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Maria Schneider doesn’t think up concepts for her albums. “I’ve never preconceived a subject for my music,” she says over the phone from her cabin near the Delaware Water Gap, where she was holed up in March, having left her Manhattan apartment to ride out the COVID-19 crisis. “I just don’t work that way.”
Yet themes keep creeping into her work. “The music reveals the ideas,” she says, “and it ends up being what I need or want. It expresses what I need to say.” Evanescence, the 1984 release that first brought her music and her 18-piece orchestra to widespread attention, proposed a search for new musical colors with which to move large-ensemble jazz forward. Allegresse and Concert in the Garden, released in 2000 and 2004 respectively, reflected the complex blend of optimism and despair she absorbed while spending extended time in Brazil. The Thompson Fields, from 2015, sounds the way it does because she had begun spending time at the cabin, which set off deep nostalgia for her upbringing in rural Minnesota and rekindled “my true identity as a country person,” she says.
When Schneider sat down at the piano last year to compose a piece commissioned by the Library of Congress, the music she came up with sounded dark, urgent, even angry. “The truth is, I was angry,” she says. The source of that anger was the dark side of the digital revolution. “I was angry about the ways in which online life and artificial intelligence are taking us over and destroying us. I’m just so frustrated with how ‘big data’ has destroyed the creative industry. They use us as a carrot for ‘eyeballs.’ They need music to be free, they need everything to be free, so they try to evade and knock down copyright laws so that their platforms get as much traffic as possible, and so that they can amass our personal data for ad sales and artificial intelligence. It’s no wonder I wrote this dark and intense piece.”
For years, Schneider has been venting her anger toward Google, YouTube and other “big data” companies off the bandstand, through her words. She’s written articles and white papers, appeared on Copyright Office roundtables, even testified before Congress about pending legislation. On her website, along with all the links to recordings and music scores, is a running log of her published missives. In an essay for the website Trichordist, titled “Three Simple Ways to Protect Ourselves from Big Data Companies,” she wrote: “Considering the degree to which these companies already overlord our lives, opinions and political system, one questions whether regulation can actually happen, and the degree to which it would ultimately protect us. Many are worried it’s too late to reign in the power and control of these companies.” In an op-ed piece for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, she issued a wake-up call: “We have allowed powerful companies to enter our homes and lives to extract personal assets worth billions of dollars without paying us one cent for taking them.”
Her advocacy has been particularly focused on artists’ rights. “Musicians have been the canary in the coal mine,” she told me. “We were the first to be used and traded for data.” Her piece for Allegro, published by New York City’s musicians’ union, bears the headline, “‘Like a Wood Chipper on Steroids’ — How YouTube Strips the Metadata of Creators and Why We Must Fight Back.” It’s a call to arms concerning the clever and, to her, illegal ways that YouTube evades copyright laws. She wrote, “Essentially, YouTube is herding music and musicians into its platform, stripping away our identities, and then rebranding our works with the hot iron of its own system.”
The act of composing has now become a method of purging her anger. “It’s less literal,” she says, “but maybe more satisfying.” She wrote a piece called “Data Lords,” full of intense harmonies and contorted rhythms. “It is the physical manifestation of my frustration,” she says. Another piece, “Don’t Be Evil,” named for Google’s now-discarded corporate motto, came out as humorous, meant to mock the corporate giant for its disingenuousness. Around that same time, Schneider found herself also writing lovely, poetic pieces. One, “Sanzenin,” was inspired by her visits to meditative temple gardens, hundreds of years old, north of Kyoto, Japan. Another, “Stone Song,” is based on whimsical pieces of pottery, given to her by ceramicist Jack Troy, that look like little stones and rattle when shaken, as if possessing voices of their own. (The pottery became instruments in her orchestra for the recorded version.)
At first, Schneider couldn’t reconcile the darkness and the beauty. “But then I realized that, once again, the music was reflecting my life and telling me what I needed to do,” she says. “I know that I’m not alone in struggling to find space, and to keep connected with my inner world, the natural world, and just the simpler things in life. Just as I feel myself ping-ponging between a digital world and the real world, the same dichotomy is showing up in my music.” If the dark and intense pieces channeled her rage toward digital overlords, these poetic pieces represented the flipside of the digital dilemma. She settled on creating a double-album, Data Lords, reflecting these two polar extremes. The first half features dense, often frenetic and, yes, angry music. The second half is spacious, largely reflective and sometimes playful.
There’s an irony to all of this, Schneider admits. The Internet has been a key element in shaping her career. She was among the earliest and most savvy adopters of digital distribution. Data Lords was created, funded and documented through ArtistShare, the world’s first crowd-funding Internet platform. Her Concert in the Garden, which was ArtistShare’s first release, was also the first recording with Internet-only distribution to win a Grammy Award. When we spoke on the phone in March, the world was quickly shutting down due to a raging pandemic. The rash of event cancellations included the May concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y that would have celebrated the release of Data Lords. Even the date of her album’s release was suddenly in question.
“Can you imagine living through all of this if we couldn’t communicate through the Internet?” Schneider says. “It’s not as if I’m some Luddite, you know. I live and work and thrive in the digital world. I just don’t want it to rob me or to rule me or to swallow us whole.” With Data Lords, Schneider and her orchestra give stark musical voice to the digital era’s darkest dangers while reminding us of the simple things we so often forsake or forget when we linger online. - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo by Briene Lermitte.