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Maria Schneider: On Worlds Diverged

Dan Bilawsky By

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We stand today at an intersection between two realities. On one side there's digital darkness—an underbelly of networked netherworlds, profiteers building fortunes on the collective back of musicians, sinister forces posing as corporate protagonists—and on the other, pure light given over through nature's gifts, a kindness and humanity that grace daily existence, and the beauty and interconnectivity of art in its many forms. The act of recognizing how these macrocosms stand as foe vs. friend has been obscured by the modern era, but Maria Schneider is more than happy to clear that up for us.

Schneider, a revered composer, the leader and conductor of one of jazz's most uniquely expressive large ensembles, a five-time Grammy winner, and a 2019 NEA Jazz Master, has been noticing and navigating this growing rift for quite a while. An outspoken advocate for artists' rights, she's testified before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and penned articles addressing big tech's anarchic hold on music while, at the same time, tapping into Earth's bounties and a persistence of memory to create some of the most breathtaking and tear-inducing works we've ever seen. Schneider is clearly no stranger to either pole, but, perhaps for the first time in her career, her very different relationships to each have been linked.

With Data Lords (ArtistShare, 2020), the Maria Schneider Orchestra's eagerly awaited double album that dropped in the middle of the summer of COVID-19, a dark, partitioned message is delivered before the package is even unwrapped. The familiar image of the individual—the composer looking straight out at us on the cover of Evanescence (Enja, 1994), inhaling the fragrance of a flower on Alegresse (ArtistShare, 2000), in profile against the titular shade on Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007)—has been replaced by a divergent design. On the front of the exterior jacket, set against a black background, rests a bisected leaf with a venation pattern split between digital and natural realms; and on the back, a statement of purpose—or, to be more precise, "A story of two worlds..."

While Schneider didn't initially set out to create a split-and-bound narrative tied to a conflicting convergence, she fully recognizes how it came to be. "If I look at the music," she confesses, "it's sort of a psychological read on my life and what I've been going through." An "independent risk-taker" from the very start of her recording career in the early '90s, Schneider has evolved as the industry has undergone massive upheaval. Along the way she's been artfully sidestepping every pitfall that technology has laid at her feet. First came the dawn of peer-to-peer piracy and a creative workaround that thrust her into the public light: "In the year 2000 I made Alegresse. And at that time, Napster was really taking hold and freaking out the record companies. It was around that time that Brian Camelio, who founded ArtistShare, called me and said, 'Maria, what's the one thing that nobody can file share?'" His answer? The creative process. That aha moment, which led to platform and software development for the internet's first fan-funding website, proved to be a success in multiple ways: The label's maiden voyage with that model— Schneider's Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)—received tremendous support and became the first Grammy-winning album spawned from this concept. "That was a major step," she recalls, "and it was inspired by, or as a counteraction to, Napster."

The advent of YouTube in 2005, and its subsequent ascendancy, proved to be an even more serious issue for musicians, and one that Schneider quickly recognized. "When I started seeing things go up on YouTube, I remember thinking, 'who cleared those rights?' I immediately saw the illegality of it. I saw that it was completely wrong, and lawless, and basically the Wild West of music. I knew that it was likely going to be a real problem, and it only got worse and worse because what it did is, it got people used to thinking that it's okay for music to be free."

Over the years, as that line of entitled thought became ever more prominent in the music-consuming masses, Schneider pushed back against the tide, speaking out publicly and privately about the associated problems surrounding YouTube's use—or looting—of music, artists receiving mere fractions of crumbs from the meals they actually create, and musicians, essentially, being led into servitude by these content monitors. But her compositions, all the while, didn't absorb much anger or angst. Instead, her writing often evoked purity—the art of dance, sonic salves, birds in flight, the draw of Brazil, prairies painted in polychords and a childhood surrounded by the simple beauties of Windom, Minnesota. It wasn't until she collaborated with one of music's most mutable icons that she began to fully embrace a sense of gloom and dread in her art. "Working with David Bowie [on 2014's single "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)"] kind of brought that intensity—the dark side that hadn't been there to a very great degree for a lot of years—out in my music," she explains. Those inky shades, when set against or beside the light provided by nature, would ultimately inform the diptych-like structure for Data Lords.

