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In Praise of Beautiful Music

There's nothing edgy about Maria Schneider's big-band orchestra, but there's nothing wrong with that

Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Maria Schneider, the composer and jazz-orchestra leader who won three Grammys this year—all for her first album to qualify in the classical categories, a collaboration with the soprano Dawn Upshaw—started out, more than twenty years ago, in a divey Greenwich Village club called Visiones. The place goes now by the name of Groove and presents retro part-ay music for tourists, promoted as Funkster Heaven. In the mid-1990s I went to Visiones at least a dozen times to watch Schneider lead her sixteen-piece jazz band, a group that she has managed to carry, with many of the same musicians, to this day. (It has had seventeen pieces since 2003, when Schneider added an accordion player.) On a night late in 1994, I went to see Schneider with Bob Brookmeyer, the jazz composer and arranger. Brookmeyer had been teaching me about big-band music for a book I was writing about Billy Strayhorn, and he had also been giving Schneider lessons in jazz orchestration. At the end of the performance Brookmeyer asked me what I thought. I said, “Beautiful!”

Brookmeyer gave me a glower and said something like, “I’m talking about the music.” Schneider was (and still is) an attractive person, charismatic and graceful in the dancerly movements that she used (and continues to use) when she conducts concerts of her luxurious, swirling music. This fact is nothing unusual. From Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw to Carla Bley and Wynton Marsalis, a great many leaders of serious jazz orchestras have included an appealing physical presence as an element of their presentations, and Schneider has admitted, in an interview, “I like looking pretty, if I can. Why not try to look beautiful and do your work and be smart?” Still, Brookmeyer wanted to make sure I wasn’t reducing his star student to a sex object, and I wasn’t—I swear. Honestly. I was talking about the music.

Feeling defensive, I launched into a discussion of Schneider’s compositions, attempting to make the case that they, in their complexity and originality, are “much more than beautiful.” To which Brookmeyer said, and I remember this precisely: “Isn’t beautiful enough for you?” I couldn’t answer the question well then, and I’ve been struggling with it for much of my life as a critic. 

Jordi Vidals/Redferns

Like many people raised on rock and roll, I suspect, I have always taken as a given the fact that raw, anarchic noise is essentially superior to neatly organized and pleasurable sound. Punk rock seems in every way better than easy-listening music—more primitive-sounding and hence more authentic; more aggressive and thus more daring; and overall just cooler and therefore more socially acceptable in a culture perennially obsessed with cool. That loveliness is also authentic, that its pursuit calls for a kind of daring in our time, and that an over-absorption with coolness is anything but cool—are facts that only muddle perfectly functional simplifications.

What does it mean for listening to be easy, anyway? That it calls for no exertion of the mind or the heart—no thought or feeling? Where’s the fun in that? You don’t have to be a Calvinist to know the gratification in learning or feeling something new from a challenging piece of music or art, after doing some work to grasp it. Personally speaking, I had to struggle at first to appreciate some of the music that I later came to treasure most: Jimmy Reed and his interchangeable two-and-a-half-chord songs, the Stooges and their trash-canning of pop tonality, Conlon Nancarrow and his arcane homemade robot-piano effects, John Cage and pretty much everything he did or strategically declined to do, Todd Terry and his druggy, nihilistic New York house music. At first I could not hear the music in the noise. Then, in time, I came to appreciate not only the beauty of noise, but the value of ugliness in music. 

A part of the very idea of punk—and, to take this point to an extreme, the cataclysmic noise-rock of bands like Dystopia, Man Is the Bastard, and Napalm Death—is its very repugnance. In its near unlistenability, its borderline unbearability, the work can be cathartically brutal on the system. It rattles the brain and strangles the heart. The idea is not to enjoy it, not even perversely, but to confront, through it, something real in human experience—sheer horribleness—distilled to its essence. That kind of distillation is one of the things art is here to do.

