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.
TJG: I’m curious about how group size plays into the way you approach writing too.
AW: I wanted to write for medium-size ensemble for this project. I really enjoy playing with a trio, it gives me a lot of space to improvise and it’s really fun, but I also like writing for larger ensemble. I’ve done that a lot, but I haven’t done that as much in New York, due to funding circumstances—I’ve had more luck with funding elsewhere. I wanted to bring that aspect of my compositional personality to a band based out of New York, so that’s why septet. A lot of it has to do with what I can actually afford, in terms of how many people I add. I didn’t want to do a big band thing, I wanted it to be something where people still had room to improvise, and were feeling like they were bringing their own voice to the music as much as possible, but a larger group has more timbral possibilities than a trio.
TJG: How do you structure for improvisation in your pieces?
AW: It varies. I think about it a lot. I think about different kinds of solos that can happen, different reasons there can be for improvisation, different ways of connecting the improv and written material, or blurring the lines between the improv and written material. I also wanted to feature everyone in this band, because everybody’s a really great improviser and I wanted to play with them! So I tried to give everybody a couple solos with at least one big feature; that was a consideration for sure. I didn’t want this to all be collective, because I wanted people to feel they were able to express themselves in a more full way, especially because a lot of the music is very written. I guess improvisationally, within the context of there being primary soloists, a lot of people have secondary improv things, like, “here, you can improvise a background using these things.” I tried to break it a way where it’s not just rhythm section behind solos.
I find it interesting to see in a larger band where you have a lot of different timbral possibilities, what you do to bring instruments out of traditional roles where some people normally accompany and some people normally improvise. I wanted to see what I could do to expand my original idea of what an instrument could do or could be.
TJG: What are some of your influences, outside of the direct scores you were looking at for this project?
AW: All sorts of stuff! I’ve been checking out a fair amount of new music within the last year or so, the last year and a half. That’s an influence. Another thing I’m trying to do specifically with the music I was writing here is develop a way of taking the language that I have improvisatorially and use that in my composition. A lot of the timbral stuff I do in my improvisation I’ve never notated before. It’s something that I get to when I’m improvising, but the written stuff is all notes. So I was trying to come up with ways of putting that on the page. There’s definitely some Evan Parker influences in that for me, some techniques and stuff, and he’s someone I really admire.
TJG: The Xenakis makes sense too, with the extramusical notation.
AW: Yeah, I kind of derived my own notation systems for the stuff I was putting on the page for stuff that wasn’t pitched or “normal” notation.
TJG: Is there anything you’re grappling with, with this band?
AW: What I was saying earlier—I’ve been trying to think a lot about how to have my vocabulary compositionally be as broad as my vocabulary as an improviser. So whether that be rhythmically or timbrally, to put that stuff on paper in a way that makes sense. A challenge there is that improvisers are usually, if you say, “make it sound like this,” people will interpret it better than a way that I could write. Which is a distinction between playing with improvisers and playing with new music interpreters, who would need something to be more fully notated. The way that improvisers interpret that stuff is usually better than what I could imagine. But I also want to be writing, directing the flow a little more. So trying to figure out what is too much or too little in terms of instruction, and how to put it on paper in a way that makes sense to me as a composer and improviser.
Part of being an improviser is having the luxury of hearing something new.
The Anna Webber Septet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 18, 2018. The group features Ms. Webber on tenor saxophone and flutes, 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 and vibraphone. 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.