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Jazzed About Birds: Composer Maria Schneider

By Pat Leonard
Maria Schneider
Photographs courtesy of Maria Schneider.

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On a Monday morning in September, a Cornell Lab member walked into our visitor center, binoculars swinging from her neck. It was a typical fall scene, except this visiting member was Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider, fresh from opening the Cornell Concert Series season with her jazz orchestra the night before.

Schneider had come to tour our Macaulay Library and listen to the voices of her inspiration—birds. Schneider’s light, translucent style of orchestral jazz, a sound she sometimes accents with bird calls, has prompted glowing reviews from around the world. She admits her twin passions for birds and music feed an obsession to translate flight into sound.

“I try to create harmony that feels like it’s moving,” explained Schneider. “You start with the music in your head, codify it with notes on paper, give it to musicians, they decode the notes back into sounds, and hopefully those sounds transform the audience so they feel like they’re flying.”

In this, Schneider seems to have succeeded. She recalled a woman coming up to her in tears after a concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival saying, “I just have to tell you that I was flying! I knew today what it was like to fly!” This woman was in a wheelchair, almost completely paralyzed. “That was intense,” Schneider said.

Schneider admitted she gets pretty intense too, when she morphs to her “introvert” self to tackle the “insane” number of solitary hours it takes to give birth to a new composition. But the “real” Maria is as cheerful and energized as her favorite warbler (Blackburnian). Her speech is peppered with “Oh my god!” and “unbelievable!” as she listens to bird and animal sounds in the Macaulay Library’s surround-sound studio. Clearly this is a woman thrilled to the core by all of nature’s music.

Macaulay Library recordings feature in Schneider’s “Cerulean Skies,” a 20-minute opus about migration that won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition in 2007. Another piece recalls injured crows that stayed with her family after being tended by her mother.

“I found a great crow sound in the Macaulay Library that had the sort of echoing sound I wanted,” Schneider remembered. It was while composing “Concert in the Garden,”(which won the 2004 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording) that Schneider says she first realized her love of birds had inspired the music, unconsciously building on childhood memories of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Soras amid windblown reeds that she watched from her treehouse in rural Minnesota.

Whether it’s traveling the world as a guest conductor, doing commissioned work, or leading her own orchestra, Schneider loves the collaboration with other gifted musicians.

“At the end of the evening, it’s not just mine. The music belongs to all of us,” she said. “That’s what I love about jazz. There is very specific music to play but also room for improvisation so that the piece is always changing.” Not unlike the endless variety of birdsong that inspires her soaring compositions.

Originally published in the Autumn 2010 issue of BirdScope.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library