For many composers, inspiration can come from where they never considered looking—until they did. Brooklyn-based saxophonist, flute player, composer and band leader Anna Webber pulls and interprets inspiration from curious places—including microtonal sounds on YouTube.
As a composer and multi-instrumentalist, Webber busies herself juggling multiple solo-led and co-led projects at once. Her forthcoming release, Clockwise (Pi Recordings, 2019), represents her fifth as a solo leader, and combines her appetite for research with her artistic tendency toward individualism and exploration.
The Jazz Galley: You have such a strong voice as a composer. You seem to create new sounds from existing instruments and existing combinations of instruments that feel, texturally, very meaty. Where does instrumentation fit within your identity as a composer?
Anna Webber: That’s a really good question, and it definitely does. Kind of early on in my composition development, I decided I didn’t want to use the instruments always in the traditional way. Kryptonite to me compositionally is having the saxophone always be the melodic instrument and the bass always be the bass instrument. It’s like there’s these roles that are super easy to relegate instruments to—and obviously there’s a lot of music that I really love that does that, but I try to avoid it as a writer.
TJG: Strong word, relegate.
AW: I think it’s true, and I think a lot of people just do it without thinking about it: “Yeah, well I have this melody and this instrument.” And my whole thing has always just been to not have the instruments in their traditional roles. When I’m writing a specific piece, I make lists of all the different combinatorial possibilities of orchestration—solos, trios, duos—and then try to use all of those. So I think just being hyperaware of orchestration is something that drives me.
TJG: Did you study traditional orchestration?
AW: No, never. Compositionally, I wouldn’t say I’m self-taught, but my composition background is a little scrappy. I did performance degrees in my undergrad and master’s, and then I did a one-year master’s program in Berlin where I studied with John Hollenbeck. So I had already been writing a lot of music and John really helped me; he’s someone that I consider a mentor as well as a friend and colleague at this point.
I think that the way jazz is taught, from a composition standpoint to performers in school, is relatively scrappy anyway. There’s not a lot of going through traditional orchestration, aside from, “Here’s how you orchestrate saxes for a saxophone soli in a big band.” Whenever I write for an instrument that I’m not familiar with, I read a lot about that instrument and try to figure out exactly how it sounds, how it works, what the good registers are, how hard it is to do certain things on the instrument. And I think all of that stuff contributes to the orchestrational techniques that I end up using.
Stemming from the [philosophy that] I don’t want to have instruments in their traditional roles—or if I do, it’s not like that’s the role they’re in for the whole piece—the thing that I’ve come to a little bit more recently is trying to use sound and timbre as organizing forces that are as important as harmony, rhythm, melody in my music. So when I’m beginning a piece, [I try] to think about timbre first and use that in the pre-compositional way that I would use any of those other elements.
TJG: Has that more recent change or decision affected how you approach the mixing and mastering phases?
AW: I wouldn’t say it’s a decision so much as an evolution. I’ve been kind of slowly realizing the things that are important to me over time. But mixing and mastering—I’m very, very hands on. I don’t know if I’m annoying to the people I have mixing my records. When I’m writing music, I have certain important parts that are often hidden, and my music is meant to be amplified to a certain degree. I will bring out the flute, for example, in the mix, because the flute’s playing an important line, but that may not come across necessarily in the live context unless I’m mic’d. So I think just having really specific parts that are sometimes hidden, orchestrationally, [for those], I will definitely do a lot of micro-adjustments within the mix.
TJG: Do you feel as though you have a dual identity as a player and a composer, and if yes, are those different parts of your artistic identity ever at odds with one another?
AW: Yeah, I think the way I perceive myself is all of those things—I’m a saxophonist and composer and flute player and all of those things are important parts of my musical personality. I would feel really broken if one of those parts weren’t available to me anymore at some point. They’re all sort of different faces of the same thing, and I also really believe that, as a composer and an improviser, my pieces are sort of necessarily the best and most—I mean, perfect is a really strong word, but sort of the most perfect vessels for myself as an improviser. If I can’t write myself good things improvise on, then who can? It’s all coming from the same mind, so I should be the one who creates the best scenarios for myself to be heard, and as a player. So those things are very, very much related.
[For the second part of your question], yeah a little bit—not as an overall whole, but definitely on a day-to-day basis, when I’m making a decision as to how to spend my time. And if I’m in the middle of a composition project, practicing, often, is not a priority. And if I’m in less of a composition mode but I want to be writing, it’s hard to get myself to stop practicing because I really want to practice. I think that’s a pretty normal thing; I remember reading some interview with Bob Brookmeyer where he said he has to relearn trombone every time he’s not writing a piece anymore. So I try to be balanced as much as I can, but I think the day-to-day thing is definitely a struggle.
