2017-08-03 / Nature

Grammy Winner Also Avid Bird Watcher

By Charles Avenengo

Artist Maria Schneider is an avid bird watcher. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Artist Maria Schneider is an avid bird watcher. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Many notable celebrities are birdwatchers. The list includes Jimmy Carter, Laura Bush, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Darryl Hannah, Prince Philip of England, and perhaps the most famous big-league baseball umpire ever, Ron Luciano, who once halted a game to investigate some odd parrots.

Ian Fleming, author of the “James Bond” series, named his main character after a birdwatcher. The real James Bond was Fleming’s Jamaican neighbor and the author of the definitive “Birds of West Indies,” while the fictional 007 has been known to use bird watching as a cover on his missions. Cuba’s late Fidel Castro was also reputedly a birdwatcher.

This weekend, another bird watching celebrity will visit Newport when award-winning Big Band conductor and composer Maria Schneider plays at the Newport Jazz Festival. While some people might not have heard of The Maria Schneider Orchestra, this will be their fourth appearance at the festival.

The hermit thrush is a favorite bird of singer Maria Schneider and this image by Bob Weaver hangs in her home. The hermit thrush is a favorite bird of singer Maria Schneider and this image by Bob Weaver hangs in her home. With a successful musical career, bird watching has been more of an avocation for Schneider. The Minnesota native, who now lives in Manhattan, said during a recent telephone interview that she once announced to her first-grade class and teacher, “I am going to be an ornithologist.”

Although a musical career may have beaten out her childhood choice, Schneider is still a member of the thousands of binocular-toting, up-at-dawn, in-the-field birdwatchers who can identify most birds at a glance.

People of all walks of life enjoy birds. Many create beautiful paintings of birds, some take dramatic photographs, and others sing like a nightingale. But only a handful of artists attempt to evoke a bird’s essence into musical expression. Schneider has done exactly that, using her nature observations to translate them into musical compositions. As an astute observer of the natural world, anything she sees is eligible for musical conversion.

Schneider is a frequent birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, which, oddly enough, is one of the best places to watch birds in America, especially in mid-spring. She was featured in the HBO documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” and it was during her time in the park that she was motivated to compose and create an album titled “Sky Blue.”

One song on the album is called “Cerulean Sky.” With a title inspired by a stunningly beautiful bird that she saw in the park called a cerulean warbler, the 22-minute orchestral piece is basically her translation of a bird in migration. “I envisioned a blackpoll warbler,” she said.

The piece follows the various stages of the bird’s migration. The blackpoll warbler is a sprite of a bird that flies 4,000 kilometers nonstop twice a year from the northern boreal forests to South America. In her work, Schneider cajoles the instruments to recall the bird as it moves through the mechanics of this migration.

“Cerulean Sky” won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Composition” in 2008, one of five she has earned.

Schneider is also a board member of E-bird, an internet tool that has virtually redrawn the parameters of bird watching worldwide. Although she said she didn’t think she would have time to go bird watching while in Newport, she does occasionally do so while on tour. She spent a great deal of time last month in Tokyo with binoculars around her neck.

During the interview, Schneider revealed that she recently planted milkweed, following a national trend to aid monarch butterflies. Her efforts attracted the butterflies, but birds soon devoured the monarch caterpillars, which is a behavior that is not supposed to happen due to the bittersweet taste of a monarch. Schneider said she was able to save one caterpillar, “and now it is a chrysalis. In a few days, it will be a full-fledged adult. That is so exciting.”

With that, perhaps thinking of a connection between the chrysalis, flight and music, she had to go to continue working on a new piece she was composing for Newport.

Could another Grammy be on the way?

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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