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'The Thompson Fields' - An Interview with Maria Schneider

Miller Wrenn
Contributing Writer
millerwrenn@gmail.com / @MillerWrenn

On Wednesday, June 24th, I spoke with Maria Schneider at length about her new album The Thompson Fields, her musical upbringing, the future of big band, the ArtistShare platform, and her take on the advent of music streaming services.

The Thompson Fields is available on iTunes and Schneider'sArtistShare page.

Miller Wrenn: You just released The Thompson Fields last month, what is special to you about the music on that record?

Maria Schneider: I would just say that so much of it feels very personal to me. A lot of the music goes back to memories from home, and aspects of nature. It's an expression of the things that are most meaningful to my life.

MW: The Thompson Fields is right by where you grew up, right?

MS: The Thompsons were farmers and they had a farm about five miles outside of Windom [Minnesota], and we were just on the outskirts of town but our families were really close friends. Their farm and that world was just a really great part of my upbringing, and it still is a big part of my life. I still talk to Tony Thompson a lot and go back to the farm.

MW: How did you realize those landscapes and the stories of that community in the music?

MS: Well, I never set out to write something about something. I never sit down and say "Ok how do I create the sound of this landscape?" It happened in a different way. I had written the beginnings of the song, which actually came to me in the laundry room. And then I came upstairs to my apartment and I started playing it on piano. I just really liked it and I kept playing it again and again. It reminded me of home and it just so happened that I was going back to Windom to a big AgroEcology summit at the Thompson farm, that was going to be happening in August. So two weeks later I found myself on the farm and climbing the silo with Tony, and looking over the farm, and the music came in my head and it just felt like the landscape. And so then when I continued writing the piece and figuring out how to orchestrate and develop that initial song-like idea, then I had that whole scene in my head and I think it just sort of subliminally guided the direction of the music. That process happens to me pretty often — you know, where I write something and it's like it attaches to something — almost like a cinematography in my brain or something — of memory, and it almost becomes like film scoring an experience.

MW: I mean, there's so much music that's written so that "this [melodic] line represents this slope of that mountain" or whatever, and the way you do seems almost more like a pure representation of the landscape.

MS: Yeah, it's not so much like leitmotifs or something. It's not like that so much, it's more just that, you know, I can't even tell you how it is and how it works because it just sort of happens that way. When I was a kid and I first started writing songs, I would write them for my friends. I was trying to capture their personality in a song. And they'd just be little instrumental piano pieces and I would say "Oh, this is Cheryl," you know? People would laugh because they would sort of hear that and it sort of sounded Cheryl-like. So I think I've been doing that ever since the very beginning, even — actually I can go back to my first piano lesson and know where it comes from because my very first piano lesson my teacher played a major triad and she sang [sings a major triad] "bright the day," and then she played a minor triad and she sang [sings a minor triad] "dark the night," and she explained how everything in music has a feeling and a sound. And then she taught me theory and — so like for the one-four-five [I IV V] chords she did [sings triads in sequence] "here we go, up the hill, back again home," to show that the four chord [IV] goes up the hill away, and the five chord [V] brings you back again to tonic, which is "home". So I think I've always, from the beginning, felt modality and harmonic motion and everything to have a sort of story to it, maybe. Maybe it started back then, I don't know.

MW: You don't see that [method] much but it makes so much sense to learn that way; when it's ingrained in the emotion of the music.

MS: I think your first orientation to anything in life becomes the foundation. So your first teacher of anything — my first teacher in nursery school, she was really into nature, and she would give us strings and we would sit in the dirt; each with a circle of string in front of us. And she would ask us just to sit there and start telling each other what we saw within our string. There'd be various insects and some little weed, or a piece of stone — you know a piece of sand or dirt or moss or whatever — and then we would talk about what those things are. And that, too, is just a foundation for things that I still love. I think a lot is formed when you're really young.

MW: Yeah, that's awesome. I wish my teacher did that. Getting back to the harmony side of things, your music is very familiar and very emotional in a way, but it's also very progressive and forward-thinking. For instance, on the title track there is a bitonal piano solo, which is not super common. It's also really awesome. Are you thinking about anything harmonically when you're composing?

