Multi-instrumentalist Anna Webber has forged a distinctive voice as a composer and bandleader. In her work, precise, memorable musical ideas are placed in dialogue with wide-open, risk-taking improvisation. After releasing two records with her trio featuring pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck, Webber is expanding her instrumental palette with a new septet. At The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, January 18, the ensemble will make their debut playing Webber’s new original compositions inspired by 20th century percussion music (including works by Cage, Varese, and Stockhausen). We caught up with Webber by phone to talk about her translation of musical materials into new forms, as well as balancing precision and freedom in a band of improvisers.
The Jazz Gallery: What is your compositional process like?
Anna Webber: That’s a big question! All of the music that I’m going to be playing at The Jazz Gallery is music that I wrote this summer, at a residency in New Hampshire. All of it is very loosely derived from 20th century classical percussion music. That in itself is a bit of a hint at my compositional process—a lot of the stuff I write is taking a seed from some outside source. In this case I looked at these percussion scores and spent a lot of time analyzing them and reading both the composers’ notes on the pieces and other peoples’ papers or dissertations on them, and from there, found something that I thought was interesting, that I wanted to explore more. All of the pieces, if you heard my piece and then you heard the original, you wouldn’t be able to guess it. I tried to make the link very obscure, and to find something pretty non-obvious to go from.
In general, what I do compositionally is start from a small seed, so it could be a little rhythmic idea, a melodic idea, or an extramusical idea or a formal idea, and then spend my precompositional time developing everything from that seed that I possibly can, without thinking about how it’s going to fit in or what it might be. I just explore the idea in as much detail as I can. From there, it usually starts to take some sort of shape by itself.
TJG: What were the percussion pieces you started with?
AW: The pieces that I looked at were Xenakis, Persephassa, which is for six percussionists, John Cage’s Third Construction, Varese’s Ionization. They all used to have titles that were the same titles, but now I can’t remember what the original titles were. Zyklus, by Stockhausen. King of Denmark, by Morton Feldman. Yeah! And others [laughs].
TJG: How did you arrive at that as a starting point?
AW: It’s a little convoluted—basically, I used to have a band that had two drummers in it. I was planning on writing a bunch of music for that band, which is based in Germany, and the record label folded—a lot of things came in the way of me recording that band again. But I had this idea already that I wanted to look at percussion music, because that band had two percussionists and a vibraphone, or I guess three percussionists [laughs]. I wanted to explore different things that I could do with all of those drummers. I was getting kind of stuck when I was writing for the band, so I wanted to open that up. I started analyzing all these percussion pieces, and because all these other circumstances came in the way of that band actually recording and I ended up forming this new band, I still kept the basic idea, because I thought it was interesting and I was getting a lot out of it. I thought it was actually more interesting to use in a band that only has one drummer, because it sort of obscured the original idea even further.