I think Spencer Huffman would have liked the composer Maria Schneider. Schneider won three Grammys last night for her song cycle “Winter Morning Walks,” which was written for soprano Dawn Upshaw and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and recorded by Australian Chamber Orchestra. “Winter Morning Walks” won in the classical category; Schneider has previously won Grammys back in 2004 for “Concert in the Garden,” a jazz album, and in 2007 for a song (“Cerulean Skies”) on her “Sky Blue” album.
I’ve spent the morning listening to excerpts from the album and listening to interviews with Schneider, whose “classical” music I had not heard before. Born in 1960, she projects a youthful, friendly directness that seems to come from a basically happy person. She smiles.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images / January 26, 2014)
The musical language of “Winter Morning Walks” is a warm embrace of high-class pop, along with jazz and classical roots. (Memorably, Schneider once said in an interview that her music is “like an owl pellet, full of everything I’ve ever eaten.”) It sets the poetry of former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, whose accessible, deeply intelligent Mid-western prairie sensibility resonates with Schneider’s affectionate feeling for her home state of Minnesota.
Listening to excerpts of “Winter Morning Walks” and listening to a 20 minute-long interview about the making of the “Winter Morning Walks,” I was struck by her concern for establishing trust between composer and listener. This was one of Spencer Huffman’s maxims. If “I don’t trust the first few decisions of a composer,” says Schneider of the experience of listening to a new piece of music, “I’m on edge, and suddenly I’m away from the music.”
She want listeners to “trust that I’m going to take them somewhere.” She says that if someone tells her that her music “is really interesting, that’s a bummer,” because that means that the listener is “outside the music.”
To my ear, she composes with real integrity, generating musical ideas that are, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, “sticky.” Spencer Huffman, who did not have that ability, nevertheless had deep respect for the ingredients (and mysterious alchemy) of enduring musical popularity, and would hold up songs that were sung or whistled by normal people walking down the street for special praise. The best composers of Tin Pan Alley had the ability to knock out tunes like that, as did Puccini, Mozart, Handel, Bach, Purcell, and Dowland. Huffman’s mostly sour demeanor may have come from the realization that he was never going to join that group.
If you know where to walk, I think you might begin to hear some people whistling songs from “Winter Morning Walks.” It’s that good.
And somewhere, perhaps, Spencer Huffman is smiling.