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Interview: Big Band Leader Maria Schneider Finds Ways Around Artist Theft to Her Real Audience 

click to enlarge Orchestral jazz composer and five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider is known for defying categorization, collaborating with David Bowie, for instance. Her latest album, “The Thompson Fields,” was inspired by her childhood in rural Minnesota.

Briene Lermitte

Orchestral jazz composer and five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider is known for defying categorization, collaborating with David Bowie, for instance. Her latest album, “The Thompson Fields,” was inspired by her childhood in rural Minnesota.

In the endangered species world of big bands, Maria Schneider is a rare bird.

She and her heterogeneous flock of brilliant musical players are able to create and thrive in a ridiculously hostile, exploitative commercial environment. The key has been an intimate, technology-enabled approach that invites a vital audience into the creative process of her soaring musical landscapes.

Schneider learned from the best, including as an apprentice to Gil Evans, whose collaborations with Miles Davis established him as the archetypical late 20th century big band composer and arranger. She founded the 18-piece Maria Schneider Orchestra in 1992 and has crafted her own voice ever since. Her 2005 "Concert in the Garden," released on the pioneering crowd-sourcing ArtistShare label, won the first Grammy ever awarded to an album with internet-only sales, one of her five wins from a dozen nominations.

A strong advocate for creator's rights, she avoided the wide-reaching but low-paying streaming giants like Spotify and Apple, and the rapacious 360-degree contracts of the few remaining major labels, which give them a piece of everything from concert receipts to T-shirt sales. Instead she put her faith in dedicated, paying listeners.

"ArtistShare said if you take the record out of the record store, then you'll know who is buying your music," Schneider says. "I have been doing that since 2003. The upshot is that people keep coming back. I've gotten several commissions and funded $200,000 records with [the support of] a niche audience. I don't know one musician whose Spotify royalties would pay for a cab drive to the studio." Her supporters are not just buying a finished product but engagement into its formation.

She explains that her most sweeping visions develop from simple beginnings.

"Usually I find some little thing I like, melodic, harmonic, maybe a bit of rhythm. I dig in and find out what's in it. What is its personality? What makes me like it?" She works at the piano, but needs to get away, outside the music to hear it with fresh ears. She writes her ideas on large manuscript sheets, avoiding the in-built constraints of music notation programs.

"I have to mold and sketch, allowing ideas to emerge organic and free so that everything feels inevitable and connected. It is more of a collage than a linear process." It helps that she has a talented copyist who knows how to hack the score production software to accommodate her expressive individualism.

Her work is autographical, with a sense of place and storytelling flow.

"In a lot of pieces, the musicians are like actors in a play. Each soloist carries the plot forward in a different way," she says. Bird song is a recurring element. "I am a big birder. I'm devastated every summer when nesting season is done. When they quit singing, it just sucks the air out of my life."

Another focus is Schneider's ongoing battle against massive, technology-enabled theft from artists. Google, whose YouTube subsidiary automatically strips copyright information from uploaded materials, is a primary offender. The blog at her website, mariaschneider.com, lays out her case in passionate, patient detail. The energy of her current fight finds its way into her musical expression, alongside pastoral beauties drawn from her Minnesota prairie childhood. "I will probably play 'Data Lords,' which is dark and apocalyptic," Schneider says. "My music reflects what I spend my time doing. You are what you eat."

She sees glimmers of hope in the resurgence of vinyl purchases by people who value having a few records they love deeply rather than skimming the surface of all the records in the world. "People might get tired of the all-you-can-eat buffet," she says.

It's difficult to be an artist in an economy that treats even the most sublime creativity as mere chum, eyeball bait for online advertising. It is near impossible, logistically and financially, to assemble 18 first-rate musicians on the road. But Schneider says that ultimately her biggest challenge is the basic one of composing consistently good music.

"I'm not trying to turn out just another piece," she says. "I have to be very honest with myself. Do I love these sounds? Will this music draw the listener through time the first time they hear it? Is it emotionally compelling? If someone comes up after the concert and says it was 'interesting,' to me that is a failure. I want someone to say, 'that piece made me cry.'" S

The Maria Schneider Orchestra appears at Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond on Thursday April 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $40 for adults and $10 for UR students. Join WCVE Jazz host Peter Solomon at 6:30 p.m. for a free preconcert discussion with the bandleader. The talk will take place in the lobby of the Modlin Center. Seating is limited and available to first arrivals.

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