In the work of Maria Schneider, by contrast, we find something considerably rarer and more precious than any raw, anarchic noise—and by “precious,” I mean valuable, not cutesy. We find sheer beauty distilled to its essence. Everybody knows beauty to be one of the things art has always been here to provide. And yet beauty in music is, somehow, sometimes, just as hard to accept as ugliness. Bob Brookmeyer’s question is a tricky one, and Schneider’s music provides a few clues to some answers.

Schneider composes and conducts music for a big band, and she wants the results to sound nothing like big-band music—or, more precisely, nothing like the punchy, hard-swinging sound that audiences have associated with big bands since the 1930s, when the configuration of sixteen pieces of brass, reeds, and a rhythm section (give or take one or two instruments, depending on the group) proved to be ideal for filling ballrooms with the aural fuel for Lindy Hopping. “I don’t want my group to sound like a big band, because to me a big band doesn’t have a lot of emotional subtlety and expression in it,” Schneider once told an interviewer. “It’s got power and energy, and it’s fun ... but it’s not often very moving, and I want my music to be very expressive and very moving.”

The original audience for big-band music, after all, was not exactly an audience—not a passive assemblage of listeners but a horde of young dancers propelled by the music. They were not much concerned with the use of their ears; they wanted to use their bodies in the service of exultation, release, and seduction. To fulfill its function as a propellant for dancers, big-band music was typically built on two essential elements: a sturdy but syncopated 4/4 beat and catchy, repeatable riffs. Structurally, the music was generally composed in clearly delineated parts, with the brass section and the reed section playing off each other, answering each other like dancers trading steps, sometimes joined together in tight unison. There would be sections allocated to soloists for improvising, and perhaps a vocal refrain, particularly on the slow-dance numbers.

Among the hundreds of big bands—no, thousands—working everywhere in the middle of the last century, a great many ensembles experimented freely with this formula, and some made specialties of deviating from it. The most notable among the exceptions were the bands of Duke Ellington, whose expansive, highly listenable, and often challenging work has long been solidly established in the public consciousness as important American art; Stan Kenton, whose bravura use of pseudoclassical forms and instrumental effects approached the realm of grotesquerie; and Claude Thornhill, whose name is far less well-remembered than either Ellington’s or Kenton’s, but whose legacy endures in the music of Maria Schneider.

Thornhill, like Schneider, made a gentle, elegantly nuanced, unobtrusively cerebral, and often profoundly moving music. Upon Thornhill’s death in 1965, Ellington said, “I wonder if the world will ever know how much it had in this beautiful man.” Thornhill, like Ellington, composed and arranged much of his own music, but also farmed out many orchestrations, and the most gifted of his house arrangers was Gil Evans, who took the atmospheric chamber-jazz sound that he developed with Thornhill and built upon it to lead the postwar musical movement that came to be known as “the birth of the cool,” after the title of an album Evans worked on (along with Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, both veterans of the Thornhill organization) for Miles Davis. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Evans and Davis collaborated on a series of albums—Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights—which, as a body of work, defined a reflective, ethnically indefinite kind of jazz for close listening.

Late in his life, in 1985, Evans took on Maria Schneider as his musical assistant and copyist. She had just graduated from the Eastman School of Music and was still learning about jazz composition and orchestration. (Among the projects Schneider helped Evans to prepare were arrangements for Sting and parts of the score to The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler.) Evans taught Schneider well, and one of his lessons was the importance of finding one’s own voice as a composer.

From the title of her first album, Evanescence, released in 1994, Schneider made plain her debt to Evans, while she began to establish an individualistic approach that would reach full bloom within a few years. Like Evans in much but not all of his work, Schneider has always favored an impressionistic palette. She likes watercolor tones and pastels. She orchestrates with unconventional combinations of instruments—a trumpet and an electric guitar in unison, a muted trombone and a baritone saxophone combined to sound like an English horn—and likes the accordion for its ability to produce reedy bird-like sounds. “An accordion can play a long time up high, softly, purely, forever and ever,” she said in an interview for the book In Her Own Words, a collection of interviews with female composers. “It just gives a top end to the orchestra that is very delicate and beautiful.”

