Known for fearless musical exploration and beautifully blurring lines between genres, composer Maria Schneider has earned seven GRAMMY Awards across the realms of jazz, classical, and even her work with David Bowie. Serving as Mason Artist-in-Residence this April, she led a powerful series of events across Fairfax and Arlington campuses with students, faculty, staff, and community members. Launched during the 2019-2020 season, the Mason Artist-in-Residence program connects artists appearing at the Center for the Arts in Fairfax and the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas with communities throughout Northern Virginia in a variety of activities for diverse audiences, creating opportunities for transformational experiences.
Through discussions, open rehearsals, and a culminating concert, the residency helped reinforce how Schneider became a groundbreaking visionary in the field. Events began with Beyond the Notes with Maria Schneider: A Conversation about Respecting Artist Rights, held on April 14 in Van Metre Hall on Mason’s Arlington Campus, and co-hosted by Mason’s Center for Intellectual Property x Innovation Policy (C-IP2) and Arts Management Program. George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School Professor and Arts & Entertainment Advocacy Clinic Director Sandra Aistars moderated the conversation with Schneider, which was also streamed live to an audience including individuals joining in from Ghana, Nigeria, the UK, and India.
Aistars said, “Maria Schneider seamlessly blends her art and her advocacy. Her skill in both musical composition and arts advocacy is that she moves us to hear what she shows us, often through unconventional means—be it the beauty of the natural world, the poignancy of a shared moment between friends, or the artist’s struggle to preserve dignity and rights in the digital world. She is also fierce. We need artists like Maria who are not afraid to remind corporations, fans, and artists alike to behave ethically towards one another if they hope to maintain a healthy music ecosystem that will sustain the next generations of artists and audiences.”
Schneider discussed her expansive approach to big band instrumentation, noting that the ensemble is a “solid, powerful medium,” but that she loves to push its boundaries to explore further, asking, “How can I stretch this instrumentation?” Weaving together recorded clips of music and conversation, the Thursday event began with a recording of her work “Cerulean Sky,” which combined flute, muted trumpet—and birdsong. She acknowledged, “It doesn’t sound much like a big band, but it is.”
The LA Times has said, “…Schneider’s [music] reaches toward a significant new level of imagination, making hers the first truly novel approach to big jazz band composition of the new century.” She explained to the crowd, “I’ve always been a composer who wants to explore new ground.” She credits her mentors with helping her hone her unique compositional voice, including jazz pianist/arranger/composer/bandleader Gil Evans and the “ethereal quality” of his work, and Bob Brookmeyer, her composition teacher who saw her natural inclination towards jazz despite all her classical training, and encouraged her to go chart for big bands. Of her recent work, the 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist piece Data Lords, NPR said, “This is music of extravagant mastery, and it comes imbued with a spirit of risk.”
Schneider’s risk-taking has also helped blaze a trail for the trend of crowdfunding, as one of the first artists to sign with ArtistShare, today widely recognized as an early precursor to websites like KickStarter, IndieGoGo, and PledgeMusic. She says ArtistShare founder Brian Camelio explained to her, “One thing you can’t fileshare is the creative process.” She notes that she documents her process on the platform through internet-exclusive streaming videos, sketches of her scores, and photos from rehearsals and concerts. “You can announce you’re doing a project, feature interviews with players, allow fans to become closer to the music. . . I like that I don’t have any anonymous sales.” Releasing her “Concert in the Garden” album on ArtistShare in 2004, she became the first artist to win a GRAMMY Award for an album not available in retail stores. Schneider exhorted artists in the room to “Never give up creative control of your work.”
Attendee and second-year law student Brianna Marie Christenson, a member of Prof. Aistars’ Arts and Entertainment clinic who has worked as a business manager and plans to go into copyright law, said, “Maria Schneider shows creatives how to use a technology built to serve the audience and not the artist, like music streaming platforms, work for both artist and fan. Her use of online platforms to find new fans and bring them to her own site for sale of her repertoire is a brilliant way to handle having a niche audience while trying to recoup on albums. . . .Her leadership in use of crowdfunding is something artists replicate en masse now.”
Schneider has also testified about digital rights before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, participated in round-tables for the United States Copyright Office, given commentary on CNN, and filed a class-action lawsuit against YouTube.
Mason Alumnus and Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies John M. Kocur, a saxophonist who also rehearsed for six hours with Schneider and played on the April 16 concert, notes, “Maria Schneider valiantly defends of the rights of musicians against corporate interests. She makes music for social advocacy and advocates for musical justice. The core of her message is that our intellectual property is valuable, and we ought to guard it carefully or our entire culture will suffer.”
While embracing technology to allow artists to be more independent, Schneider also emphasized the need to unplug, telling Mason Jazz Ensemble students in an open rehearsal/Q&A on April 15 at the Center for the Arts: “I don’t believe you can be a great artist unless you give yourself space. Leave your phone at home. Allow yourself to get bored. That’s when you start to imagine things. Dream it up. Make something. You will come through your music.”
Schneider’s rehearsal with the Mason Jazz Ensemble students and additional sessions with the professional Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra culminated in the galvanizing April 16 concert at the Center, with Schneider conducting her own works performed by the ensembles.
Featured Mason Artists-in-Residence in the newly announced 2022/2023 Center for the Arts season, will include Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Indigenous Enterprise, and the launch of a three-year residency with Silkroad Ensemble. Learn more about the Mason Artist-in-Residence program at cfa.gmu.edu/about/artists-residence.