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Maria Schneider on composing, her CDs, the SPCO — and her Windom roots

Maria Schneider, who has been called “the foremost big-band composer of her generation,” is recording and performing this week with the SPCO.

Maria Schneider has been called “the foremost big-band composer of her generation.”
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Windom, a farm town in southwestern Minnesota – “a city of friendly people and genuine hospitality,” according to a former mayor – has produced three genuine celebrities despite its relatively small population of 4,646. Two of them are dead: Larry Buhler, who played for the Green Bay Packers from 1939 to 1941, and Johnny Olson, the TV game show announcer who, for “The Price Is Right,” invented the catch-phrase “Come on down!”

The third celeb, Maria Schneider, 51, who has been called “the foremost big-band composer of her generation,” is not only alive but, as she said in a recent interview, busier than ever. This week she is in the Twin Cities making a recording with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra of a song cycle on poems by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which she premiered here in 2008, and conducting twice this weekend in concerts with the orchestra and soprano Dawn Upshaw as soloist. Schneider will return a month later with her own 17-piece big band – or orchestra, to use the term she prefers – to play two nights, Oct. 30 and 31, at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis. As part of a tour, she and the orchestra will also perform in New York City, where she has lived since 1985, and in Japan. On her own, she will visit Brazil, a country whose music has been a continual source of inspiration in creating her own music. “Every day until the end of the year is accounted for,” she said, laughing.

Schneider began studying music at the age of 5 and grew up loving Ravel and Hindemith equally as much as Thelonious Monk and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Windom was too small to have a record store, but a clothing shop in town had a record bin that Maria flipped through as often as possible. (On trips home at Christmas, she signs CDs at the local flower shop.) She studied music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota and got her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music. During her first years in New York, she worked closely with the revered arranger/composer Gil Evans, best known for his collaborations with Miles Davis on “Sketches of Spain,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Miles Ahead.” After serving as Evans’ copyist, she graduated to being his assistant in writing arrangements for Sting and in composing scores for the films “The Color of Money” and “Absolute Beginners.”

Her first recording with her own orchestra, “Evanesence,” the first of six, was released in 1994 and received two Granny nominations. Her “Concert in the Garden,” put out in 2004, earned four nominations and won in the category of Best Large Ensemble. A second Grammy, for Best Instrumental Composition (“Cerulean Skies”), from the album “Sky Blue,” was awarded in 2007. “Concert in the Garden” was released only through Schneider’s ArtistShare website, which made it the first record to win a Grammy with Internet-only sales. This way of making records, involving the participation of the artist’s fans, is the wave of the future, Schneider said recently, speaking by phone from her home in New York.

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MinnPost: How does ArtistShare work?

Maria Schneider: Artist/Share is the best-kept secret in the industry. The idea, basically, is that the fans fund the project. The system allows me to put up all kinds of documentation on the project while I’m in the process of making it. So people are already preordering the CD. Or they can become a participant, in which case they get all these extra perks, including being listed on the CD. Plus, they get all this content, like I talk about the scores and how I write the music, and there are videos of the recording sessions. It’s really fun. The idea is to make the fans feel like they’re close to the musicians, and that they’re part of the process of making a record.

The first record I did this way had a really high budget, like $100,000, and yet I managed to pay for it. And we won a Grammy for that record. People wrote to me afterward, saying “Wow! I feel like I helped make this happen.” And that was the whole idea. In this day, when there’s file-sharing and people can get music anywhere, musicians have to offer more than just a record. You have to offer a relationship with the fan. I was the first person to sign up with ArtistShare, and I love it. Orchestras need to start doing records this way.

MP: And now you don’t have to deal with record companies and stores.

MS: Yeah, the old model with the record company is that you sell it to the distributor, who gets his cut. Then the record stores get their cut. Normally, the record company gets maybe $5 from a record that sells for $15 or $20, and they’re losing money on a lot of artists, so they set it up so that the artist doesn’t ever really get a royalty. Whereas, this way, ArtistShare gets 15 percent, and I get 85 percent, of the gross. The money is really going toward the making of the music.

MP: Will you be bringing anything new to the Dakota next month?

MS: I’m trying to get this one piece finished so that we can try it out there. In fact, there will be quite a few works that we haven’t recorded yet.

MP: Did your writing for the band change over time as you gradually got to know the musicians and their individual styles?

