Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Kofi Agawu

Committee Members

Ursula Oppens

Norman Carey

Benjamin Bierman

Subject Categories

Musicology | Music Performance | Music Theory


Maria Schneider, semiotics, modern big band, virtual agency, expressivity, narrativity


Expressivity, imagery, and narrativity have long been touted as hallmarks of big band composer Maria Schneider’s style. This perception is widely accepted by critics and casual commentators, but are these attributions merely metaphorical or do they speak to observable dimensions of Schneider’s compositional style? This dissertation aims to address the narrative and expressive dimensions of Schneider’s music by combining aspects of formal analysis with concepts from music semiotics. The centerpiece is an analysis of “Cerulean Skies” (2006), the longest work to date in Schneider’s oeuvre with a duration of approximately twenty-two minutes. “Cerulean Skies” is distinct in its expansiveness and unusual form, making it an appropriate case study for the inquiry into expressive meaning in Schneider’s style.

In the chapter one, interviews from various points in Maria Schneider’s career are considered in order to specify and contextualize her compositional intentions. Schneider consistently reiterates her intention to express intimate feelings and memories through music that will then be interpreted by performers and listeners according to their own subjectivities. Chapter two explores semiotic strategies that reveal different aspects of meaning within music, drawing on the writings of Kofi Agawu and Robert Hatten. Specifically, the concepts of high point, periodicity, markedness, and virtual agency are discussed. These are combined with a discussion of her distinct formal schema as theorized by Ben Geyer.

The resulting methodology is applied to “Cerulean Skies” in chapters three, four, and five. While the formal flow of the piece follows the trajectory of her normative formal schema, it contains deviations that can be linked to the programmatic needs of the inspiration. The analysis juxtaposes these two perspectives by focusing on high points, periodicity, and markedness to illuminate various aspects of composition, some of which portray extramusical features. The final chapter draws on Hatten’s theory of virtual agency and subjectivity to illuminate the staging of emotional and psychological aspects of the program. This staging is particularly vivid in the interaction of the improvisatory solos and musical trajectories of the solo sections.

The dissertation shows that expressivity is achieved through a combination of compositional strategies. Some of these stem from traditional features, such as key relationships, thematic construction, and formal design. Others stem from semiotic concepts of high point, periodicity, and markedness. Schneider’s attention to thematic transformation, shifts in orchestration, rhetorical devices, changes in texture and groove, dynamic curve and high points, and the staging of virtual agency through improvisation (to name a few) creates a rich fabric of meaning that is intended to draw the listener towards the inspiration behind the composition. It is in this multiplicity of compositional strategies that we can locate Maria Schneider’s highly expressive style.