Maria Schneider on her fan-funded, Grammy-winning "Winter Morning Walks"

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
February 7, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Classical MPR's music library has thousands of CDs, organized by label: rows of Deutsche Grammophon, shelves of Harmonia Mundi, piles of Philips. Among all this music there's only one disc filed under "ArtistShare" — but it's one very fine disc. It's Winter Morning Walks, the Grammy-winning result of a collaboration between composer Maria Schneider, soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

In the wake of her Grammy win, the composer spoke with me by phone from her New York apartment.

You grew up in Minnesota, and you came to the University of Minnesota to study music. What was the music scene like at the University, and in the Twin Cities generally, in the early 80s?

There wasn't a jazz program, but they did have a few jazz courses: piano, and then they had a big band. Most of us who were really into jazz learned from each other, largely, and we would take lessons from people in Minneapolis. For instance, I studied with a man named Lance Strickland, and I also studied with Manfredo Fest — who is no longer alive, the Brazilian pianist. In a way it was good, because I was forced to try to find my own way without being told how to do things — step one, two, and three. You sort of find your own unorthodox ways of doing things when somebody isn't feeling like they should tell you exactly how to proceed. So that was good.

The classical scene at that time was, I would say, more about atonality than maybe it is now. Now things seem to be sort of moving back where things are more eclectic and just about anything goes. The piece that I wrote that won this Grammy award probably...I don't know how people would have looked at it in the 1980s, because it is very tonal. I don't want to say it's simplistic, but its essence is one of simplicity.

It might not have been the sort of piece that people who were dominating the classical scene would have valued.

Yeah, and even now, I'm not sure how something like that is seen by the classical community. I think it depends who you talk to. I think kind of like in jazz, now, classical is just so broad and it can be so many things from highly experimental to something much more — I don't know to describe these things — materials that we are more prepared to understand.

It's complicated, and you've really been jumping between those worlds throughout your career, but particularly with this recording. Were you originally imagining yourself as being oriented towards classical music when you came to the [University of Minnesota] and then discovered jazz, or were you pretty confident that the jazz world was what interested you most?

I came from southwest Minnesota — Windom — and Windom is a small town. There was no real exposure to jazz beyond the fact that I had a fantastic piano teacher who had been kind of a stride pianist, and she was the one who taught me — but I learned kind of an old style of jazz, so I was really very behind. I went to the [University of Minnesota] as a theory major, and then I was fortunate enough to have a student teacher who was a TA for one of my classes; she said to me that she thought I had a real talent for composition, so then I started taking composition lessons and added it to my major.

Then it was my teacher Paul Fetler who said to me, your music sounds so influenced by jazz, you should try writing something for the jazz band at the school. That's kind of how it started, and then it became an addiction, and it never really stopped. It never really turned around back in the other direction until Dawn Upshaw came to me and said she wanted me to write for her and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Going back to the classical world snapped me right back to where I started, in Minnesota!

You've spoken about how that [request] was especially meaningful to you, coming from this wonderful Minnesota ensemble.

Yeah, and it was funny, too, because when I was finishing up at the [University of Minnesota], Dr. Fetler had asked me to write a chamber piece to enter in a composition contest that the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra had. And I wrote a piece, but I felt just embarrassed even submitting it, and so to me it's kind of funny that I would end up coming back one day decades later and writing for them. [...] The [Grammy], for all of us, was quite an honor.

Have you had a sense, over the years, that classical and jazz were moving closer together at all?

Sometimes I feel like the crossover between the two is very stiff and not successful. A lot of times I feel like somebody will put what I would call "jazziness" into a classical piece or something, [but] to me the essence of jazz is improvisation. You have to have a certain amount of jazz language to improvise in a way that I would call jazz, but it doesn't mean that it has to be "jazzy." It doesn't mean that it has to be somehow a stereotype of what we think of jazz as being.

I wrote the Carlos Drummond music for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Dawn, and to me, even though that was very influenced by the harmonic language that I write with when I write for my own [jazz] orchestra, and the sense of propulsive time, and rhythms coming from flamenco music — which I also use in my jazz work — all those things were in there, but that work did not have any improvisation.

When I wrote the second work, the Winter Morning Walks piece for Dawn, I really wanted to write something that had improvisation — but I wanted it to interface with what we might call "classical." I wanted it to interface in a way that the lines were really blurred between the two, where you don't even really know what to categorize the music as.

I picked three musicians from my orchestra that are just very, very versatile, very smart and very ego-free when they play — so their way of improvising really served the music and the text and Dawn and the orchestra rather than, "Look how great I can improvise." Sometimes I feel that jazz — well, all art — suffers when an artist feels that it's really important to show how great they are as opposed to just making an artistic statement that says something. I think composers suffer from overwriting, and players suffer from overplaying, but these musicians are just so tasteful; I felt that this piece was really successful as a marriage between different types of music, and that's what I really wanted to do.

I came across a mention of your name in David Byrne's book How Music Works: he mentioned your pioneering work in crowd-funding recordings successfully. You've been doing this successfully for about ten years now. What have you learned?

What I've learned is, thank God I was at the beginning of that and listened to the guy at ArtistShare, Brian Camelio. He told me he was really certain it was the way of the future, and I did it because there's no way I could be funding my records right now if I didn't have that. That was the first company to do that, ArtistShare was; the names "crowd-funding" and "fan-funding" didn't even exist yet when we were doing that. We were saying that the fans were "participating," but it was fan-funding is what it was.