MS: My music for the band is far more malleable than what I write for an orchestra because the rhythm section can shape it differently every time they play it. And over time, the brass developed a way of phrasing my music because I wasn’t writing typical big-band stuff. Sometimes the result was different than I expected, but I liked it. My composing style has been a kind of slowly evolving improvisation with the band. The things they do affect me, and, in turn, I think my music has affected them as players – finding new ways of phrasing and new ways of looking at harmony. It’s been an incredible relationship. I think we value each other a lot.

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MP: And then you had that five-year run with the band at Visiones, a New York jazz club, similar to Gil Evans’ legendary Monday nights at Sweet Basil in the ‘80s. Evans’ music lives on. What was he like as a person? What adjectives describe him?

MS: Wispy, wizard-like, unpredictable, mystical. He had such a unique way of dealing with people and with his band, giving them a lot of freedom while being in control. He was a master, but he didn’t act like a master over other people. He gave his musicians a lot of room. And sometimes people would take that freedom too far, and then he’d get angry. He was an amazing person. I felt really fortunate to know him. Sometimes things got so loose in his world, though, that it would drive me crazy, organizationally. He was so meticulous in his writing. On the other hand, he was this loose, loving operation. He was like those things that you love that can, at the same time, make you crazy.

MP: You’ve said over the years that you prefer the title “jazz orchestra” rather than “big-band.” And that makes sense. You don’t do theme-solos-theme in the manner of the old big-bands.  Your pieces flow from one section to another and us subtle, surprising colors.

MS: I always think of big-band music as theme and variations. My music’s much more through-composed, like classical music. And on my last two records, I don’t even use the word “jazz” anymore. It’s just the Maria  Schneider Orchestra because I also think the word “jazz” is limiting.

MP: You’ve described your music as “translucent.” What do you mean by that?

MS: “Translucent” refers to orchestration. Traditional big-band writing is sectional: trumpets, trombones, saxophones. It has a kind of power because of that, a wall of sound. With mine, I use a lot of mutes of different colors, and I combine things, like muted trumpet playing with a woodwind while two others are playing with a fluegel horn and a bass clarinet. It’s like you’re looking at gauze that has different textures in it. Gil’s music was that way, even though we orchestrate quite differently. What we share is an attraction to softer-hued sound. At times, I do the big wall of sound, too, but at other times I give it a lot of space.

MP: Have you ever thought that you’d be happier, professionally speaking, had you been born 50 or 60 years earlier, when big bands ruled the pop-jazz world?

MS: It might have been different for a woman back then, however. Women didn’t have as many choices. It might have been rougher for a woman, whereas now it’s a zero-issue, for me, anyway. It’s something I don’t even think about, but it might have been a real issue back then, quite limiting.

And also the big-band music back then was largely dance music, though there were exceptions like the Sauter-Finegan band and Claude Thornhill that definitely would have been my cup of tea.

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MP: Your Andrade songs that you’ll be conducting here this week were commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. How did that come about?

MS: Dawn [Upshaw] asked me to write something for the SPCO, which made me scared because the classical world is such a different thing from what I had been doing. But I love Dawn’s singing, so I finally said yes. A friend of mine suggested Andrade’s poetry. He’s dead now, but he remains Brazil’s most popular poet. I got good translations of them. What I loved is that these poems are like little stories and have very clear imagery, and that’s what a lot of my music is about: imagery. But I ended up loving it so much that when she asked me to do it again, I was really happy to do it. For these, which will be the other half of the record, we used poems by the American poet Ted Kooser, who’s from Iowa. His poems feel so much like home to me.

MP: Do you make it to Windom occasionally during your visits here?

MS: Most of my family’s in Minneapolis now. My father died last year. But I still have close friends in Windom. There’s a farming family down there, and I always go and stay at their farm. They even had my whole band stay at their farm when we went down there and played in 2002. We played in a beautiful hall there that has wonderful acoustics.

MP: Are you treated like a star there?

MS: They give me a nice amount of attention. When the band came the last time, they had the town’s fire engine meet us outside of town and lead the bus around the town square. I just love the town, and, you know, a lot of people there are doing just amazing things, like a friend of mine there is creating a new model for caring for aging autistic people. And we had fantastic teachers there when I was growing up. Some of the most brilliant people I know come from Windom.


St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Maria Schneider conductor/composer. 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, Wayzata Community Church, 125 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata; 8 p.m. Saturday, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ,  900 Summit, St. Paul. $10 and $25. Children, $5. 651-291-1144.

Composer Conversation Series with Maria Schneider. Friday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. UBS Forum at MPR Broadcast Center Downtown St. Paul.

Maria Schneider and her Orchestra. 7 p.m. Oct. 30; 9 p.m. Oct. 31. Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet, Minneapolis. $40 and $60. 612-332-1010.