Soprano Dawn Upshaw And Composer Maria Schneider Make Grammy-Nominated Music Together

Dec 9, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 8:55 am

Soprano Dawn Upshaw has been a longtime fan of composer Maria Schneider’s work, so Upshaw approached the composer and suggested a collaboration.

The result is the album “Winter Morning Walks,” which has been nominated for three Grammy awards, including Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Classical Vocal Solo.

We revisit our March conversation with Schneider and Upshaw.


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The Grammy nominations were just announced. You no doubt heard that Jay-Z and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scored big, but so did Magnus Lindberg. He was nominated for his "Piano Concerto No. 2" in the contemporary classical composition category, which sounds very exciting this year. Arvo Part was also nominated for "Adam's Lament," Esa-Pekka Salonen for his "Violin Concerto," Caroline Shaw for her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Partita for 8 Voices." And big band leader Maria Schneider is in here as well. She won a Grammy in 2007 for her "Cerulean Skies."


YOUNG: This year, Maria Schneider is nominated in the classical composition category for her "Winter Morning Walks," performed with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The work was funded through the website ArtistShare. It's based on poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade, a Brazilian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Nebraska poet Ted Kooser. Here's a track that makes music out of a dust devil.


DAWN UPSHAW: (Singing) I saw a dust devil this morning, doing a dance and doing a dance, doing a dance with veils of cornshucks in front of an empty farmhouse. A magical thing...

YOUNG: Dawn Upshaw singing "I Saw A Dust Devil This Morning." She was also nominated for her vocal performance. We spoke to both Dawn and Maria Schneider when the album first came out.

Dawn, we understand you first approached Maria about collaborating. Why? What has inspired you?

UPSHAW: Well, I had been visiting every Thanksgiving time the Jazz Standard in New York City to hear Maria and her band. And I fell in love with Maria's music when I heard her recording "Concert in the Garden." And then I finally got up the courage to ask Maria to actually write something for me.

YOUNG: Imagine that, Maria, the courage to...

MARIA SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I was - I was just thinking courage, because when she asked me I was so scared. I told Dawn - I said I haven't really written for orchestra and I haven't really written for words and a soprano, and I don't know what I'm doing. And Dawn said, I just want you to do what you do. I don't want you to change who you are. So I finally just decided to say yes and just trust in her confidence that she had in me.

YOUNG: Well, you ended up writing this piece first, the five-movement suite, "Carlos Andrade Stories," as we said, based on the Brazilian poet. Let's listen.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Carlos, come down. Love is what you are seeing.

SCHNEIDER: I fell in love with his poetry, and in particular I fell in love with Mark Strand's translations. And I decided I wanted to do it in English because I wanted the audience to feel the immediacy of the words and how the music was reflected in the words.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself. See more. Love yourself. Fall away. Fall away.

YOUNG: Dawn Upshaw, here you are, approaching, you know, getting up the courage to speak with Maria Schneider. And I'm thinking, though, the courage also comes from you don't know what you're going to get in return. You get the music of a Brazilian poet. Your thoughts?

UPSHAW: Maria's music touched me and continues to touch me viscerally and deeply and I've always felt that there's such joy in her music. And I knew that no matter what she was going to write, it would be some sort of joyful experience.

YOUNG: And what are you trying to say, Maria, if you're presented with this - I have an opportunity to write music for and perform with Dawn Upshaw?

SCHNEIDER: First, I wanted text that I could dive into. And I love the Drummond and Ted Kooser was a poet who - whose poetry I just - I love his books. And I just - I wanted something where the sort of humanity that comes through when Dawn sings, that the music would ask for that and leave room for that to come forward.

YOUNG: And let's hear another resulting song. This is from Ted Kooser's work. It's called "Walking by Flashlight."


UPSHAW: (Singing) Coyote, raccoon, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow, each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.

YOUNG: It's just exquisite. And, Maria Schneider, we know that Ted Kooser wrote "Winter Morning Walks" while he was being treated for cancer. We also know you lost your father, and I don't know if those events were together, but, you know, the fact that you're both Midwesterners, I'm just wondering if in doing this project for Dawn, it maybe brought you some solace too.

SCHNEIDER: You know, I just related to these poems so much. It wasn't even the cancer part of Ted Kooser's experience. It was how alive he made simple things feel, you know? The walk with the flashlight and the metaphor of the moon on a leash and how much little things and little images, and images that I relate to from home, how much they come to life. That was just very powerful for me.

YOUNG: But, Dawn Upshaw, there's also, you know, fun, just some fun. I'm thinking finch feeder, birds all over the place. "Our Finch Feeder," the name of the song. Let's listen.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Our finch feeder, full of thistle seed, oily and black...

What I love most about Maria's writing in this piece is how she got this uneven swinging of the finch feeder.

YOUNG: Was it - was there a physicality or...

UPSHAW: Well, the rhythm and tempo of the piece is not steady because it mirrors the swinging of the finch feeder.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Cling to the perches, cling to the perches, six birds at a time...

YOUNG: We've talked about this before, Maria. One of the problems is you're big band, and that gets expensive. And when we talked back in 2007, you were beginning to tap into this idea of your audience funding your work.

SCHNEIDER: Well, if I thought making a big band recording was expensive, I don't know what I was thinking in doing something with two orchestras.

YOUNG: Orchestras. Right.

SCHNEIDER: I had to be insane. But it's something I really wanted to do. And one thing I love about ArtistShare, I mean we started this thing back in 2004. And it's really worked. What I love is it brings me close to the people that support my music, you know, sharing the whole process, illuminating even my fears. And in the end, they take a little bit of ownership of it too, because they put the money out there ahead of time and followed along, you know, my videos and my audio documentation. And it's really fun to do. It's a lot of work, but it's fun.

YOUNG: That's composer Maria Schneider and the music she's most recently made is a new CD with Dawn Upshaw, music set to the work of poets Ted Kooser and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, "Winter Morning Walks." Dawn Upshaw, Maria Schneider, thank you so much for talking to us about it.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

UPSHAW: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: We spoke last March. Their collaboration, "Winter Morning Walks," has been nominated for three Grammy Awards. We'll find out what happens January 26. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.