TJG: Your website biography describes your interests and work as living “the overlap between avant-garde jazz and new classical music.” What about genre labels and labeling in general might you find limiting and what might you find empowering?
AW: Hm. I think genre labels are very, very limiting, and I use words in biographies that I write because I think that descriptive words are helpful to somebody who’s not—me—I guess. And when people ask me what I do, I can’t really—if somebody doesn’t know what my music is and I say it’s jazz or even experimental jazz, I think that conjures up a very different image in somebody’s mind than what my music is. So I find it useful to use the “new classical music” thing just because I think that sort of is a descriptor that brings into somebody’s mind, “Oh, there’s lots of written stuff,” and then when you say there’s avant-garde jazz, there’s “Oh, okay, there’s also free playing.” So I think saying those two things together maybe brings up a more accurate picture to somebody who’s not me or who’s completely unfamiliar with my music. But I also think that those terms are also somewhat bullshit. Or, I think in the New York music world, there’s a lot of overlap between a lot of different scenes and it’s really hard to classify what almost anybody’s doing in a really specific category. So many people are involved in so many different worlds.
TJG: You’ve become masterful at the art of translating concepts into this tremendously expressive material. For Binary, you pulled inspiration from your own IP address. Did you employ any unusual inspiration prompts for Clockwise?
AW: Yes. When I’m starting a collection of music, it helps me to have someplace where I’m starting from; it narrows down all the possibilities in the world to a few possibilities. So for Binary, it was a pretty goofy place to start from—the internet, that is. But I was just trying to be creative and use some different things that I thought could lead to interesting compositions. And I wasn’t too serious or heady about it.
For Clockwise, actually, I had this band in Germany, Percussive Mechanics—that’s a band with two drummers—and I was going to do a third record with that band. As part of my plan for the third record, I had been struggling with different ways of using two drummers. So I decided that I was going to do in-depth personal research on percussion music, starting with a lot of percussion music from the 20th century, also looking at different traditions from not just Western music. So I had started this research and was looking at specific pieces and analyzing scores and listening to multiple different recordings, and in the middle of this research part of the project, the label I had been on in Germany went bankrupt. And there was a number of extra factors, too, like the piano player had moved to New York—before, I had to just buy myself a plane ticket to go over to Germany and now it was two; the vibraphonist in the group quit music and studied engineering, so it was just getting harder and harder to keep that band together. So I decided to use the same basic concept but start a new band and use people that were actually part of my life, currently, and not people I had been playing with when I lived in Germany in 2011. So that’s sort of the root of this project. And because I had this idea of using percussion and analyzing that and having that be the roots of this project, I decided to keep that, even though I wanted it, on purpose, to have a very different instrumentation and feel and vibe.
So all the music on Clockwise is based on my analyses of 20th century percussion works. And I treated everything in very different, abstract ways; I wasn’t taking little licks from the music—it was more from my overall research into a specific piece. For example, two of the pieces on Clockwise called “Korē” are both inspired by [Iannis] Xenakis’ piece “Persephassa.” The connection is that Persephassa is another word in Greek for Persephone, and Korē is another name for the same Greek goddess.
It’s written for six percussionists that are surrounding the audience. And a lot of the ideas in that piece are rotated between percussionists. So, if you’re in the middle of the room, you can feel as if music is moving around you in a circle. I just used the idea of rotation for the two “Korē” pieces. It’s a pretty abstract place to start a piece from, but it was kind of the building block, rather than anything really specific, musically. But there’s a big range on the album from how specific I was with taking ideas from the original pieces and how very, very loosely I treated the source material.
TJG: Have you played with all these artists together before this project?
AW: No. Actually, it was the first time that Ches Smith and Chris Tordini ever worked together, as well. I’d played with everybody in various different bands, so I had working relationships with everybody and everybody knew each other, but it definitely hadn’t happened in this configuration before.
TJG: What would you like listeners to bring with them to this performance?
AW: Fifteen dollars to buy the CD.
TJG: That’s a good answer.
AW: A serious answer—maybe a curiosity about sound and timbre, just listening for the different ways in which the instruments are used because that’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. And another thing I’ve thought a lot about is how to incorporate improvisation and composition in different ways throughout the course of a set—levels of determinacy. Often there is a soloist in a more traditional sense, but often other people have improvised roles that aren’t necessarily main soloists.
The Anna Webber Septet celebrates the release of Clockwise at The Jazz Gallery on Monday, January 28, 2019. The group features Ms. Webber on flute and tenor saxophone, Jeremy Viner on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Chris Hoffman on cello, Matt Mitchell on piano, Chris Tordini on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.