“Words give me contour.” Interview with Maria Schneider

When you have a jazz trio sharing the stage with an orchestra, you know this isn’t going to be an ordinary symphony concert. The LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY has invited the American Maria Schneider, known as the First Lady of big-band jazz. In our Blog, the multiple-Grammy Award winner talks about the two song cycles she will present during the Special Event Day.

Maria Schneider (photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

Maria Schneider (photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

Winter Morning Walks is a selection from a cycle by the American lyric poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser. The second work is based on the poetry of the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Why did their works speak to you – and what differentiates these two poets?
Ted Kooser is from the same part of the United States that I am. His work has very much the feeling of the Midwest landscape, and also captures a simplicity of life that I associate with home. I love that the language of his poetry is very human and very real. Drummond’s poetry, too, is very much composed out of simple and real language. It feels very human and raw. I love the drama, but then the contrast of humor. Both are present in his work. I also know that for a lot of his poems, the sense of place is very important. Drummond and Kooser have that in common. I wanted Dawn Upshaw [who sang the world premiere of Winter Morning Walks] to be able to sing the words as someone who speaks them. I wanted their meaning to shine through, and that the melody would capture the actual contour of the language. These are simple, raw, and human poems. I wanted to honor these beautiful poems by enveloping them in sounds that gave them yet another layer of expression.

Winter Morning Walks was your first work for classical orchestra. How has that changed your composing?
Writing for voice was, in a way, a revelation. Words gave me contour, rhythm, meaning, length, and inspiration from their beauty alone – all these things helped give me direction. When I’m writing instrumental music, I’m working with a blank canvas.

You are the First Lady of Big Band jazz and have won many awards, including five Grammys. In the past did you encounter resistance as a woman leading a big band?
I’ve given “being a woman” almost no thought my whole career. I feel I’ve encountered no resistance whatsoever. Only once that I remember, and on that occasion, that person, years later, expressed in certain ways their regret. So I can honestly say this has been a non-issue for me … thankfully.

And today: are all options open for women in jazz?
I only speak for myself. I think options are open for anything in life, to anyone in life. I know that for me, a little resistance only makes me stronger and more determined to do the things I believe in.

Interview conducted by Malte Lohmann (Translation: Thomas May)

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