MS: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean for that section I just tried to imagine Frank [Kimborough, pianist] playing, almost like little — well, his specific solo on the record maybe isn't exactly like this as it changes from solo to solo — but I was imagining him playing almost like little folk songs or something, as if a song is coming out of a church from one horizon and from a school in another, you know, it's a very kind of Ives-ian sort of thing. So I was thinking of the B chord just as sort of the waves, the presence, you know, the vista that I was looking at, and what Frank is playing is memory, or more like the intersecting stories. So harmonically and melodically — even though some of writing is subliminal and instinctual, other aspects are just plain a lot of work. You know, trying to figure out where it's gotta go. Does it need to lift? Does it need to compress? Does it need to feel darker? Lighter? Does the harmonic motion need to happen quicker? What kind of chords? You know? If there is an improvisatory section, what are they soloing on and how does that develop into the composition? That's one of the hardest things. To me, I don't ever want my improvised sections to sound like somebody's improvising because it's a jazz piece. I want the improvisation to somehow be very expressive and really a part of the composition. That's difficult to figure out, because there's a certain amount of it that is flexible and unknowable, because it's going to be improvised.

MW: Right. That actually leads to my next question. Your music kind of falls in a No Man's Land between jazz and classical often. How intentional was that merging and how have you done that? Also, how do you see those two traditions interacting in the future?

MS: It's completely unintentional, and again I think it has to do with the way I grew up. I grew up in a house listening to all different kinds of music. And my piano teacher, she had been from Chicago — and she was really a world-class pianist, she was truly great — she played classical and stride equally well. The only reason she showed up in Windom was her daughter lived there, and she went to live with her daughter because her son and her husband both died in one month of each other, so she was devastated and came to Windom. So, you know, for her it must've been a shock because she was in Chicago in this incredible music scene and then she moves to this farm town, with people who are just musically illiterate for the most part. And my parents had invited her daughter and husband over for a party, and they said "Oh our mother just moved in with us, can she come too?" We happened to have a piano — I was five years old — and she sat down and started playing. I remember that first night actually — we have pictures of it — I had dropseat pajamas on [laughs]. So I'm running around and I just remember her doing, like, jazz kind of style stride, you know, she would play runs while improvising, and she would pretend to almost fall off the end of the piano as a joke, laughing, and then she'd go into classical. I mean, she had unbelievable ears and insane technique, and she was just beyond. So part of every lesson was — one part might be working on a Cole Porter tune in a stride style, but another might be working on Mozart. And she made me analyze everything and learn theory, and there was no boundary and no, sort of, allegiance to tradition. So, you know, for me it was all just kind of music that just sort of went in my bank. So I still — I just wanna write music. I don't like when people intentionally try to mix styles, ‘cause to me it always feels sort of like salad dressing with oil and vinegar and you don't really feel it mixing naturally. So I've never done that myself because I don't usually find it that successful when I hear music that tries to do that.

Generally, I would say I don't try to do much. The only thing I try to do is sit down and sit there long enough 'til I come up with something I like. But I don't usually set out — I have one idea that I want to try, and I'm not gonna say what it is because it's private, but I do right now have one musical thing that I want to set up to see if I can do, but it's gonna be a different way of working and I don't know if that'll work for me.

MW: Well I hope I get to hear it someday.

MS: [Laughs] You will. If I do it I'll probably find some way to record it.

MW: You mentioned Ives a little bit earlier. When did that show up in your bank, if at all?

MS: I don't know, I guess, probably it was something I started listening to in college. I don't know that we ever listened to Ives when I was a kid, maybe there was some. But, you know, again, it was the kind of thing where I was writing the music and hearing these songs over these B chords and thinking "Oh, that's sort of Charles Ives-y," you know, it wasn't "Oh I'm gonna try to write like Charles Ives." I mean if you listen to a lot of different things and you study a lot of different things over several decades you can't help that it goes in there, and it comes out in various ways.

