Maria Schneider: Is There Anybody Out There? Page 2

Micallef: You had considerable challenges in completing the record.

Schneider: It's superchallenging taking a big band, with music that's very dense and full and coming from all these different sources, and you've got to figure out a way to make that experience come out of two speakers. That is just exceedingly difficult. Every move that you make—say you want a solo to be a little bit louder—everything's relative. Trying to find that balance of focus: If you bring out more bottom, suddenly you lose the top.

Doing an album that is so intense and trying to keep the perspective of the listener: What does this feel like? Is this feeling too intense? Is it hitting people too hard? What volume should this album be at? One of the things you deal with in mastering is volume and relative volume. If you bring volume up all the time, you don't get the chills and thrills of the ride, so trying to figure out how much to bring up the sound so that you still get the crescendo, but you're not blasting somebody's ears out. The challenges of doing a project like this in terms of mixing and mastering are extraordinary.


Micallef: Do you think about the sound of your recordings?

Schneider: Obsessively. You get to a certain point where you've got a little bit of headroom and you think, "I can lift it." And you lift it. And suddenly those intense pieces suddenly become brighter. They don't just become louder. The color changes. I'm not thinking about competing with the volume of all these other records that are mastered way too loud now. I try to think of it in its own terms, and I have several people listening for me. It was an overwhelming amount of music and an overwhelming density of sound on that first disc.

Micallef: The colors and the depth and cohesion of this orchestra, it sounds like a single organism.

Schneider: These musicians, we've played together for a really long time and they are like an organism. They listen so well. And we recorded this in a studio and there were some separation and other similar kinds of issues, those kinds of things are very challenging, because you're playing on stage and balancing with each other. And so, if I didn't have musicians that are just so keenly connected to one another, I think we couldn't have managed in that situation, then mixing during COVID-19, with this music. But they're amazing. They're listeners. They respect one another and they support one another musically. I still just love listening to those solos on that album.

Micallef: It's also interesting to look at the booklet. All the musicians look very happy.

Schneider: I will say this is one of the things about the band. Everybody just loves each other, and we have so much fun together. And that also is just good for the music and everything. It was funny because I was like, "Wow, everybody's smiling in all these pictures, and it's a very dark subject." But also, some of it, some of the music, I didn't want it just to feel like always dark and brooding. Some of it is a little tongue in cheek. Like mockery for "Don't Be Evil." I didn't want it to just be this like depressive deluge, but that it somehow has kind of a little bit of a sense of fun about it too.


Micallef: Your orchestra plays with so many dynamic colors, so much control, amazing solos and rich performances.

Schneider: So many of these players, they changed me. It's not like I'm this person writing music and then dictating what I want them to do. Because of their improvisations, because of their musicality and their individualism, I am definitely really influenced by them.

Micallef: How so

Schneider: After my last album, The Thompson Fields, I needed something new to come out of me. I needed something new hitting me to see what it might bring out of me. Will it shake up something new? A lot of musicians, we try different things and most people know everybody's just gotta go for a kind of creative direction and see what comes from it. Each of these players have a piece of my heart from all my records. I can listen to certain pieces and say, "I would have never written that if that player had not been playing my music." For Concert in the Garden. Oh, my goodness. And The Thompson Fields and Sky Blue, Clarence Penn's ability to bring silence into the music and space was such a game changer for me and my music. I can't even state how much it affected me.

And drummer Johnathan Blake has brought things into my music. He is such a listener. On the new album, how the drums are playing with [tenor player] Donny McCaslin and how connected they are rhythmically on "CQ CQ." And I mean, that solo is completely free. They basically knew where they were going to be left off and where they needed to arrive. Three players there, the guitarist Ben Monder, the drums, and the tenor, if you listen to that, knowing that, and just hearing how connected they are, it's shocking.

It's pretty mind-blowing.


Micallef: "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" is also sort of ominous in parts, swirling like the storm in The Wizard of Oz. Are the horns replicating Morse code there?

Schneider: Yes. At the beginning there's this atmosphere, you hear these little noises, it's all Morse code messages. "CQ, CQ." The letters literally mean "seek you." That's the idea of "Is anybody there?" In ham radio, people say "CQ" and post their license numbers. The world of ham radio was all about accountability and no business. It had transparency. You always had to give your license, and you could look up and see who everybody was and where they're from. Now you can hide in the dark web and do anything and be anyone and do creepy things. I used that idea and Morse code messaging in the piece. So, later in the piece, the horn section is playing "SOS" and "CQ" and all this different stuff. It was really a hard piece to write and a hard piece to learn to play.

Micallef: Is "Braided Together" about the feeling that you get from being in Minnesota or being in nature?

