Composer Maria Schneider Confronts Big Tech and Bigger Revelations

Schneider talks Data Lords, her small-town Minnesota childhood, and the fight against big data
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider

Briene Lermitte

With her double album Data Lords, released in May, musician Maria Schneider brings her philosophies on big data to the forefront and doesn’t hold back with her exploratory sound. “With this album, I threw caution to the wind more than I normally have, and as a result, I think I had more fun making this album than I ever have,” says Schneider, reflecting on the lessons David Bowie taught her during their 2015 collaboration—of finding joy in the process of attempting and failing. “Not that it wasn’t torturous,” she adds with a chuckle. “Because writing music is sort of torturous.”

It’s difficult to know how to describe Schneider to someone unfamiliar with her expansive talent and energy. What do you call someone who leads an 18-member jazz collective and is a composing virtuoso? Who is a five-time Grammy award winner across multiple categories with an album in the 2019 National Recording Registry? Who has testified before Congress for musicians’ rights? Who is not only a member of the 2020 American Academy of Arts and Sciences but also a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor in jazz? 

If you ask her, she calls herself a composer, arranger, and bandleader, but also a producer, secretary, coordinator, and do-it-yourselfer. “And what do you call it when you have to deal with all the emotional aspects of people?” Schneider laughs. While it’s a wrangler-worthy amount of descriptions, her musical journey started simply enough in 1964. 

Beginnings with Butler

That fateful year, a Chicago stride pianist by the name of Evelyn Butler relocated to the prairie town of Windom (two and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities) and began teaching world-class music to the children of the area. “She was unusual in that most piano teachers teaching little kids in small towns are teaching how to play the songs in the book. But Mrs. Butler taught me music theory starting at my very first lesson,” recounts Schneider.

Butler showed Schneider major and minor triads at that initial lesson, singing “bright the day” and “dark the night” along with each triad, respectively. Everything in music had a feeling, Butler emphasized, and what made it so were the mechanics of theory. “It’s like going to a marionette show and being entranced, but then having somebody show you how all the strings work, and what makes the movement. I was a kid becoming intrigued by the mechanics of music,” says Schneider.

Schneider studied with Butler for 13 years before moving onto the University of Minnesota for music theory and composition and later the Eastman School of Music to earn a master’s degree in music. She worked with the renowned jazz musician and composer Gil Evans as his copyist and assistant, and through an NEA apprenticeship grant, she was able to study with now-fellow NEA Jazz Master Bob Brookmeyer.

“Bob encouraged me to think beyond the traditional in music and to push the envelope, as they say,” Schneider says. “He was very thoughtful in his composition of development. That is, once you put an idea into the music, it’s just like a writer. Once you introduce a character, you follow that character to the end of the piece; you don’t lose the momentum of the idea.”

“You don’t go off on tangent, like I tend to do when I speak,” she adds, laughing.

Maria Schneider

Briene Lermitte

Advocacy and Beyond

From there onward, Schneider has blazed her own path. She was one of the first musicians to join the crowd-funded music platform ArtistShare, which was started by musician and entrepreneur Brian Camelio in 2003. On ArtistShare, supporters, fans, and interested parties support a project or record before it has been created and earn an intimate look at the process of the project that their dollars are directly funding. “People feel connected to that work,” Schneider says. (Data Lords is only available via download or two-disc set from ArtistShare or Schneider’s website.) 

The platform was borne out of a disconcerting shift in the music industry against the success of individual budding artists, and to top it off, illegal file sharing was beginning to run rampant. By 2014, Schneider was asked to testify to Congress about copyright infringement by the Grammy’s Recording Academy. “They were the ones that asked me to represent them in testifying before Congress because they had seen how passionate I was—they got more than they bargained for with me,” she says. Two years later, Schneider and a few of her fellows created a campaign aptly named MusicAnswers to raise awareness of the problems that have imbued the business for the past few decades as the music scene becomes increasingly digital. Today, MusicAnswers has more than 3,300 songwriters, composers, performers, and producers standing behind it.

Schneider stresses that each musician has a role to play in spreading awareness of industry issues and ensuring their own and others’ careers are sustainable. Because people in this industry are so caught up in their own work, she says, it is simple for corporations to take advantage of them. “They even sometimes feel like their art is worth more when they make less. That’s a concept that doesn’t fly in any other business,” she says. “That deep, core belief among many artists is very damaging to all of us and to themselves.”

You can find more of her perspectives regarding Youtube, copyright infringement, and big data algorithms on her blog, and in February, she wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune detailing the impacts of big tech, particularly on the music industry. 

Data Lords Projection on Maria Schneider

Briene Lermitte

Data Lords

Schneider is no stranger to speaking out against silent controllers. It is no surprise, then, that Schneider’s Data Lords enters in two glorious halves. The first part, five tracks under the banner “The Digital World,” and the six-track “Our Natural World” stand in stark juxtaposition to each other, focusing on the limbos between future and present, complex and simple, and digital and natural that most of the world is caught in. 

“The Digital World” is grounded by Ben Monder’s electric guitar, a haunting constant throughout tracks such as “Don’t Be Evil,” which is a barbed stab at Google’s motto; “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?”, a reflection on the original ham radio, including rhythms spelling out words like “power” and “greed”; and the title track, “Data Lords.” In Schneider’s vision of a world controlled by the data lords, sounds such as Greg Gisbert’s electrified trumpet and Rich Perry’s tenor saxophone evoke quiet fear, lonesomeness, and a terrifying power. 

“Our Natural World,” however, is teeming with peace and rich in calming majesty. “Sanzenin” ambles through temple gardens, guided by Gary Versace’s accordion. “Stone Song” swells with playfulness and variety, and “Look Up” features Marshall Gilkes’ trombone and reminds us to glance skyward. 

“Bluebird,” inspired by one of Schneider’s favorite creatures (she’s an avid birdwatcher), builds and falls, leaps and turns, and feels light and playful. When it comes to birds, there is one aspect of tech and cloud computing that Schneider admires: “The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What they’re doing with citizen science—meaning people from all around the world can make bird observations and put it into this massive database that enables us then to see where birds are migrating, where they’re feeding, what habitats are most important to save those birds—these are things that could help us save the planet and save humanity.”

“Braided Together” and “The Sun Waited for Me” draw from the written work of Iowa native and 13th U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser. “Everything about [his poetry] makes me feel that I’m home again in Windom, Minnesota. I love it. There’s a plainness to the language but such depth of expression. It captures the beauty in mundane objects like a broken door, rusty nails, I don’t know, anything!” Schneider explains. That duality of plainness and depth is clearly reflected in these two pieces, which expand, delight, and reflect.

Finding Space, Balance, and Voice

It’s nearly impossible to avoid big tech and big media, but Schneider stresses that a critical eye is one of the more important tools in retaining clear minds—to ask ourselves what makes sense, what the source of the information is, and how it makes us feel. “One of the biggest dangers in our world right now is that people aren’t thinking for themselves,” she says. “It’s up to each of us—and this is the same about talking about musicians advocating for themselves—not to say, ‘Oh, I’m too small to make a difference, it’s a big world,’ but to say, ‘No, my voice is important, and these things are important to me.’”

Even as COVID-19 has made digital connection almost a necessity, Schneider urges us to take a moment for ourselves and exit the digital sphere.

 “I think it’s important to just turn [the devices] off and say, whatever happens, it can wait, and then go someplace Go to a park, go to a river, go sit someplace, go sit with a book. Just sit and look. Go inside that room inside of your own brain and start to watch what happens. Give yourself space and see if it doesn’t feel expansive,” Schneider says.

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