MW: Right. We're all a product of our influences. Speaking of other influences, you do a lot of work with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What is it about birds and studying birds that evokes a musical inspiration to you?

MS: I think it's just that it makes me so happy and it gives me energy. I've gone through periods where I was putting tremendous pressure on myself to write music, and sitting and not coming up with ideas. At the point in my life at which I was started going outside and birding and doing things that at one time, I loved every bit of them as much as I loved music. When I started doing those things — things you can enjoy without the pressure, you know?

MW: Oh, totally.

MS: It's like when you're a musician and you listen to music, it's really nice when you have those times when you're listening to music and you're not analyzing, wondering, comparing. If you're just taking it in, and just bathing in the wonder of it all. When I go birding, or doing something out in nature — just watching the sun rise on a spring morning with clouds coming out of a valley, or whatever it might be — it's just like "Oh my god, that's beautiful!" It just makes me happy and it makes me feel like putting that energy I feel into music. I think a lot of musicians in school become so obsessed and work so hard. Sometimes it gets you so far away from the living that inspires the music, that you end up scorching your reserves. It's like over-farming of the land.

MW: A composition professor told me in college — kind of talking about the same thing, that burn out — he said " writing music is commenting on your life, more or less, and you have to live a life worth commenting on if you want to write good music."

MS: That's exactly it. Otherwise you just have nothing to say. Then you are just spitting out influences, but you're not really expressing something — some kind of point of view or something.

MW: Yeah, that would be a huge bummer.

MS: [Laughs]

MW: Speaking of your point of view, a big part has been the big band. You've kind of taken up the mantle of the big band, and it's really been underrepresented for, like, the last 30 or 40 years, with some exceptions. What drew you to that format and then where do you see that format fitting in the tapestry of jazz going forward?

MS: Well, I have a pretty boring answer. In college — I started out focusing on classical studies, theory and then adding composition — my teacher, who had been a student of Hindemith, his name's Paul Fetler, and he's still around. In my lessons, he started hearing that my music was being influenced by jazz and there was no jazz department at the University of Minnesota, but he knew there was a big band so he said to me, "your music's so influenced by jazz, why don't you go watch the big band rehearse and see if you can go write something for them." I started doing that and I just never stopped. Then I went to graduate school, to specifically study jazz composition — and aside from their studio orchestra that got together for one project a year, there was their big band, something nearly every college or high school with a music program, has. Then I moved to New York and I thought "maybe I'll start a big band", because that's what a lot of my music was written for. Then, you know, when I first started that I thought about starting a group that had a more unique instrumentation, but all of a sudden I started getting invited to Europe to work with people's big bands. In Sweden, somebody told me once, there's something like 800 nonprofessional and professional big bands.

MW: Whoa.

MS: [Laughs] Yeah, so all of a sudden I was able to work all over the world because there were radio big bands and college big bands. Suddenly I was able to do what I do and work, and have people perform my music. And so it ended up being the opposite of what you'd expect. At the beginning everyone said "oh my god, it's expensive and you'll never be able to afford it." But in the end, writing for this instrumentation oddly gave me a chance at making a living.

It was much better than just composing isolated pieces for odd instrumentation that get one performance and then maybe another one three years later. With big band, there are groups that could potentially play your music all over the place. Like you said, your school played "Hang Gliding [mentioned before the start of the interview]." So, I just kind of never stopped, and at this point the band has such a sound and an identity, and developed such a unique way of playing together. To split it up and do something else, I almost feel like it would be splitting up the children. It's its own thing now, I can't stop it really, and I don't want to stop it. At one point I almost stopped. I became uninspired and bored, you know, something happened. Then, all of a sudden, it came alive for me again. Right before Concert in the Garden, I don't know, all of a sudden it's like music opened up for me again, and I felt like making it again and writing for the band. Ever since, I've been just so happy that I've continued it, because I think the group and the players and the way they're playing with each other is so special. And I think, in this last album, I think it particularly reached a new height.