The Digital World

The first half of the double album—The Digital World—is something of a dive into the depths with scenery that ripples out into the void. As with its antidotal response—The Natural World—it leans on the longstanding relationships Schneider has formed with the musicians in her orchestra. The familial bonds within the ensemble are the key to much of its creative thrust and success, as multiple band members and Schneider readily admit. "There are quite a few of us who've been with Maria for over 25 years," notes pianist Frank Kimbrough as he rattles off a list that includes trombonists Keith O'Quinn and George Flynn, trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Greg Gisbert, and multi-reedist Scott Robinson, among others. And then, of course, there are also relative newcomers, like trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis and drummer Johnathan Blake, who bring something different to the table and are immediately welcomed into the fold. Dave Pietro, a mainstay in the saxophone section for decades, cites the "unique comradery and symbiosis that has developed over time" as one of the defining factors for the group. And Schneider herself concurs with the thought that she takes an Ellingtonian approach to her work, writing for the individuals, not the instruments. "Absolutely. Not even consciously. It just is, because they're what I hear. When I think of a band, I hear my band."

The musicians become the storytellers in these works, and each composition carries a tale worth hearing. As Schneider "looks for the DNA of an idea," she often thinks of the person or people best suited to bring it to life. In the case of the opener—"A World Lost"—it was guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. Dwelling on the "dark-hued tone qualities" that she admires in the playing of both men, Schneider painted a shadowy, swaying canvas that serves as a meditation on how technological devices have erased connections to external dimensions and internal creative wells in today's youth.

The follow-up offering—"Don't Be Evil"—takes a well-deserved swipe at Google's now-scrubbed motto and the company's inability to even meet that very basic threshold. Citing mass abuses and controls that brainwash youngsters, fill coffers through the passing of purloined data, and undermine democracy, Schneider uses the piece to mock Google, with a sonic blend of humor and bite, as "the cartoonish overlord that it is." Starting like a drunken, warped tango in hell before building steam and strength, the piece offers intentional glimpses into exaggeration, with a wide vibrato, while providing looks at prime personalities like bassist Jay Anderson, who threads his sound into the fabric early on, Monder, and Kimbrough. Trombonist Ryan Keberle, who delivers what's perhaps the most powerful solo in the piece, proves to be a standout through sound and sentiments. To Schneider's ears, his work here plays as an analogue to "Reveille" in its ability to serve as a wake-up call.

Piquing interest even further within the grand scheme of "Don't Be Evil," there's the sly insertion of a familiar signal into various seams in the music. "'Taps happens a few times in the piece, and then at the very end," Schneider explains. "And that's sort of [pondering], death to who? Is it death to us? Or is it our cry to stop them? By allowing these companies to take our data [while we use their products] as a convenience, are we ensuring our own death? And how do we fight this?" These questions emerge in the wake of that familiar, melancholic bugle call, but the answers remain intentionally unclear.

"CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?"—the literal centerpiece on The Digital World—stands out for several reasons. For starters, a chief musical principle —the use of Morse code to define the rhythms in the composition—was cemented in place before a note was ever written. Then there's the personal connection, as the work references and draws inspiration from Schneider's father's love of ham radio. And finally, it serves as a statement drawn to parallels and perpendiculars. As Schneider points out, both ham radio and the internet are similar in their use of a binary language and ostensible dealings with connective purpose. Of course, major differences—adherence to certain ethics, an avoidance of commercialism—explain why the former achieved its goal to bring people together while the latter's success rate has been questionable.

Bent on finding the proper sound of expression, and drawn to more experimentation than she's accustomed to in the creative process, Schneider struggled far more than usual with finding her footing with "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" In fact, she scrapped two complete versions of the piece because she felt they were off the mark. The third time, however, was the charm. On that final version, rhythms float and flick by in the ether. Donny McCaslin's tenor saxophone portrays the human voice, climbing out of the haze and searching for the company of another. But instead of finding that kindred spirit, he encounters the embodiment of artificial intelligence in the form of Gisbert's effects-laden trumpet. It's a brilliant performance narrative, from ensemble and soloists, and one that speaks volumes about Schneider's impossibly high artistic standards and the work ethic she puts into practice to reach them.

