Don’t get Maria Schneider started. That’s not a bad thing. Actually, it’s a good thing.
The Grammy-winning jazz master from Windom, Minn., gets ferociously passionate, super-informed and dog-with-a-bone tenacious when she’s preoccupied with something. She’ll testify before Congress, write white papers, sound off in an op-ed piece. And she’ll even make music about it.
“Data Lords,” released on Friday, is her magnum opus, a riveting, remarkably intense double album, as profound as modern-day instrumental music gets.
Featuring the 18-member Maria Schneider Orchestra, this 95-minute collection is the most ambitious work in her nine-album catalog that has led to five Grammys as a composer, arranger and conductor in jazz, classical and rock.
The first disc is dark, dense and ominous, the second pastoral, playful and graceful, generally in step with the rest of her canon.
Schneider is taking on Big Data, those tech companies that compile and sell information about you and those digital platforms that pay minuscule royalties to artists who create content.
“My music has always followed whatever path my life is taking,” she said from her country place, two hours from her New York City apartment. “I’ve been doing a lot of speaking out against so many of the practices of Big Data companies and how it’s affecting our economies and our creativity.”
Featuring disquieting passages and lots of guitar distortion, the first disc finds Schneider exploring new sounds that were ignited by her collaboration with David Bowie as the arranger of his 2015 track, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” for which she won a Grammy for best arrangement for instrumental and vocals.
“He really encouraged me to just take risks with music,” Schneider recalled. “He said, ‘If the plane goes down, we all walk away. So just go for it.’ I think I kind of let it all hang out.”
To Schneider, the sounds of “Data Lords” reflect “the inundation of information that we are all bombarded with on a daily basis.”
“Every time you go online, every company, every ad is trying to get you to spend time on their site to get information from you, to get data from you, to get you to buy something. It’s too much. The music for me is expressing that, and my frustration with that. But I tried to make it beautiful and expressive — and a little bit fun.”
‘Sputnik’ to ‘Don’t Be Evil’
As she composes, the sounds dictate the song title, whether it’s the foreboding title track or the celestial “Sputnik.”
Sounding like a New York City traffic jam with frequent blasts of horns, the opening track, “A World Lost,” contains multiple moods while the ensuing “ ‘Don’t Be Evil” is dark but “mocking Google,” as Schneider puts it.
“CQ, Is There Anybody There” is inspired by Morse code, something her father used as a ham-radio aficionado in Windom. The rhythms spell pointed words in the dots and dashes of that lexicon — power, greed, SOS, data and AI.
“Morse code was the first binary language,” Schneider explained. “It was all about connecting with the world. It had something in common with the internet but with much more accountability and much more transparency. And it had a code of ethics.”
The shortest piece on the first disc is the eight-minute “Sputnik,” named after the first satellite from Earth, because the sounds suggested space to Schneider.
“The space race now is between corporations trying to have satellites in space to gather data. I don’t even know all the uses of it,” she said. “I started imagining all our data orbiting the Earth. The piece actually goes through 12 variations of a theme; I was thinking of the 12 cycles of the moon and 12 zodiac signs.”
In this world of information overload, Schneider uses Facebook only for business and rarely posts on her Instagram. She forces herself to take a timeout, detoxing from her smartphone and e-mail, retreating to her place in the country.
“I found myself reconnecting with all the things that are most important to me — birds, people, space and silence. That started to come out in other music,” she said. “So I ended up with things from two polarized worlds but that in itself was telling me something about this world we all live in.”
The first selection on the second disc, the mysterious and Zen “Sanzenin,” was inspired by temple gardens Schneider visited in Japan.
“It’s so beautiful, so peaceful,” she said. “It is the very definition of unplugging.”
The whimsical “Stone Song” was sparked by a piece of pottery with a stone in it that sits atop Schneider’s piano.
“It’s probably the most unique thing I’ve ever written,” she noted. “That sound you’re hearing is the actual pottery with a jiggling stone.”
Then Schneider, as she is wont to do, launched into a monologue about fighting the “Data Lords.”
“It’s a fight to hang on to one’s own silent space, even one’s own thoughts about things. It’s very important in your life to have silence, to have space, to have even boredom and discomfort because out of those spaces comes creative thinking, comes inspiration.”
Crowdfunding and loan
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schneider had to cancel her Minnesota performance at Hopkins Center for the Arts in April as well as concerts elsewhere.
She has fall gigs pending at New York City’s Jazz Standard (where her orchestra has done a weeklong engagement every November since 2005) and at the Frost School of Music in Florida, where she is the new artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute. (She studied for her master’s degree there; she received her undergraduate music degree and an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota.)
With all those canceled concerts, Schneider has kept her life afloat thanks to a government loan. With her 18-member ensemble, her projects are expensive, underwritten by fan-funding and occasional commissions.
“The Thompson Fields,” her 2015 ode to nature influenced by her first 18 years in southwestern Minnesota, cost more than $200,000, which she was eventually able to recoup.
“This new one cost more than that,” she acknowledged. “I went over budget.”
She lamented how it’s harder and harder to make money from recordings in this era of streaming. “If it’s not on Spotify or YouTube, people don’t want to search for getting it another way.”
Named NEA Jazz Master
In 2019, Schneider was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, probably the highest honor given in the genre.
“My first thought was, ‘Am I that old already?’ ” said the 59-year-old musician. “I was glad to see that I was one of the youngest ones that ever got it. I was just really flattered.”
Those kinds of accolades bolster Schneider’s credentials when she speaks up and fights for artist rights. As a child, she learned about the notion of ownership of intellectual property from her father, an inventor who once lost out on a patent because of a wording error by a patent attorney.
Don’t get Schneider started on ownership. She testified before Congress in 2016 about protecting artists’ copyrights in the digital age.
“It was pretty scary but pretty amazing at the same time,” she reflected. “There’s the feeling that you’re allowed to tell about your experience and hopefully able to change the course of things. But your hope is diminished when you become aware of the lobbying power of corporations and organizations.”
Schneider speaks out in concert, in white papers, articles and her blog on her website. She’s relentless.
“This idea that everything should be free is so maddening to me,” she said. “It’s an idea and philosophy put forth conveniently by companies that make billions, and become trillion-dollar companies from their ‘free’ platforms. But free isn’t really free when they’re extracting valuable data from us. And most people are suckers for this thing. I’m not. I’m awake to what’s going on. That’s why I speak out.”
Schneider offers an example to illustrate how Big Data enters her life uninvited.
“I was sitting in a hearing clinic one day, and I suddenly got an advertisement for fashionable hearing aids for young women,” she recalled. “I felt like my space, my privacy, was so invaded. We’ve all accepted this is how it is. For me, it’s just not how it should be.”
Schneider thinks others are waking up, too. She encounters college students who no longer think “free is good” and families who turn off their cellphones on vacation.
“I’ve watched the light for society turn on,” she said. “I think our  elections were a wake-up call for everybody, whether they were right-wing or left-wing. I don’t think anybody wants their candidate to win because of forces of manipulation by Big Data companies. That doesn’t speak to democracy for me. People are waking up that this is scary stuff. That gives me big hope.”