MW: Yeah the last album was incredible. Also that was the furthest thing from a boring answer. [laughs]

MS: [Laughs] Oh good. Well, you know, sometimes it's "Oh I love big band because of this instrument or that instrument," but for me it was more practical. A matter of fact, I've spent a lot of time over the years — the reason I write for woodwind doubles, and mutes, and combining instruments in odd ways is because I'm trying to make it not sound like a big band. So it's sort of like, you know, I've spent a lot of time writing for a big band trying to make it not sound like a big band. Creatively, it would probably be easier if I had some french horns, and this and that, you know, a couple of strings or whatever. But I don't even wanna go there because, logistically, it's just so limiting. It's just easier to do this. So that's what I mean by boring, it's just a practicality thing, you know?

MW: Well, I think you've been very successful in making it not just sound like a big band, because to me — I mean there's the whole big band aesthetic, whereas your band feels like a chamber orchestra that's a got a kind of weird instrumentation.

MS: Well that's sort of what I wanted. I think you said something about "where do I see big band fitting in," I don't really [laughs]. Honestly, I don't really care about big band. I mean, yes I enjoy hearing a big band sometimes here and there, but mostly I enjoy hearing more of an older style big band that just really utilizes it to sound like a big band. You know, the Mel Lewis band or the Basie band. A lot of times if I'm looking at a big band, I just want it to sound like a big band. I love that. It isn't like I think my music is the future of big band. Not at all. I wouldn't even presume that there is a future. I just write for the players I like and in a way that I'm able to do it financially and keep it going, and do what I want creatively.

MW: That's a very honest take on it. When you don't have the pressure of carrying on this tradition — which, like you said, is basically dying — you can just write in the way that makes you happy.

MS: Yeah, probably, because I don't really care about — I have no allegiance, really, to jazz or big band or anything, you know? I really don't. And maybe that's part of growing up where I grew up, too. There's no foundation, rooted jazz tradition, jazz school, big Jazz mentors — there's none of that. I could just do things in a sort of naive way and not even realize that, you know, "Oh you're not supposed to do that. That's a no-no." No one ever said that to me.

MW: Well, I mean, I've never heard a convincing argument for sticking to a tradition if you don't feel like it. So thank you, you took the right road [laughs]. Speaking of the financial aspect of recording a big band and working with a big band, you've made your last four records— and you reissued your earlier releases — through ArtistShare. What is it about that platform that appeals to you?

MS: Well, there are many things, all equal. One is I own my own work. I call my own shots. I make my own choices. Nobody's taking my music and putting it up on Spotify or something. I can do that or not do that. So that's one aspect. The other is that ArtistShare gives the vast majority, the lion's share — almost the entire gross money goes to me for the making of music. They keep a pretty nominal portion for their administration and, you know, keeping the whole web, the system, going. It's very sophisticated. There's no other model that does that. Everybody else is trying to find sneaky ways to gouge the musicians and make a big business for themselves.

Another aspect is that all the sales are transparent. So that means that anybody who buys something through my site, I have their email address, so that the fan and I have a direct connection. So if I do a big project, or several big projects, every time I do something I can contact that whole list again. If you make a record in any other way, every time you release something new, you start from scratch with locating fans. You have to figure out a way to get the publicity, to get it out there. And yes I do that, but I can get a huge amount of support just by sending out one email to all those people. So that thing of non-anonymous sales, that I know everybody, is very important to me.

Let's see, what's the other thing? There was one more. I'm not just selling lot per se, but we're sharing the creative experience. People can preorder the music, so I can start collecting money upfront to kind of get a handle on paying for the record. But the thing that's really great is that the whole idea of ArtistShare is that you share the creative process, and you share extra things — video and all sorts of stuff that make fans a part of the process and makes me feel connected to them, which I think is good for the music because — if you have people come forward and have given a lot of money, and some people gave five or ten thousand dollars to be a gold participant or whatever, I can tell you, you don't want to disappoint those people. You want them to be happy and proud with what came of it. Your future projects depend on that satisfaction, and word of mouth is everything. When you have your own reputation and your own financial future hanging in the balance — as opposed to somebody else taking the financial risk as was the case with record companies in the old days — I'll tell you, it raises the bar for yourself every single time, because you don't want to disappoint those people. I think that's good for the music.