Looking further away and above to the space race, both in its past incarnation, as a point of competition between countries, and in its present state, where companies launch thousands of satellites into the sky, the aptly-named "Sputnik" imagines these objects "as humanity's ever-expanding exoskeleton," blending machine and man through the use of raw materials and personal data. But it goes a step further with numerical architecture. "The piece is basically the opening theme played 12 times," Schneider explains. "When I wrote it, it automatically felt like it wanted to modulate up a half step. So it's a theme that happens 12 times and goes through all 12 keys. And then I realized, we have 12 months in a year, which is the 12 lunar cycles going around the Earth, and it's also like the 12 zodiac signs. So it's really symbolic of space." Giving featured soloist Scott Robinson only a single piece of advice and its inverse—"When the band goes low, you go high/When the band goes high, you go low"—Schneider received just what she wanted, noting his masterful performance on baritone saxophone.

"Data Lords," closing out the The Digital World, presents ghosts in the machine and devils in the design flow. Having read both Google-employed futurist Ray Kurzweil's work and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's writings on the subject of AI's evolutionary possibilities, Schneider aligned her art with the latter's beliefs about the dangers in front of us and the way machine(s) may rule man if we continue down the paths that giant corporations have been paving with technology. In this most turbulent of settings, Mike Rodriguez uses electronics to enhance his sound and soloing while pointing to a technological reign. Then alto saxophonist Dave Pietro works the other side. "My approach to my solo on 'Data Lords' is one where I'm a human voice, representing humanity's last cry before being annihilated by technology," he explains.

While the startling and jarring nature of that closer and some of what precedes it adds up to the boldest stroke in Schneider's discography, and Bowie's aforementioned influence certainly helped draw these feelings out of the composer, it wouldn't be accurate to say she's never flirted with fire in the past. Pietro is quick to point this out, as is Kimbrough, who encapsulates his thoughts with incredible insight: "When you go back to, say, "Scenes from Childhood" [from Coming About (Enja, 1996)]. There are antecedents there, especially, connecting "Bombshelter Beast" and "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" There are seeds that maybe were planted 25 years ago that kind of come back. But they appear differently, partially due to whoever is in the band now. It's not like this music is coming out of nowhere." That reality, however true it may be, does nothing to dull the impact of the newer work. But it does, as Kimbrough suggests, indicate that there are threads that can be traced from previous compositions to Schneider's present use of force.

The Natural World

While shadows and threats descend from all angles in the digital domain, The Natural World proves to be the antithesis, offering a sign of hope and a tonic to ease suffering. Following in the footsteps of Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare, 2015), it's a collection that's in greater and more obvious alignment with Schneider's portfolio from the recent past. "Bluebird," for example, can be seen as a logical extension of "Cerulean Skies" and "Arbiters of Evolution" in theme, though not in content. Pointing once again to Schneider's love of birdwatching, it's a welcome addition that introduces a different slant and species of composition to her aural aviary. "Of all the pieces on the album, it has the most contrast," she admits. "And I really love the Steve Wilson section. It's this traditional kind of funky thing, and there's literally nothing in my repertoire that sounds like that. It's probably the least like me, but I really enjoy it."

The compositions bookending that beauty—"Braided Together" and "The Sun Waited for Me"—further speak to past connections, taking cues from poet Ted Kooser's Winter Morning Walks (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000) and building off the musical settings Schneider created for the like-named song cycle and album featuring vocalist Dawn Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and a trio of familiars—Kimbrough, Anderson and Robinson. On The Thompson Fields she made a similar move, adapting "Walking By Flashlight" for her orchestra, but, despite two more steps in that direction here, this isn't likely to become a habit. "There were only three pieces from [Winter Morning Walks (ArtistShare, 2013)] that I really thought would work like that, and now I've done them."

With "Braided Together," derived from "All Night, in Gusty Winds" on the Upshaw project, Pietro's alto serves as the central voice. The saxophonist, on some level, noted that he draws inspiration from his parents' marriage—at 59 years and counting—along with his own when improvising on this piece that recognizes, in his words reflecting the poet and composer's intentions, "how a married couple's house is the physical manifestation of their love for each other, and how it protects them from the 'gusty winds' and challenges of life." On the uplifting "The Sun Waited for Me," a newly-drawn take on "How Important It Must Be" from the aforementioned classical work, it's Marshall Gilkes' trombone melody and McCaslin's tenor solo that brighten the skies and offer a broad appreciation for the marvels of the universe. "It's like suddenly you get such perspective on life, and it's this concept that every day the world spins, and there's this star in the middle of our solar system—the sun," Schneider shares with awe.

