Q&A: Maria Schneider On Boys’ Clubs, Brazilian Influences, And Being A “COM-PO-SER”


Maria Schneider laughs at your genre distinctions; like Duke Ellington, she aims for a stylistic plateau “beyond category.” For decades, that has meant music that can be both soaringly lyrical–no apologies, academics–even as it finds root in some deeply original orchestration. Schneider learned from Gil Evans (the guy who arranged Miles Davis’s charts on Sketches of Spain), and she’s since passed her knowledge on, as an instructor, to next-gen innovators like Darcy James Argue.

This Friday sees the New York premiere of her first piece for an orchestra, Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories (for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra), which is being presented as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring For Music festival. (Since the idea is for audiences to take a flyer on unusual repertoire, tickets are priced at $25.)

Schneider spoke to SOTC by phone about the differences between jazz and classical composition, her Brazilian influences, and whether or not composition is a boys’ club. (The conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.)

This piece is getting its New York premiere courtesy of the unstoppable soprano Dawn Upshaw and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. How did it come about?

Dawn is an artistic partner of the orchestra, and she had approached me. She had come to hear my jazz band for years–and she asked me to write a piece for her. And I said: “Ahhh, I don’t have any experience with this at all. Orchestra, classical, soprano, writing for words: none of it! Every aspect seemed so foreign to what I do, which is writing instrumental music for jazz groups. But I finally decided to give it a whirl.

Had you felt a latent desire over the years to try this sort of writing?

No: it was a latent fear–fear that something like this would happen. A lot of people would say “you should write for orchestra,” and I was just really scared of it. Partly because I started in classical music-I started college in 1979 and my background was in both, without thinking about genre. I had a teacher who taught me stride piano and classical piano at the same time, and she was a phenomenal pianist in both idioms. Then I got to school and, at that time, the classical world was very just culturally into atonality. And if your music wasn’t extremely cerebral and complex in terms of its tonality and everything … forget about it.

Don’t sell your music short, though. Your jazz orchestrations can be wonderfully thick.

Absolutely. I wouldn’t by any means say my music is simplistic. But my way has always been … I mean, I love harmony and tonality. The way Brazilians love harmony! My music isn’t highly packed with dissonance and rhythmic complexity… it’s not obtuse. I think my music is very intricate but it’s also accessible. That accessibility was considered something really awful back then. So I’ve been terrified of the classical world ever since!

Dawn assured me, though. She said “Maria, I want you to do what you do.” And the other side of it is I’ve heard a lot of jazz composers write for classical orchestras and all of a sudden they sound like [Anton] Webern. It’s just so weird! And I can’t stand that, when you write in another idiom and suddenly you become a “COM-PO-SER.” The only way I’m gonna do this is if I write and my music sounds like me.

Can you give a sort of stylistic preview of this piece we’ll hear at Carnegie on Friday?

It’s very lyrical. I picked the poetry of a Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade-a favorite poet of the 20th century in Brazil. And I decided to use an English translation, since I found beautiful ones by Mark Strand–a poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner and a really great poet in his own right. So I love the poetry, and because my music has some Brazilian influence, it’s a good connector to the classical world.

So in this piece the first movement is vocalize, which is a Brazilian tradition. A little bit of what they call a choro style. Just a touch of that influence. There are parts that have intensity–one of the poems is called “Don’t Kill Yourself”!

You’re also conducting the performance at Carnegie. How has that been?

Well, an orchestra can’t do what a jazz band does. I’m learning that too. Today was a really learning experience in how they approach time. I have to find their comfort zone and learn and be in it. I’m the outsider here, so I’m trying to figure it out. And I did. After an hour and a half today it started to come. And I wanna learn more about it because it’s good for me, but it’s scary.

It’s also interesting, since next year’s New York Philharmonic season contains zero compositions by women. And jazz is sometimes thought of as a boys’ club as well. Have you ever felt that?

I always hate to say it because I know there are people out there who have problems, and I don’t like to be cavalier about it. But, knock on wood, I’ve never felt that or had a problem with it at all. And I don’t know. I feel everybody’s being very respectful and giving me opportunities. The man that did the commission together with Dawn, he’s actually with the New York Philharmonic. His name is John Mangum. And when I first was gonna do this I said: “John I’ve never done this before; if you can accept that this might be an absolute disaster, I’ll go ahead.” And he said “okay, let’s go ahead!” He went ahead and hired me. And he’s now one of the head people at the New York Philharmonic.

That’s good to hear! Do you have plans to write more orchestral pieces after this one?

Dawn asked me to do a second one, and that one is for the Ojai Festival [with the Australian Chamber Orchestra]. And that’s happening in June. I said, “What I’d like to do is put in a couple of guys from my own band, and include improvisation, so it really is a mix.” I’m really excited about that.

I tried to really mix it and not make it sound like it’s a classical orchestra backing up a jazz musician. But have the jazz musician meet them with language that sounds classical in its approach. My music for years has not been easily categorizable.

So after that piece premieres, will we get an ArtistShare CD of Maria Schneider pieces for orchestra?

That’s my plan! That’s… as I take over the world. No, I’m kidding. But I do wanna do the ArtistShare thing on this. I really hope to record it with each of these orchestras. The Australian Chamber Orchestra has said that they wanna do that. We have to find out if St. Paul will go ahead with that. But we’re planning on doing it next May; we already have the dates set up.

Maria Schneider’sCarlos Drummond de Andrade Stories (for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra) will be performed Friday, May 13, at Carnegie Hall.