Maria Schneider’s bird’s-eye view of the music industry
Maria Schneider has taken flight. She’s composed a piece for the Eastman School of Music’s centennial celebration, which she’ll be premiering Wednesday, April 27, at the school’s Kilbourn Hall.
Performed by the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the work is called, “The Great Potoo.”
“I started writing music and all of a sudden this bird came to my, to my mind,” she says. “And I felt like I was channeling the bird.”
A Grammy-winning, Pulitzer Prize finalist, anti-corporation, musician-rights advocate and solitude-minded composer, Schneider has a lot more than birds on the brain. Yet when it came to creating a piece to celebrate her alma mater, she began thinking of that bird she saw years ago, during a visit to Brazil.
The potoo, an exotic creature that “shape-shifts its body to be like a branch on a tree,” Schneider says. And by night, the potoo “has crazy eyes. It’s bizarre.”
It’s a bird that looks like a Sesame Street puppet, which might explain the early appeal. “In the first grade, I was sure I was going to be an ornithologist,” Schneider says.
But other things happened to the kid from Minnesota.
The piano. The Eastman School of Music, from which she graduated in 1985 with a master’s degree in music. She worked with jazzmen Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and John Fedchock, to whom she was married for a while. She began stretching out, collaborating with the pop star Sting. Composing, conducting her big band jazz group, The Maria Schneider Orchestra. Jazz that sometimes crosses over to classical.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra has won seven Grammy Awards, including three for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. It is perhaps the most significant big-band outfit on the jazz landscape today. Her National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Award is as big an honor as jazz hands out.
Yet Schneider always comes home to the birds. She’ll be at Eastman throughout much of next week, teaching and conducting “The Great Potoo” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Kilbourn Hall. Then she returns to New York City, generally acknowledged by casual avian observers for nothing more than a pedestrian pigeon population. Does it really have much to offer for bird watchers?
“Oh my God, yes!” Schneider says, pointing out that Central Park is rated -- we’re not sure who rates these things -- as the 12th-best birding spot in the United States. “The morning I get back, I’m running to the park with my binoculars.” In time to catch the spring migration up the East Coast; the birds see that big, green spot in the midst of the city and settle in to rest and eat. There’s a cerulean warbler! A prothonotary warbler!
And an entire community of bird nerds! “When somebody sees something rare and exciting,” Schneider says, “the word spreads really fast and everybody goes running to whatever place it is.”
Speaking of exotic creatures, David Bowie came to see The Maria Schneider Orchestra one night in 2014. He left before the show was over, so she didn’t get to meet him. But a short time later, “his people reached out, he wanted to collaborate on something.”
Yes, Bowie was one of those rare birds who had reached the stratospheric level that demands he has “his people.” The rock star and the jazz big-band orchestra chanteuse connected; Bowie had a song that called for a particular Schneider specialty.
“Oh, he wanted dark, he reveled in dark,” she says. “He liked my darkest music.”
And Bowie got what he wanted, a collaboration on a dark song -- “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” -- and its accompanying dark video. Pure avant-garde, jazz-rock, film-noir. “A man kills his wife for cheating on him,” Schneider says. “It’s a beautiful song. I really love what we created.”
Indeed. In the right hands, murder can be a thing of beauty. And it was another Grammy win for Schneider, for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.
But the Eastman School of Music was hardly breeding ground for a killer. Schneider pleads innocent of any misbehavior. “Oh my God,” she says, “I didn’t do kegs in my dorm room.
“I worked obsessively.”
There was no distraction from creating music.
“In those days, nobody had phones, cellphones, or nobody had computers,” Schneider says. “So nobody was distracted. You were either in your room listening to music on your stereo or reading or studying, or you were in the school working on your music. And any other time other than that, maybe you were eating or talking to people and, so we were all very connected.
“Connected to each other, but also connected to our own sort of space and silence and our lives. It made the whole experience so valuable. And I do worry for students now, that they don’t get that same deep experience out of much of anything, because of that.”
She is wary of random cultural saturation, the too-easy and irresistible stimulation that comes at us like puppies, “and how they pull us away from the things that are important.”
Which leads us straight to her last album, “Data Lords.”
“Yeah,” she says, with almost a sigh, “I guess it does, doesn’t it?”
“Data Lords” was The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s latest Grammy wins, for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, as well as Best Instrumental Composition, for a piece drawn from the vinyl double album’s dark side, “Sputnik.”
The message behind the music is an even more widespread darkness than her past works: The mining of your personal information and your exposure to subliminal suggestions are not random. It is a corporate calculation to confuse, disguise intentions, control your decision-making. An intentionally dizzying onslaught of “file sharing and YouTube,” Schneider says, “this inundation of stuff and music, ‘Check this out’ and, ‘Check that out.’ Five billion things coming at you.”
“There was a certain point when I started to realize that those things weren’t there for us,” Schneider says. “That we were there, and enticed into being there, for big data companies. They needed to attract us to be there so they could siphon off our data. To sell it, to use it, to manipulate us further with it.”
