American music deeply influenced by the ways of nature

12:00 a.m. Monday, April 8, 2013 Music

Maria Schneider grew up in rural Minnesota, close to the land — and her music is influenced by a vision of beauty grounded in nature. Schneider knows, deeply, winter wind on the prairie, the whistle of birdsong. She feels joy in an updraft, appreciates beauty in bleakness.

Schneider knows what it is to stand at the spot where four cornfields meet in one place — and to feel something substantial. It shows in her music. It’s alive in her music.

“The reason I create music is because I want to communicate, or vibrate, with that other aspect of life that’s alive in nature,” says Schneider, who headlines this weekend’s Longhorn Jazz Festival at the University of Texas. “That doesn’t mean all my pieces are nature pieces, or something like that. But that’s my foundation.”

Schneider is one of the most open-hearted voices in modern music — a Grammy-winning composer/arranger/bandleader, based in New York, who is re-shaping the very notion of “big band” jazz. Her music is affirming, accessible, generous, full of feeling, light on its feet, conscious of light, as it honors the highest jazz tradition.

Imagine the pastoral sweep of “Appalachian Spring,” blended with the high grace of Gil Evans. Feelings, first. That’s Schneider.

Schneider’s last two solo CDs — “Sky Blue” (2007) and “Concert in the Garden” (2004) — suggest, in their very titles, the artist’s connection with the living world. The second album was inspired, in part, by the poem “Concert in the Garden” by Octavio Paz: “The River of Music / enters my blood. / If I say body, it answers wind. / If I say earth, it answers where?”

An avid bird-watcher, Schneider serves on the board of directors of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. No surprise that birds show up on songs like “Cerulean Skies,” a 22-minute Grammy-winner that’s based on trees and life, migration and paradise, filled with bird calls, inspired in part by her affection for the cerulean warbler.

Schneider visits Austin on Saturday, fresh off a birding vacation on the Georgia coast. She’ll lead the UT Jazz Orchestra — five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, plus rhythm section — in a 7:30 p.m. program at Bates Recital Hall. The show, devoted to her compositions, her visions, is in every sense an offering.

“It feels, to me, that music is the part of me that will endure — but not because it lives on, after I die,” says Schneider. It’s more about experience. “There’s something about the place I go to when I make music that feels more eternal than the rest of whatever we are.”

By the first grade, Maria Schneider stated that her life’s ambition was to become an ornithologist. Her connection with the earth, with living things, was that strong. Schneider’s father built her a lakeside treehouse near their home in Windom, where she could trace the movements of herons, blackbirds, swallows.

Meanwhile: “We had a pet goose, a Canada goose, back before they were so common, that lived in our house,” she says. Schneider is cheerful, quick to laugh, quintessentially Midwestern. “We had two pet crows. My mother used to set the wings of injured birds. Everybody who found a bird that was damaged would bring it to my mom.

“So we ended up with a goose that never did learn to fly but became a part of the family. Lucy the Goose used to go flying with my dad in his twin-engine plane. I have pictures of my mom on the lawn, with Lucy, lying on her back.”

Today, Schneider belongs to the serious bird-watching community at Central Park in New York. She lives for May, migration season, when she’s spotted 70 species of birds there on a good day. Schneider makes it clear, though, that she doesn’t over-intellectualize birdsong. She doesn’t study pitch or cadence or notes in birdsong with a composer’s ear.

“I just let it soak into me purely, as beauty,” says Schneider. “The whole mystery and magnificence of birds overwhelms me. It’s like looking into space through a telescope and seeing a supernova or something. Suddenly you feel so insignificant. Birds inspire that kind of wonder in me.”

Twenty years ago, Schneider — earnest young composer, on the rise — traveled to South America for a concert series. The experience was life-altering, for the exposure to Latin rhythms and the sheer loveliness of the landscape.

