Maria Schneider doesn’t make it easy to hear her music. It’s not on Spotify, Tidal, or YouTube. Her CDs aren’t available from Amazon, or any conventional retail outlet. Her previous releases are available through the iTunes store, but the only way to get her latest album, Data Lords, is through the crowdfunding site ArtistShare. And even if you find your way there, you haven’t passed the final roadblock. She doesn’t take PayPal — credit cards only.
She also charges significantly more for her releases than a typical artist. She’s not setting totally absurd prices like the rapper Mach-Hommy, who charges upwards of $200 for an LP (granted, it comes with a stress ball, which you may need after paying that much), but the digital download alone is $24.95, with the physical 2CD set running $34.95. This is closer to what pianist Jason Moran charges for a download on Bandcamp — $20, rather than the usual $7-12.
But as Moran told me in a 2017 interview, “You know, I think about music as, ‘What do you value it at?’ And that’s basically it…my immediate response is, look at the back of a slave that’s been whipped, and ask yourself, ‘How do you value your work?’ That’s the end for me. I could charge $50 for this, and if a person wants it, they want it. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s totally fine. But I set it there more as a place to hold it. The way music has been sold, this thing where I should be able to stream the entire thing before I buy it, is unfair, and I think it’s unfair that musicians should fall into the mode where they would do that automatically. I don’t believe in that.”
Mach-Hommy told the L.A. Record in 2017, “I have to create my own value. In order to create my own value and dictate the terms of my work and my brain children, I have to control the dispensation and the interaction. I have to keep it in a small enough space so I can incubate it…I have to keep this shit under control because that’s what this is all about. I’m going to control my work and I’m going to control how it’s being funneled.”
Schneider has always been very serious about copyright; her father was an inventor, so she learned the importance of having your name on things as a child. She recently told Jazz In Europe magazine, “I saw all these rights being violated and in the beginning I didn’t think it would have a huge effect on me as a musician but then I started to see my music popping up all over the place for free…In the beginning I didn’t feel it would have that much impact, my second album was out, I’d just won my first Grammy and my albums were still selling quite well. Then a year or so later I started to notice a big drop-off. The thing that really upset me the most was on YouTube anybody can upload your music and they don’t even ask the uploader if they have the rights to do this. This is crazy, and even worse, if the artist requests for it to be taken down, as the owner you have to swear under penalty of perjury that you are the rightful owner. It’s the world upside down.”
Schneider has become quite an expert on tech and privacy issues, blogging about it extensively, writing editorials, delivering lectures, and even testifying before Congress. Her militant stance is one with which many artists agree, and it seems to be working for her; she has a devoted audience that is willing to fund her projects, and her past performances frequently sold out. When music is again being performed in front of live audiences, she will no doubt be rapturously received.
Data Lords, her first recording since 2015’s Grammy-winning The Thompson Fields, is a two-CD set divided into themed halves. The first disc is called The Digital World; the second is called Our Natural World, and those titles are significant and revealing of Schneider’s perspective on contemporary life — note that only the natural world is described as “ours”; the digital world, in her mind, is external to us. Contrast this with the feelings of younger people, who have grown up with smartphones in their hands and see no true distinction between life on the internet and “real” life, for good or ill.
The music is performed by an 18-member ensemble that includes Tony Kadleck, Nadje Noordhuis, and Mike Rodriguez on trumpets and flügelhorns; George Flynn, Marshall Gilkes, Ryan Keberle and Keith O’Quinn on trombones (with Flynn doubling on bass trombone); Dave Pietro on alto sax; Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxes; Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin on tenor saxes (with McCaslin doubling on flute, and Pietro also contributing clarinet, alto flute, and piccolo); Scott Robinson on baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet; Gary Versace on accordion; Ben Monder on guitar; Frank Kimbrough on piano; Jay Anderson on bass; and Johnathan Blake on drums. Many of these players are veterans of previous Schneider albums, going back to the dawn of the 2000s if not earlier.
The five pieces on the first disc — “Data Lords,” “Don’t Be Evil,” “Sputnik,” “CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” and “A World Lost” — have a darkness that brings to mind the work of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, but also Stan Kenton‘s arrangements of Bob Graettinger‘s music, as heard on the City of Glass compilation, and even Danny Elfman‘s score for Tim Burton‘s Batman. At times, as on “CQ…”, Monder’s staticky guitar and Blake’s almost hostile drums give the music an unsettling feel; the low brass creates an almost subliminal rumble like the anxiety one feels when our technology suddenly fails.
The second disc has more air in the music than the first; multiple tracks allow Versace’s accordion to inject a light-hearted, even pastoral feeling. There are even some sonically cutesy gestures, like the small rattling stone heard in “Stone Song.” It’s not a complete mirror image of the first disc, though — the murmuring low brass reappears occasionally, as though telling us that while nature is pretty and all, things can go wrong fast. It’s also worth noting that the lighter pieces are significantly shorter; of the six tracks on the second disc, three are between four and six minutes long, while three of the five on the first disc pass the ten-minute mark. Only “Bluebird,” from Our Natural World, is that long, and it’s the closest in spirit to the material from The Digital World, featuring sharp late-night sax work and Lalo Schifrin-esque blare from the horns, as though the titular bird is flying through Times Square in the ’70s rather than a sunlit meadow.
Despite its track titles, Data Lords isn’t “program music”; it’s not attempting to paint a mental picture or take you on a journey through the Dark Web via big-band orchestrations, however sharp-edged and threatening they may get. You could stumble across this music with no knowledge of its origins — say, by hearing one track in the middle of a Spotify playlist, or letting YouTube throw it at you as a recommendation based on something else you played — and be impressed, even enraptured, by its intricacy and beauty. Except, of course, you can’t. And that’s the way Maria Schneider wants it. She has created her value; if you find your way to her, she’s happy to have you, but it’s up to you.