Schneider’s intensity on the subject led her to an interview on CNN, and then Washington, D.C., where she testified before Congress. “They were very interested, there were advocates from both sides,” she says. “There was a lot of sympathy for what we’re going through.”
Sympathy, but no action.
“Those companies have a lot of control over the elected officials, too,” Schneider says. We’re filling the atmosphere with planet-choking carbon, but “the fossil-fuel companies have a huge power over many of our elected officials. And it’s the same thing with big tech companies.
“It’s complex to make change.”
It’s a planet-wide problem that extends to the arts.
“I feel like that’s how musicians and creators have been used, and how our work has been used.”
Schneider fights back. She writes blogs with titles such as “Like a Wood Chipper on Steroids -- How YouTube Strips the Metadata of Creators.” And she practices what she preaches. Her last five albums, including “Data Lords,” have not been released by a traditional record label. Instead, Schneider markets them through ArtistShare, a crowd-sourcing site similar to Kickstarter.
Unlike traditional record labels, ArtistShare is a platform that allows the public to fund a musician’s work. And once that work is complete, ArtistShare becomes a business model that bypasses retail stores in favor of internet sales. So the musician not only has total control over the work, but also pockets a larger piece of the profits. ArtistShare’s roster is loaded with jazz luminaries. The Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Brookmeyer is there, as well as pianist Geoffrey Keezer and the late Jim Hall, considered one of the finest jazz guitarists of all time.
Schneider’s 2004 album “Concert in the Garden” was ArtistShare’s first publicly funded release. That was the first of her Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammys.
Corporate greed extends beyond the well-publicized attempts by musicians to control their intellectual property and prosper and profit from their own work. Outside of the arts, corporate greed can be measured in the world of addiction, and declining mental and emotional health. Schneider hears this from friends teaching at colleges who tell her, “Every year, there are more and more kids with emotional issues. Big ones.” Some of the blame is at hand: cellphones. Schneider says her friends on college campuses see that with each progressive year, cellphone dependence grows.
Technology, like a drug, can alter brain chemistry, she says. Like the cells of your body releasing dopamine, you’re looking for the next technology hit, the next technology high.
“It’s really taken away from the mental and emotional health of these kids,” Schneider says.
Yet she has only so many fingers to plug the hole in that dike. And unlike her decision to bypass traditional record labels, yes, she admits, she cannot take a pass on her cellphone. “I have to have one,” she says, resignation in her voice.
Perhaps technology needs age restrictions, like tobacco and alcohol. Schneider says she saw this social-media addiction first coming a couple of decades ago.
“When email first came out, I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, my life is over.’ Because suddenly now you’re accessible to everybody, and it’s always there, and you never get any oxygen in your life.”
Yet she holds out hope. “People are waking up. Students are waking up.
“I can tell that they’re really scared about their future. That they know that they suffer, and this thing, they don’t know how to get out from underneath it. It’s got a hold on them. So that is step one -- people realizing that they’ve been largely duped and that they’re being used.”
In Schneider’s war against the tech giants, and her fight for artists’ rights, less is more.
“To be a composer, artist, to be a creator of anything in life, you need that space, you need that silence, you even need, maybe, time to be uncomfortable or even bored, or uncomfortable not knowing what to do. And out of that comes imagination, ideas, creativity on your own part.
“But the problem now is that when everybody feels even the slightest moment of space or discomfort with doing nothing, or whatever, whenever that arises, everybody immediately goes to their cellphones. And has got a leash around their neck, leading them around.”
In surrendering to the Data Lords, people “no longer have taken charge of their own sovereign space, they are now somebody else’s,” Schneider says.
It’s a dystopian horror film. Will nature ever regain control over technology? “Data Lords” reflects this dichotomy. The message is: “Turn away from that,” Schneider says. “Turn back to your relationship with nature, humans and silence.”
The first half of the double vinyl album is music that projects cold technology, with song titles such as “A World Lost” and “Don’t Be Evil.” The second half is a portrait of the natural world, with more optimistic imagery: “The Sun Waited for Me” and “Bluebird.”
That brings us back to the birds. And Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “The Birds.” Where the natural world strikes back against the encroachment of mankind.
“When I was a kid,” Schneider says, “my mom -- that was on one night -- my mom was, ‘Oh, you have to stay up late and watch this movie.’ And I loved it. But I loved birds from the very beginning, so it didn’t scare me.”
A slight pause, for Schneider to reconsider the effect that the sight of Suzanne Pleshette pecked to death by birds had on her as a little girl.
“Well, I guess it was a little scary,” she admits. “But I love it. It didn’t turn me off from birds.”
In the final scene of “The Birds,” Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright and Jessica Tandy cautiously drive past thousands of birds ominously perched on fences, telephone wires and tree branches.
It is an uneasy cease-fire. For the moment, the birds have won.
“I guess if they win now, I’d say good,” Schneider says. “I wish they’d win now, too. I don’t think we humans deserve it. We’ve made a mess of the world.”