Schneider: "Braided Together" was originally written as a vocal with poetry. Just depicting that poetry and that poet, Ted Kooser, he is my favorite poet on earth, I just absolutely love him. I credit the words for giving me the melody and the music. His poetry is very connected to the environment and a human sense. It's very not ostentatious. It's just very direct and beautiful.

Micallef: The song, "Don't Be Evil," is kind of scary. It's like a carnival nightmare.

Schneider: We've been playing that one for a while and, yeah, the goal was to get that intensity going all the way through but trying not to make it too overwhelming. It's like a little bit of a fever dream.

Micallef: "Bluebird" sounds like birds in battle. Are you stressing the idea that nature is not entirely peaceful and cooperative all the time?

Schneider: "Bluebird" is one of the pieces where the title came after the fact. It has the feeling of flight and beauty. It's also a title David Bowie and I had started working on that never got completed. It turned into something else. At the same time, bluebirds had just moved into our nest boxes. I wouldn't say it's specifically "in battle." I think the nest ones are ready to fledge, but we have a very aggressive bluebird and they're normally not aggressive.


Micallef: Can you tell me about your home hi-fi?

Schneider: At our rural home, I have a pair of Thiel Coherent Source Model CS1.5 speakers. I love them. They have tons of definition on the top. You hear every little detail, and there's something in the low-mids that's superstrong. I've had them since the mid-'90s. Hendrix doesn't sound good on Thiels, but classical music does, or music with lots of small detail. When mixing my last album, The Thompson Fields, my engineer, Brian Montgomery, lent me a pair of ProAc Studio 100s. They were super helpful in mixing. I didn't want a speaker that overexaggerated the top details, and I definitely didn't want something that was going to mitigate them, because then you'd end up with something that's just overwhelming.

I was using the Thiels at home in New York, intending to buy new speakers; I have made so many mistakes in my life with speakers. That's when my engineer lent me the ProAcs. He didn't want to deal with my confusion. And I have a Rotel A14 integrated amplifier. I use its internal DAC running from my laptop. I started using the Rotel because I needed to go out of the USB of the computer to get the best sound. When I knew I was going to be making a record, I wanted to get a new amp to replace my old Linn Intek amp. Normally, with the Thiel speakers, I use the old Linn. I love both these amplifiers.

Micallef: Where do you test your recorded tracks?

Schneider: I almost entirely do my listening in New York, where I have these Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones, which I love, they're a little gentle. But at a certain point, I had to stop listening in those headphones. I didn't realize how certain bright frequencies that were coming through them were not entirely realistic. I loved them for listening and I loved them for mixing, but I had to be a little careful, because they soften the blow of some brighter sounds. These aren't brutally honest, but they're beautiful.

Micallef: Data Lords seems like a modern, musical version of Thoreau's Walden.

Schneider: This is a subject whose time has come. Are we going to allow ourselves to just be taken over by this wave of data and allow it to change our brain chemistry? Our children's brain chemistry? Our lives, our choices, our free thoughts? Or are we going to demand that we have our own private interior space? How far are we going to let this thing go?

When I first began talking about this, people looked at me like I was crazy. Now, when I talk about these subjects before we perform, the whole audience is nodding in agreement.

I hope it's music that people enjoy, and I hope it also gets them thinking about their own lives and how they're living, and if they're struggling with these same opposing forces, how they're going to take their lives back. I do hope it makes people think.


jimtavegia's picture

It is sad when tremendously talented people cannot make a decent living playing their music and being paid rightfully for it. Napster created a monster that still lives in just different formats. It is no different than the music labels who managed to find a way to keep most of the money earned from artistic talent.

Sadly when Joe Rogan can make $100 mil just talking and interviewing someone, all on the backs of artists to who make pennies a play is wrong on so many levels, but clearly a marketing effort made possible my the millions made for a company by music artists who are caught in the middle of hearing their music heard or not. AM and FM radio were more valuable than any of us thought back in the 50's, 60's and 70's.

Those would be great interviews if you can find any of those DJs still living and interview them and what their experiences were. Daddy O Daly who was a DJ in Chicago and a great friends with Ramsey Lewis, he was a great and generous friend to my late father ailing from Polio in 1952-1955. Hard for me to forget the impact radio had back in the day.

jtshaw's picture

Maria Schneider's work with Gil Evans is clearly important, but we should not overlook her study with Bob Brookmeyer. His compositional techniques are also evident in much of her work. I once commented to a friend that Brookmeyer's legacy remains secure anytime Maria Schneider sits down to write.

She is clearly a first-rate composer who builds her own legacy as each successive release pushes ahead. Her not-so-secret is the foundation she built early on with her mentors.