Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Maria Schneider: A Music That Is Movingly Majestic

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra. All rights reserved.

“ … when you look at Maria's resume: she studied composition with Bob Brookmeyer, and spent three years as Gil Evans' musical assistant. From Brookmeyer, she learned how to create large-scale musical structures that add up to more than just a string of solos; from Evans, she learned how to blend instrumental colors with a Ravel-like precision and clarity.

Working with these two masters of big-band writing inspired Maria to develop a completely original sound of her own. “l think my music has a strong element of fantasy in it,’ she says, explaining that the inspirations for her compositions are as likely as not to be visual: dreams, paintings, memories. ‘lf I don't have a dramatic plane to put myself on,’ she adds, ‘I’m at a complete loss for coming up with notes.

Actually, I think of my pieces as little personalities. They're like my kids. After I finish a piece, it takes a while for me to forget the struggle of composing it. Then, all of a sudden, it becomes something separate from me, and the band takes control of it, and shapes and develops it, and it has its own life.’”

- Terry Teachout

“Schneider’s characteristic voice is … a rich fabric of sound that is alert to nuance but still capable of great power.”

- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“When I first started helping Gil Evans out in a deeper way than copying, it was a little terrifying at first. I felt, who am I to be doing this? …

Then one day I realized that this thing about studying music the right way -  the only right way in music - is your own way that you do with belief and conviction, and when you stick to it, it becomes your voice.

Gil had all sorts of ways to do things that are not in the books, and they all had a very consistent logic. It was a little bit of a parallel universe that went by its own mathematical rules.

- Paraphrased from Maria Schneider interview with author Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans: Out of the Cool, His Life and Music [pp. 314-315]

“The music itself defies standard definitions of jazz. The inner musical lines reflect her own inner voices. The music is full of characteristic “Schneiderisms”: undulating waves of piano to forte to piano, especially in the brass, and highly textured orchestrations evoking visual imagery and musical colors. It is very personal music.”

- Eugene Marlow

“I think my music has started to more deeply reflect the world of music that I've enjoyed listening to in recent years. The rhythmic, harmonic and melodic flavors in my work are undoubtedly influenced by my love of Spanish, flamenco, and Brazilian music. Jazz is still at my core, but the intricacy and development one would find in classical music is more present. Even I become hard pressed to define my music."

- Maria Schneider

When writing about the music of Maria Schneider, the “texture” of her music is often stressed as that quality which makes it so unique and so appealing.

But what is a musical definition of “texture” which joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition?

Ironically, of the four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – “texture.”

“Texture” is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.

Beyond the texture or sound of her music and the lasting physical and emotional impact it can create, Ms. Schneider’s music is also heavily rhythmic – the most visceral and fundamental of all the musical elements.

Music takes place in time and like many great composers, Ms. Schneider uses rhythms and the relationships between rhythms to express many moods and musical thoughts.

She uses rhythm to provide a primal, instinctive kind of foundation for the other musical thoughts [themes and motifs] to build upon.

This combination of powerful, repetitive rhythmic phrases and the manner in which she textures the sound of her music over them provides many of Ms. Schneider’s compositions with a magisterial quality.

Another of Ms. Schneider’s great skills as a composer is that she never seems to be at a loss for the new rhythms that she needs to create musical interest in her work. 

She is a master at using the creative tension between unchanging meter and constantly changing rhythms and these rhythmic variations help to produce a vitality in her music.

In her use of melody, Ms. Schneider’s approach to composing, arranging and orchestrating appears to have much in common with the Classical composers of the late 18th and early 19th century [Mozart and Beethoven as examples] in that she relies on a series of measured and balanced musical phrases as the mainstay of much of her work.

And like these Classical composers, Ms. Schneider is also careful not to let one musical element overwhelm the others: balance between elements is as important as balance within any one of them.

Ms. Schneider obviously places a high value on melody in her writing as her themes have a way of finding themselves into one’s subconscious and staying there a la – “I can’t get this tune out of my head.”

This is in large part because Ms. Schneider’s melodies are actually easily remembered short phrases, generally four or eight bars in length and these are often heard in combination with other similar phrases to fashion something akin to a musical mosaic with individual pieces joining together to create a musical whole.

Ms. Schneider crafts little melodic devices that are wonderful examples of the composer’s art. And she has learned over the years to base her compositions out of the fewest possible melodic building blocks because if there are too many melodies, or for that matter, too many rhythms and too many different chords in a piece, the listener can get confused and eventually bored.

And on the subject of chords, the building blocks of harmony, here Ms. Schneider’s approach is one involving multi-part harmony and is more akin to modern composers such as Debussy, Bartok and Stravinsky than to those of the Classical period.

With all this going on in her compositions, is it any wonder, then, that even Maria is “.. hard pressed to define my music [?]"

Perhaps you can discern some of these qualities in her music by viewing the following video. 

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