I was keenly aware that what was important was that I would create a relationship between me and the fans by letting them be privy to what goes on behind the scenes when I write music or when I'm recording music and sharing that with them, so that the feel they're getting much more than just a record. Now more than ever, with all the pirating and everything, my CDs are all over the Internet! It seems that a lot of fans that get my work enjoy this relationship that we share through ArtistShare, and they keep getting the music there, thank God.

You've spoken out against music piracy, so it seems that you've seen both sides of the Internet. You've seen the positive potential for building relationships, but you've also seen the danger of music being pirated.

It's amazing. When ArtistShare started and I did this, it was so successful — immediately, it was just hugely successful for me — suddenly I was making the lion's share of the profit off the gross, and the money wasn't being split between distributors and record stores and everything. It was all coming through the site. I knew who my fans were, and if somebody bought a record, I could say to them tomorrow, I'm doing another project, would you like to come on board for that? There were these transparent relationships, where I can grab these people and contact them again. That was just major.

What I was wondering — because it suddenly was apparent that everything that had happened to musicians under record companies, that suddenly we were given a new opportunity for success, and I thought it was really an incredible thing — but I was wondering how long it would be before some kind of company or new model would come that would again take advantage of musicians who are busy doing music who are desperate to be seen so that the word gets out about their music and will be taken advantage of.

That's basically what happened with record companies: musicians were just so happy to be on a record label with some big name and to be out there that they weren't bothering to look at their royalty statements, [to see] that no money was coming to them. Record companies were stroking the egos of musicians, and musicians became really complacent about the business — and now it's happened again.

We have a whole Internet that has convinced musicians that getting publicity out there and getting our names out there through having our music appear for free — free streaming and free download and everything — that we're lucky to have that, that that's free publicity. But the way I see it is that everybody's trying to convince musicians of that so they can use us for their own gain. They've even reduced it to calling it "content" instead of "music"!

Spotify, how they're making their money is through all the data that they're collecting from amassing all that music that they're barely even paying for. They're also making money on advertising, so the more people they have up there, the more people that are going to go onto Spotify, the more eyeballs they get, the higher price they can put on advertising.

What's happened is a similar thing [to what happened with record labels earlier]. Now we have the whole Internet industry that's convinced the entire music world that what we're getting is promotion, and we should reduce the monetary value of our music because we're so lucky to get all this promotion...but what's happened is that we've completely devalued music, to the point where people think it's worth nothing, they don't have to pay a thing for it. It's the saddest thing, it makes me crazy. It really makes me crazy.

So for you, the ArtistShare model is a way to find an audience who values your music and is willing to participate in its creation.

Yes, to find that audience — and also, more importantly, it's not just me finding those people out there who are willing to pay, it's me giving them something that makes them feel like it's worth it for them to pay, because I'm giving them much more than just the music. They're getting, through many months and on an ongoing basis, they can log in and see interviews with all my players, [interviews with] the producers, they can see recording sessions, they can see all sorts of things — and so they feel invested in the [project], that it's something that they want and that they like.

That, for me, has been the biggest life saver. For me, the way I see it, it's the only way forward — and it's more valuable, too, than, say, Kickstarter or something, because Kickstarter tends to be more, "Help me put this record out," you know, and so you give money and then it's like, sometimes you never hear from these people again! I know that when I get these endless Kickstarter things in my e-mail, I'm like, starts to feel like people begging for money. I like the idea of giving people more than they paid for, giving them a better experience.

This has all been happening against the backdrop of a situation where there's been discussion on both the classical and the jazz sides of increasing challenges in finding audiences. Some orchestras and jazz ensembles have been finding it a more challenging environment. Have you been experiencing that over the course of your career, or have you been seeing another side of that?

I don't think it is a smaller audience. I don't know about classical, but for jazz, what I think the problem is, is that it's not a declining audience, it's an audience that is so inundated with stuff — you know, music, videos, links, e-mails, all this stuff, everybody clamoring for all this attention on the Internet — that it's created these piles and piles of crap, and nobody has any vacuum in their lives left to fill.

Before all this stuff on the Internet, I remember so well just wanting to go down to the record store to find something new to listen to. I wanted something new to hear — I was hungry for it, so I would go to the store and look around and see who was putting something out. I was willing to take a risk, [to] drop I don't know how much on a record or a CD — maybe a hundred bucks each time I went down — just to try some things and see what I think. I was willing to make that investment in filling my life with new music and exploring new sounds. Nobody's hungry any more. That's the main thing, that's the biggest problem.

Do you have any ideas about how to cut through that clutter for a jazz musician, or possibly a classical musician?

Sometimes when I teach and do clinics, I tell musicians, let's think about doing the opposite for the moment. Everybody's telling you, social media, social media, get your music out there any way you can. I say, what if we try doing the opposite?

In a way, it's the guy at ArtistShare that's taught me this: keep your music close to your vest. Make them come to you! Make it exclusive. Don't just give it away everywhere in desperation of being noticed. Get out there and perform, create a buzz through being as great as you can be every time you're exposed, and then make them come to you, train them to come to your website or wherever you sell your music or wherever you perform, and don't just give yourself away. I think too many people are just giving themselves away.

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