Of course nowadays many record companies aren't even paying for the records, the artists are paying for the recording and the record company owns it. I don't even know why anybody signs on for that. I mean, a lot of musicians are just pushovers. Naive, or they're just too attached to the idea of being on a label. Being on a label doesn't mean a darn thing anymore. Who cares what label you're on? I mean, nobody's going to store and browsing for CDs anymore; seeing Deutsche Grammophon and thinking "wow."

MW: That actually kind of leads in — I know you've talked about Spotify before and you mentioned it earlier. Things seem to be coming to a head in that little battle, where you have Spotify and Tidal and Apple Music and a few other ones, and then you have ArtistShare and Kickstarter and GoFundMe, all these things where they're rallying for the lion's share of the funding and distribution of the music. What do you think is going to happen with that?

MS: Well I wish what would happen is that more artists and more musicians would not give their rights up to record companies and publishers, because — for instance in the case of Spotify, the reason Spotify is so strong and has so much music is because the three biggest labels are now equity holders in Spotify. Spotify gave them 150 Million dollars or something, and then gave each of them over six percent equity in Spotify, which — we know what happens when these companies go public, they're worth billions. So these companies basically sold out all the musicians in their catalog to become a part of Spotify. But that money, when Spotify goes public, that money's not going to the artists and music creators. Spotify's little measly profits that the music makers are paid from come from ads. But they are also making a lot from big data. So how do you get advertisers to pay a lot and also collect big data — and nobody ever talks about the actual value of that, but it's worth billions — so how do you collect a lot of data and sell a lot of advertising? You have to attract a lot of eyeballs to your site. So how do you attract the most eyeballs to your site? You get as much music as you can and you make it cheap; you make it cost nothing so that everybody comes to your site and then you can monetize those eyeballs you have captured through advertising.

The problem is, so now these three record companies and publishers — they're all one and the same now — they've devalued music. They've basically devalued all the music they were supposedly representing, to practically zero, so they can monetize it other ways by being an equity holder in Spotify. Not only have they they cannibalized themselves by cannibalizing the music makers they represent, but they've devalued music for everyone – for me, for you. Because now people expect music practically for free. It's worse than when it was stolen, because the public thinks streaming is good for music. If I was an artist with a contract with these people, I can tell you what, I wouldn't care if I had to mortgage my house, I would sue them and take it to the highest court I could. Because, to me, that's not what you sign on for when you sign on to ask a company to represent the financial aspect of your creative work. To me it's an absolute outrage and an abuse. So Spotify, they're never going to make enough money by charging $9.99 a month or advertising or whatever, to pay for 80 percent of the world's music or whatever the heck they have on there. It's never gonna parse out. And the thing that Taylor Swift does, and I'm saying all the time too, is this: as a musician — when we write music or create music, and rehearse and do all the things that we need to do, and going to school and everything it takes to be a musician, buying equipment, buying a million dollar violin, whatever it is — we make a tremendous investment. So any company in the world that makes an investment, and buys materials to make a pair of jeans, or a coat, or any manufactured item, you set the price based on the true cost of what you're making. But in this business, nobody is coming to the musician and saying "What is the cost of you making music? How many listens can you imagine getting? What do you need to be paid in order to pay for that recording?" You know? That's how every other business works.

Musicians, for some reason, are being put in the positions by companies like Pandora and Spotify, of being paid on the basis of what these companies claim their profits are, and they pay their CEO millions. And what these companies cry out, "We're only making this much money, and we're paying you 70 percent of what we're making." Well I say, 70 percent of nothing is nothing. So, I don't care if they're giving 100 percent of the measly ad revenue they make, if their business model sucks, and they're not making enough money to pay out what it costs to create the music, then they shouldn't be able to sell people's music. Instead, they should work on a new business model. Because that isn't business. Sorry, that's five pages on your blog site, but anyway.

MW: Totally fine [Laughs]. So do you think they'll win out in the end?

MS: You know, I don't know what's gonna happen. I hope to see a massive class-action lawsuit among musicians, but I think musicians are just so used to giving up control. The only person I hear that's thinking and saying the right things every time is Taylor Swift.

