Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview With Anna Webber, Jazz Composer

Anna Webber is an integral part of a new wave of the Brooklyn avant-garde jazz scene. A saxophonist and flutist who avoids the expected, she has furthermore established herself as a forward-thinking composer with her album Percussive Mechanics, which has been featured in the New York Times and on NPR. Her recently recorded trio album with John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell will be released in August 2014 on Skirl Records. Webber has toured throughout the USA, Canada, and Europe. She was nominated for the BMI’s Charlie Parker Award/Manny Alban Commission in 2013 and is the winner of the 2010 Prix François-Marcaurelle at the Montreal OFF Jazz Festival. She holds Masters degrees from Manhattan School of Music and the Jazz Institute Berlin, and a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University. Her teachers have included John Hollenbeck, Mark Turner, Jason Moran, and George Garzone. Webber is originally from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

Anna Webber, saxophonist

Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

I don’t write music daily. I find it pretty difficult to find balance between practicing and composing – when I am practicing I don’t want to compose and when I am composing I don’t want to practice. As I swing between those 2 things on a monthly or weekly basis, I can’t really say how many hours per week I devote to composition as it is really not consistent. These days, I seem to write only when I have a deadline, and luckily I’ve had a lot of those! I’ve also recently done a couple of composition residencies; those have been very productive. When I am composing, I generally do it all day, and then think about it obsessively all night... If I don’t have all day, I usually need at least 1 or 2 hours to get in the creative headspace.

Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

I keep a notebook of ‘cells’ – these can be melodic, rhythmic or harmonic, or something a little more abstract like a form I would like to try, or an atmosphere or space I would like to create. Or they can be ideas of how to develop pitch material – for instance a theoretical idea. My cells can also be non-musical. When I’m starting to write, I look through my notebook to see if anything piques my interest. If nothing does, I will write a choral, improvise on one of my instruments, improvise on manuscript paper, or transcribe some music I’ve been listening to until I find something to start with.

Step 2 is coming up with as much material from whatever cell I have decided to use. I try to compose every piece of music from the development of this initial cell, without adding any unrelated material. I have a whole list of ‘go-to’ things that I do for development, but I also try to be creative and try things that I haven’t tried before. The hope is that as I’m developing the material, certain ideas will emerge that need to be in the piece. I try to keep the piece as fluid as possible for as long as I can. I let the music tell me what it needs to be. Even if I originally conceived of something as a bassline or melody, I don’t hold myself to that. I let it be whatever it wants to be.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I am a terrible piano player. The piano does not help me create; if I relied on the piano I think I would write the same 2 or 3 ideas over and over again. If there is a piano around, I am very happy to use it to be able to stumble through some ideas, but generally I compose away from it – or try to see it as just one of the tools that is at my disposal. Other tools are my instruments, my voice, technology, etc. Using different tools all the time helps keep my process fresh.

Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

Yeah, absolutely. I use Finale. And I use the worst sounds I can, so that I am always pleasantly surprised when a real band plays my music.

I try not to use Finale for as long as I can within my compositional process, and I am usually pretty good about stepping away from the computer when things are becoming too boxy and digital. As far as technology goes, I also occasionally use sequencers (for my purposes usually Garage Band is enough) or my iPhone recorder. Overall though, I’m not very hi-tech.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

I think everything is essentially possible on Finale, but it is also very hard to figure out how to do everything, and sometimes a problem that should have a simple solution has an extremely complicated one. I am a total Finale dork and could talk about Finale for hours. I’ll spare you here.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you cite examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?
I’ve done a lot of solo transcription, but not so much score transcription. I used to do a lot of analysis, and still do it occasionally. I like looking at classical scores – recently Ligeti’s 2nd String Quartet gave me some nice ideas, and I transcribed Messiaen’s Louange a L’Eternité de Jésus. I just got a score for some of Cage’s percussion works – I’m looking forward to checking that out more in depth. I also definitely also steal from as many people as I can – composers as well as improvisors, painters, poets, novelists...everything I can get my hands on goes into my notebook.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I don’t know about innovation, but I get bored very easily when I hear music that sounds lazy or derivative. I try to constantly challenge myself and push myself to do things I haven’t yet done. This is not innovation in a broad sense, because I don’t know how much it is pushing music as a whole forward, but it is innovation on a personal level, and I think that is the best I can do.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

My most recent work was an album of music for my septet, Percussive Mechanics. In that I dealt with palindromes and inversions and long tone rows. For instance, I wrote 3 pieces on the album using the same 34-tone row. I also was looking into Milton Babbitt’s time-point system, and exploring some complex rhythmic patterns related to the manipulation of different ways of subdividing 15/16. I like linking up the rhythmic content and pitch content of each composition; I think it sounds more coherent, especially as I am not necessarily writing melodies.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

An embarrassing amount of time. I am a constant editor/revisor/wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-better-idea-person. I generally keep editing after the piece is performed or recorded.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

I see myself as a composer, but not as a big band composer specifically. I’d only written 2 pieces for big band before I started doing the BMI workshop. Since I started BMI, I’ve written about 3 pieces a year. Aside from that, in the past twelve months I’ve written an album for septet and an album for trio.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

I am a very active saxophonist and flutist; my main thing is performing. Regarding balance, I’m not really sure how to do that. I hate being out of shape on my instruments, so even when I’m in composition mode, I make myself practice every day.

Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

I teach, do copy work, and play gigs. I live cheaply and save all excess money for my ‘career’. Luckily there is no Anna Webber Large Ensemble yet, so I only have to worry about paying smaller bands!

What are your career goals?

To play and write music better than I did yesterday.

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

Because I wanted to be a better composer for big band, as writing big band music goes straight to my weaknesses as a composer. That being said, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the brass section sound less like a brass section.

Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

I sort of have a degree in composition. I have two master’s degrees – one from Manhattan School of Music, which was a performance degree, and one from the Jazz Institute Berlin, where, though it was technically a performance degree, essentially all I did was take lessons with John Hollenbeck and write music. So my compositional training consists of lessons with John and reading a lot of books.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

I read a lot – mostly novels and leftist political writing - and go to art galleries when I can. I run every day and am a bicycle commuter.

I compose music with the goal of....

confronting my weaknesses as both a musician and a human and therefore making myself a better person. Composition shapes my musical identity and I’m pretty sure I would be very unhappy if I didn’t do it.

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