Unlike Evans, Schneider has worked often—and over the past ten years or so, predominantly—in a programmatic mode. She has drawn from memory and sensory images—sights, sounds, even smells—to write descriptively and conjure scenes, all of them set in the natural world. In “The Thompson Fields,” a still-unrecorded piece that I heard Schneider play at Jazz at Lincoln Center in March, Schneider worked from a memory of visiting her hometown of Windom, Minnesota, a small farming village in the southwest corner of the state. As Schneider explained before the performance of the piece, she had climbed to the top of a silo there and looked down at the bean fields, and went on to write a piece that conjured the swaying of the fields in the wind. Much the same, in “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” a piece on her 2007 album Sky Blue, Schneider worked from her childhood memories of nighttime car rides with her family outside Windom. We roll along in the piece, propelled gently by shifts in the harmony, and almost see house lights twinkling in the distance.

I know that all of this no doubt sounds awfully doe-eyed and trite, like the jazz-orchestra equivalent of calendar art. If so, then I have not done justice either to the sophistication of the music or to its emotional effect. “The Thompson Fields” takes several turns that are impossible to anticipate but feel utterly organic, accomplished through a masterly technique that is never obtrusive. At a pivotal moment in the piece, the orchestra plays a purling theme in one key while the pianist, Frank Kimbrough, plays an improvised solo in a different, unrelated key. The piece develops to suggest both the hypnotic ambulation of the fields and something unknowable, even ominous acting at the same time—what? A storm on the way? The threat of sudden darkness or death that comes with the cycles of nature?

Although it is mostly programmatic, Schneider’s music is also through-composed, in the manner of classical music. It is written not in quasi-independent segments—statement, development, solos, finale—but designed to unfurl in continuous motion. The piece “Cerulean Skies” opens with a lyrical melodic evocation of open skies. With the first solo, played on the Sky Blue album by the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the piece grows rawer. The melodic content of that solo then leads the piece as the orchestra picks up its feeling, and after a few more dips and twirls, with soloist and the orchestra pulling one another, the work concludes with a fanfare connected to the opening theme. The music never ceases its forward movement, and never feels anything but inevitable.

With her most recent CD, Winter Morning Walks, Schneider has ventured further into classical territory. The album contains a pair of song suites, settings of poetry sung by Dawn Upshaw and performed by a pair of symphonic ensembles: the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. In the first, from which the CD takes its title, Schneider worked from a book of short poems by Ted Kooser, the Midwestern American writer of rigorously plainspoken verse, who served as poet laureate from 2004 to 2006. In the second, “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” Schneider adapted English translations of poetry by Drummond, the late Brazilian poet, who, like Kooser, wrote with eloquent simplicity about nature and everyday life.

Though Schneider had not worked much with text before, having written just a couple of songs with the jazz singer Nora York (an adventurous and important artist in her own right), Schneider shows here that she can compose with keen sensitivity to language and the voice. The fourteen pieces in the two suites on the Winter Morning Walks CD are singable, even hummable songs. Schneider was wise to have selected poetry that reads like conversation and, hence, sings like conversational music, and she discreetly adapted the texts by repeating words and phrases here and there to give the pieces form as songs. Upshaw sings with appropriate delicacy and restraint, and avoids overtaking the text.

When I think about the kind of music Maria Schneider makes, I cringe a little. I am not much interested in nature. I am more strongly drawn to buildings and streets and the man-made bafflements, mistakes, and horrors of the city than I am to open skies and birds and fields of bean plants and all those perfect wonders of creation. The very idea of beautiful music about the natural world seems too obvious, too hippie-ish, too socio-politically correct to entertain.

When I listen to the music, though, and shake off my urban chauvinism for a few minutes, the experience is an exhilarating one. I feel a little flush. My head spins. I lose myself until the music stops. The sensation is so rare for me that it feels unnatural. It is something beautiful. 

David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.