MW: I agree.

MS: She's the only one. I mean, she's so smart. And people can say "well she has a lot of money she can afford to do that," but look at me. I'm doing the same thing. I own my own work. I don't give anybody the rights. I would never — you'd sooner give me a bullet in the head before I'd be on Spotify. No way. I'm paying for records that are hugely expensive, even if slowly sometimes. Yes, I'm lucky, I have an audience or whatever, but I've invested a lot of time and money and effort and sweat to get that to happen. It didn't happen on its own. That's not an unreasonable goal. I didn't come in independently wealthy into what I'm doing. I think that musicians — yeah, it's hard. It's hard to be a business person and be an artist, and do all these things. But, you know, it's also hard to be a single mother. It's hard to be a lot of things in this world. It's what's required now. If you are willing to give up your music to some publisher and to let somebody give you some advance and talk you into a sleazy contract, well, you're gonna get what you get. I kind of hope that the younger generation is going to be smarter than a lot of what my generation has been.

I'd like to see the streaming model, honestly — well it will fail, it's not making any money. I don't know how it can last. There's no sustainability. I had a great conversation with a man who's a very, very astute businessman; multi-millionaire. We were talking about how he invests and he said "I never invest a company that doesn't have sustainability." If a company is making a lot of money, and it's just making money but it's not feeding back in — and what a great example Spotify is — a classic example. A company that's bringing in money, but the money isn't going into the thing that's feeding the company; that is, the creation of the music. What this astute investor says is the long-term, a company like that can never survive. And I'll be very curious to see what Apple is unveiling because I don't like what they're doing either. That's scary. We shouldn't trust any big data company that is not willing to directly connect the musician to the fan.

MW: That actually makes me kind of hopeful, ‘cause I was kind of worried that they would just win out in this big, massive corporation kind of way.

MS: Well they could never win out if the musicians don't stand for it. If musicians said "you can't have our music," — if each musician was running their own show, and said "you can't have our music," and said to Warner and Sony and Universal, "I'm out." Or if everybody coming up said "I'm not willing to sign your stinkin' contract." You know? Then those companies would have nothing. What are they gonna do? They're nothing without the creative musicians.

MW: Right, it's all hinging on, I guess, naivety of artists.

MS: Yes it is. And one other tiny component, that maybe isn't so small and sometimes I think is at the root of it, is that a lot of musicians think that their value is more when they make less. It's the "I'm the starving artist" thing, I lived in a gutter, but I played my guitar and listened to my incredible music. Isn't it soulful?" There's some kind of subliminal thing that a lot of musicians have, that there's valor in being the starving musician. That doesn't help the situation because you have all these business-savvy people saying "Hey, look at these naive idiots," you know, "they'll put up with this no matter what, for the love of the music." But in the end even musicians need to put their kids through college, pay for health care, and save for retirement. Making a fair wage for our hard work is nothing to be ashamed of.

MW: Yeah, it's manipulative. Well, I guess, on a lighter note, you mentioned the project that you can't share yet, but are there any upcoming projects that you can share?

MS: Well, I mean, I can share it, it's not like a huge project, it's just an idea for a piece. I just have a couple commissions on the horizon, and I am looking forward to just a little bit of space in my life to write and just refill this last year, which was very very intense. I did that song with David Bowie and then I jumped right in to doing the record. It's just been an insane year, and I'm bringing the band to Europe in the fall and that's just a massive daily effort [laughs]. It's a lot of work.

MW: I'm sure. Logistically that sounds crazy.

MS: Yeah, it is.

MW: Well, I hope in the next couple months you get to rest.

MS: Just a little bit, you know, I'm not one for sitting around, but I wouldn't mind just a little bit, like maybe reading one book.

MW: [Laughs] Well that about covers it on my end, is there anything else you want to add?

MS: No, I think that's fine.

MW: Thank you, again, so much for all your answers and your time.

MS: Okay, thank you, bye-bye.

Miller Wrenn is a bassist and composer based in Los Angeles, CA.