thompson Fields is my past, through that prism.

What’s on your agenda for the next few months?

We’re playing the West Coast in February, with dates in Oregon [Feb. 17] and California [Feb. 18–22]. People will definitely hear my new piece, “Data Lords.” But first we’ll do our annual Thanksgiving week gig at The Jazz Standard [in New York]. I just love doing that. At some point I’d like to make a live album there.

Were you overwhelmed by the warm reception given to The Thompson Fields?

It’s been gratifying, of course, but of all the compliments I’ve gotten, maybe the sweetest one was this: A musician friend of mine wrote to me that he was driving his 12-year-old son to soccer practice recently and playing The Thompson Fields on the car stereo. After a few minutes of listening, his son said, “Wow, Dad, I didn’t know there was music that sounded like this.” DB

Bonus: To read Schneider’s four-point plan of action for ensuring artist parity in the digital era, click here.

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June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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