BirdNote’s Chris Peterson spoke with American composer, Maria Schneider, about how birds inspired her jazz composition Cerulean Skies, which received a Grammy in 2007 for "Best Instrumental Composition."
"What inspired Cerulean Skies is birding every day in Central Park in spring, late April and early May, and walking a half block from my apartment on the Upper West Side into Central Park and hearing that dawn chorus of the birds opening up.
"What really inspires me when I’m looking at the birds…is imagining the journey that they’ve been on. Where have they started from …if I’m looking at the Blackpoll Warbler? Maybe this little guy was all the way in Peru – maybe he was flying 4,000 kilometers without stopping, navigating by the light of the stars and the moon…. And so, as I was writing I thought, Wow! Maybe I can capture… This can be the form of the piece – trying to capture the feeling of a dawn chorus opening somewhere imaginary in the southern hemisphere, or Central America, some sort of mythic forest, and the chorus opens up and of course we know that not every bird migrates that lives there. But for the sake of argument for this piece, they all do! And they all take up in the air and head north to Central Park.
"When the band comes in, I was just trying to capture the joy, the joy that I feel in taking that experience in!
"There are three solos in this piece. In the first solo, I wanted to capture the sort of earthy feeling of what must happen when all these birds get that urge to head north – physiologically they’re changing; they start eating a lot because they have to make the long journey. Their feathers are changing so that they’ll be attractive to mates. And so I tried to capture… and I told Donny McCaslin, the tenor soloist, that I wanted him to just bring all that virility into the music.
"So at the end of Donny’s solo, what I wanted it to feel like – that all these birds – thousands of birds! – are going up into the air …and disappearing… a little pinprick into the sky. [fade in to accordion solo] And then we go into the mind’s eye of one little warbler …that’s navigating and flying by the light of the stars…. And imagining this bird flitting along with millions of birds next to it – and that is captured with the accordion, Gary Versace.
"During migration Central Park is teeming with Magnolia Warblers ... They are among the loveliest of creatures. If you rest your eyes long enough on this magnificent bird, you can’t believe that such a thing could really exist."
"I thought it was really beautiful because my musicians are improvisers. These are improvised solos, so they really need to understand the intent of the music. You hear these subtle little ‘clouds.’ They feel like little ‘clouds of sound’ somehow – they create atmosphere.
"What I love about writing for improvisers is that the music is this meeting point every night, when we perform. And we’re all coming together and we’re interacting just like people would at a party or something. And all these different relationships happen. And the unexpected things that happen are celebrated at the end of the night – you see it in everybody’s face, you see guys just smiling and shaking their heads at an amazing interaction, or something soloistically that somebody did.
"And that’s thrilling! For me that feels like I’ve put on a really great party. And they’ve now just made this their own. And at the end of the night, the composition isn’t mine, it’s ours!"
You can learn more about Maria Schneider’s experience in writing music -- which she shares freely as a part of every project -- and learn how to participate and receive her recordings by visiting Maria's website.
Listen to a BirdNote show with Maria, Spring, The Sky Rippled with Geese.
"Cerulean Skies" from the Sky Blue album by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, 2007.
Interview by Chris Peterson
Produced and narrated by John Kessler