The other three tracks from The Natural World, which constitute the first half of its running order, branch out in various directions. "Sanzenin," taking its name from an ancient Buddhist temple in Ohara, Japan, serves as a peaceful opener and soothing feature for Gary Versace's accordion. "It's just a chord sequence—eight chords," Schneider notes. "It happens again and again. They never change. The idea was to just change the orchestration back and forth between chords—so a little wind on one chord, a little brass on another—so it's just [dealing in] different shades of color. I wanted something that was very simplistic. If people are listening from a download, after 'Data Lords' it's quite the palate cleanser, that's for sure."

Praising Versace for the creativity in his work, Schneider also shares what his instrument, a latter-day signature in her music, brings to the table. "The thing, to me, that is the single biggest hole and gap in the [standard] big band is that there are no instruments that can play high and soft and sustain. The flutist runs out of breath...and the trumpets get shrill and then get tired. The piano doesn't sustain. It's not like a violin in an orchestra. But suddenly you have the accordion that sustains and it fills out that high tessitura that I love. Plus it gives this sound—that reedy sound that I adore. And it has a character that, in terms of comping, is just so different."

The quiet and reflective scenes of "Sanzenin" give way to the album's most whimsical offering in the form of "Stone Song." Inspired by an orb-like art piece that Schneider purchased from renowned potter Jack Troy, she used it's rattling—the product of a stone inside—as a way to draw out the muses: "I wasn't even planning on writing music with it. I just loved it, and I came home, sat down, and just started writing. It was like I heard that sound. I was like, 'oh, I'm going to write a song that's feeling like little stones rolling and bumping along,' and pretty quickly I thought of Steve [Wilson] as the soloist." Marking it as the most unique piece on the album, Schneider also indicates that it stands out for its compact company: For two-thirds of the piece, it's just a playful quintet in motion.

"Look Up," a clear take on optimism, was expressly written for the talents of Gilkes, whose range, tone and character prove to be a beacon of warmth and wonder. "I sat down and started playing around, imagining him, and ended up coming up with that melody," she shares. Of course, as with many of Schneider's pieces, the necessary execution required after that act of creation demanded tremendous heights, both literally and figuratively. "I was on tour in France when Maria emailed me the initial melody for 'Look Up,'" notes Gilkes. "At first I thought she had just sent it up an octave in treble clef, but when talking to her she said that was where she wanted it played. It's a real challenge and [a piece] I really enjoy playing." As Gilkes flies high, thoughts of rising above the danger and din of modern life emerge. It's a message that proves profound in light of the album's theme.

Our World

After spending incalculable hours, days, months and years on every aspect of this painstakingly-crafted project—brainstorming, writing, rehearsing, experimenting, recording, mixing, mastering and package design—Schneider can theoretically clock out having now shepherded Data Lords into existence. But her relationship with its two realities remains a constant. Just weeks before the album's release she filed a class action lawsuit against YouTube, focusing on the fact that independent musicians are denied access to Content ID, which makes it difficult-to-impossible for them to deal with copyright infringement issues on the platform. And while isolating herself in her home on the Upper Delaware during the COVID-19 crisis, she's been able to take sanctuary in nature's grasp.

There's no doubt about the power and meaning both implicit and explicit in Data Lords, and the album's significance has only been amplified by the pandemic's presence. Kimbrough, for example, notes the expanded meaning and prescient nature surrounding a piece like "A World Lost." And Schneider herself is fully aware of how the quarantine has pushed people to polar extremes with an increased use of video conferencing and a clambering for the relief that only the outdoors can offer. But it's Robinson, addressing this crossroads in our existence, the necessary questions that trail off of the music and the importance of the work as a whole, who really ties things together:

It really does feel like humanity is at a critical juncture these days, and we've got some hard choices to make, among them: Is every human entitled to be more than a number, more than a statistic, more than a marketing tool? How much of ourselves, of our humanity, are we willing to give up for convenience and instant gratification? And most important of all, I think: Are we finally going to decide to treasure this incredible natural world we've been given, and be its stewards, or are we just going to let it all go to hell because we don't care, or because we can make a few bucks while it lasts?

I see Maria's new album as a call to action, to caring. I think that, with Data Lords, Maria deserves to be viewed alongside people like Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, who made powerful music that was meant to be something more than just expressive sound. Something which actually touches the conscience of the listener, whispers in their ear, and suggests a better way, a more just path, a brighter tomorrow. I hope people will humbly approach this work and come away at least a little changed. We could all use it.


Photo credit: Briene Lermitte

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