Q&A: Maria Schneider On Boys' Clubs, Brazilian Influences, And Being A "COM-PO-SER"

Dani Gurgel

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"!

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