Maria Schneider and her orchestra performed Tuesday, April 19, in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium. Schneider’s 18-piece orchestra is of an unusual composition, notably featuring an accordion, a piano player who fearlessly enters the piano itself to pluck at strings and lightly drum on the piano’s wooden organs, and some sort of alien, oversized, curved flute-like thing plucked straight out of the Star Wars cantina.
The modernity of the band’s composition and instruments is matched by Schneider’s technological savvy and knack for topical pieces. Inspired by her very public fight for artist autonomy and digital rights, Schneider recently penned a song (Data Lords) about the “dark overlords” of our age: the insidious organizations of personal data-collection. She compared the extraction of personally identifying data by services such as Google and Spotify to childhood visions of spiders turning trapped insects into empty husks. The song, with a fast-slow tempo shift and strange, offbeat percussive escalations, set the audience at edge and provoked a dozing grandparent seated on my left into attentive unease.
It is notable that Schneider, a digital rights activist, lobbies a very different agenda from that of her activist peers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Google and elsewhere. Speaking to Music Professor (and Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble director) Don Glasgo’s History of Jazz class the morning of the concert, Schneider advocated for internet service provider (ISP) responsibility for blocking illegal activity on the web, likened illegal downloaders to actual pirates “at the doors, except unlike with pirates we just don’t do anything about it,” and reiterated that the performance-centric, low-income but high-visibility culture of music on platforms like Spotify and Youtube is damaging for musicians and for art. On stage, Schneider voiced her political opposition to Youtube’s stance on digital copyright, saying that Youtube does not do enough to protect artists from copyright infringement. Schneider also believes that artists should have access to the data collected by music services about customers, so that artists can directly contact their fans, and tailor performances, advertising, etc. to their fan base.
Schneider’s orchestra performs in a sort of sine wave. The volume and amount of participation from the musicians increases exponentially until one instrument is indistinguishable from the next, and then the majority of the musicians fall suddenly silent, leaving one previously unnoticed sound to rise to prominence in an extended solo. This escalation/deescalation reminds me of Cecil Taylor’s piano improvisations. There are 18 people making music, but each individual sound is compelling enough to stand alone.
Her conducting gestures further energize the performance, adding a synesthetic, physical representation of the music. Where other conductors might regally flick a Quirinus-Quirrell-esque wand, Schneider moves her entire body, walking around the stage and moving both arms in a way which seems not only to cue the musicians but also to almost dance to the music. Physical movement is present elsewhere. In a saxophone solo, one artist briefly stood on one leg, and in the particularly impressive (and fun!) song Arbiters of Evolution, two soloists swayed and danced face-to-face just like the birds of paradise their music aims to emulate. Schneider’s orchestra attracted, and orchestras tend to attract, a high-brow audience, but there was something undeniably punk about her band-members’ movements, the theme of digital privacy and the emphasis on pairing collective union with individual solo performances.
Like pretty much anything with the word “orchestra” in it, Schneider’s orchestra at times made me sleepy. But this is more a reflection of me being 19 years old than anything else. The technical chops and thematic elements present in Schneider’s orchestra are anything but boring, and Schneider herself is a force to be reckoned with, on and off stage. She is as articulate and convicted as her music. She won two Grammy awards this year, one of which she shared with the late David Bowie, and she had won three others previously. Schneider’s orchestra impressed the audience to an immediate standing ovation, just as Schneider’s charisma kept the majority of my jazz class in the classroom talking to her ten minutes after class ended. The piece Dartmouth commissioned was beautiful, and Schneider’s work as an artist and an advocate is compelling and courageous. I only hope she can find it in her heart to forgive me, because I will indubitably continue to use Spotify and Youtube for the majority of my day-to-day jazz listening.