“I knew the moment I saw Rio from the air, from the airplane, that my life was going to change. And it did,” says Schneider. “There was such joy and beauty in that music … music that tugs at your heart. It was a pivot point. (Until then), there was this feeling within me that music wasn’t ‘serious’ unless it was intense and dark.

“Suddenly, I realized that music can be deep and it can be beautiful and it can be joyful! It doesn’t have to be brooding! Not that brooding and dark isn’t beautiful, too. But I learned I don’t have to be ashamed of beauty, and I don’t have to be ashamed of joy. And I don’t have to hide it.”

Schneider’s latest project, “Winter Morning Walks,” with soprano Dawn Upshaw, is one of her most adventurous: poetry, adapted for classical orchestra and voice, dabbled with improvisation. It’s not “strictly” jazz. But it’s very much Schneider in its emphasis on nature, beauty and air.

“Winter Morning Walks” is most famous as a book of poetry by Nebraskan Ted Kooser. He wrote the poems in 1998 and 1999, sent as postcards, while recovering from radiation treatment for cancer. They chronicle his pre-dawn walks in the country, a kind of therapy, a tentative return to writing, a chronicle of earth-affirmation, rising out of sorrow.

The poems take solace in simple things. The beam of a flashlight, “my circle of light on the gravel,” bouncing on the darkened path. A hay bale, a budding maple. Nature stories, unfolding in the moment.

Schneider set nine Kooser postcard-poems to music. A significant pursuit, given she and Upshaw are cancer survivors:

“The thing I love about Kooser’s poetry: Even though he wrote it when he was ill, to me, it was very life affirming,” says Schneider. “There are poems about fear, for sure. But there’s also a heightened sense of … gratitude. … The simplest things just become so overwhelming. Right?”

As a budding artist in the 1980s, Schneider worked for three years for the late arranger-composer Gil Evans — longtime collaborator with Miles Davis, the genius behind Miles’ classic “Sketches of Spain.” Evans’ style, his sense of layering, influenced her own music.

What is it about Evans — who was more about ideas than fronting a band? Why does he matter in the landscape of Miles and Bird and Trane and Lady Day? True individuals, all?

“Gil’s music doesn’t feel like it’s categorizable in any way. It’s just music,” says Schneider. “It has improvisation. It has elements of jazz. And has elements of classical music. But it doesn’t feel like somebody trying to do a hybrid.

“You know what I think about big band music? It’s fun. It’s exciting. Its’s exuberant. But it doesn’t move you. Gil’s music moves me. Especially the way Miles played it. It’s ego-free music.”

Every now and then, Schneider brings her New York band to Windom, Minn. They sleep in old farmhouses, play shows in the local auditorium, stand at the spot where four cornfields meet in one place, dine with farmers in a pine-paneled tavern called the Burgen Bar.

“I brought the band there once in April. It was windy. We got out of the bus. And it was just nothing, as far as the eye can see. I have a picture of one of the guys leaning into the wind. It’s so windy, he’s on an angle where you’d think he was going to fall over.

“Inside the Burgen Bar, Clarence Penn, the drummer, looks at me and says, ‘Maria, I can’t put this together.’ He says: ‘Do you feel you’re more the person I know in New York? Or are you this?’ I said, actually, this. His eyes were just huge, like he had no idea you could come from this.”

Schneider’s music draws from nature, celebrates the vibrations of nature — isn’t that the cry of an owl, within “Flashlight”? — even as she recognizes that the source of her inspiration is imperiled. This stirs her.

“I get so frustrated with the way people sometimes approach the environment — thinking, somehow, this world is separate from us. And not realizing that if we don’t harmonize with it, we’ll kiss it goodbye.

“Birds are the best gauge for the health of our planet. They tell us what’s going on — if there are chemicals in their eggs, whether birdsongs change, whether they can’t find habitat on their migratory journeys. … Even people who hate birds … or think they’re a nuisance, had better start caring about birds. The most ‘selfish’ thing we can do is to start caring about the environment. Because when the owl goes, we’re next.”

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