Artist Blog

Anna Webber: Composer/Performer Thoughts

Composer/performer: someone who both writes and plays. This is nothing remarkable in the jazz world; most of the great jazz composers were also its best instrumental practitioners. However, it’s interesting to consider that, in the history of western music at least, the composer has often been behind a veil, quite separate from the musicians who performed their works. With that in mind, it’s been my long-held opinion that jazz composer/performers are in a unique and privileged position: we have the opportunity to create the perfect vessels for ourselves as improvisers. As both the composition and the improvisation which fits the composition comes from the same mind, we can compose shapes for ourselves that perfectly encompass our priorities and desires as improvisers.

Holding the above to be true, I noticed a couple of years ago that there was a rift between the way that I played and the way I composed. While, as a player, I was interested in extended techniques1A broad term meaning any non-traditional way of producing sound on the instrument. For the saxophone, this would include multiphonics, air sounds, buzzes, slap tongue, circular breathing, etc and the saxophone as a creator of “sound” and not just “pitch”, my compositional world was basically an exploration of cool rhythms with cool melodies and harmonies. Not that there was anything wrong with that! But, as someone who believed that there should be a continuum between my compositional language and my improvisational language, I set out to try to bring those syntaxes closer together. To do this, I turned to studying scores of classical music from the 20th and 21st centuries – composers in the contemporary classical world have been dealing notating extended techniques for a long time, and there were notational precedents for many of the techniques that I was using.

One result of this journey has been a series of pieces called Idiom, of which there are now six. Each of the Idiom pieces focuses on a specific woodwind extended technique which I took from my own improvisational language. I wanted to use the physicality of my instruments as the foundation for these works, and to use timbre as an organizing force that was as structurally important as rhythm, melody, or harmony. Idiom II, from my 2019 septet album Clockwise, deals with ventings on the saxophone (i.e., holding a key open on the instrument while moving my other fingers normally, creating a quirky microtonal melody). Idiom I, III, IV, and V are written for my Simple Trio, which features myself alongside drummer John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell. If you’ve seen this band play in the last year and a half or so, you’ve seen us perform these pieces. Idiom VI is for a twelve-piece large ensemble of mixed instrumentation. At sixty minutes in length over six movements (plus four interludes), Idiom VI is the longest of the Idioms, and is likely the final piece of the series. This piece was premiered earlier this year at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series.

I’d like to focus a little on Idiom VI, as a way of highlighting both my compositional process and the way I sought to create music that codified and notated my improvisational language.

The instrumentation of Idiom VI is as follows:

  • alto saxophone
  • tenor saxophone/flute/bass flute (this is me)
  • tenor saxophone/clarinet/contra-alto clarinet
  • violin
  • viola
  • cello
  • trumpet
  • horn in F
  • trombone
  • synthesizer
  • bass
  • drums
  • conductor

The specific extended technique I used as the foundation for this work is a series of dyad multiphonics2My multiphonic practice comes from research I’ve done on my own, through trial and error and a study of contemporary saxophone repertoire. There are plenty of books out there, but for anyone who’s interested in delving deeply into multiphonics, I highly recommend a personal cataloguing system based on what actually works on your own horn, with your set up. Additionally, I’d recommend that any non-saxophonist composer who is trying to write multiphonics for the saxophone should take all books with a grain of salt. Always ask the saxophonist you are working with if the multiphonic you want to use works on their horn, and, if it works, at what dynamic range, with what sort of attack, etc. that can be found on the tenor saxophone, all which form small intervals (minor seconds to major thirds). There’s a set of these that occur in the low range of the instrument, and a set of these that occur in the top octave.

These multiphonics manifest both literally and abstractly throughout the piece in a number of different contexts, which I’ll discuss later. However, given that I wasn’t writing a solo saxophone piece, the first step in my compositional process was meeting individually with almost every one of the musicians who would be performing this piece. I did this for a number of reasons. First, I think a huge advantage we have as jazz composers is that we usually play and hang out with the people we are writing for. We’re not writing for “orchestra” or “string quartet” in the abstract, we’re writing for a specific set of people who are our bandmates and friends. Incorporating as much as we can about their specific personalities in our compositions will not only make them feel happy and involved in the process, it will also make the music stronger. Second, there were a number of instruments in this ensemble that I’d never written for before, or hadn’t written for much. I wanted to learn more about these instruments so that I could make more informed compositional decisions, with information coming from real-life experiences rather than from whatever Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration had to say (though I certainly used Adler as a tool as well!). When I met with people, I asked them these questions:

  1. What do you like doing on your instrument? What do you think you sound good doing?
  2. What sounds do you have that sound kind of like X (insert a specific sound I make on my instrument)?
  3. What are some of your pet peeves, ie, what do people always write for your instrument that annoys you?

Pretty basic stuff, but those questions, plus a few extra questions tailored to specific instruments, got me pretty far in creating a list of things that excited me about each specific person and the instrument they played.

The next step was imagining a form for this piece. I knew I wanted to write a set-length composition, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write a single-movement piece of that duration. I decided I would conceive of this piece as a loose symphonic form: four movements, sonata form—adagio–minuet and trio/scherzo–rondo/allegro. I know that “writing a symphony” sounds pretentious, but to be honest, the real reason behind this idea was that it’s been a successful way of organizing a longer piece of music for centuries. I officially discarded the symphonic form mid-way through composing, but it unofficially snuck its way back in, and the final form of the piece is sort of double symphonic form. Each of the six movements has a pair. Movement I = Movement IV (and both are very loosely in sonata form), II=V (both are the groovy “dance” movements, an abstract interpretation of the minuet), and III=VI (scherzo and rondo, respectively). The interludes function collectively as the adagio movements.

So, the multiphonics – how did they factor in? Basically, I thought of as many ways of generating material from these as I could. I wrote out pages and pages of ideas. First, there was the literal use of the multiphonics. I wrote the multiphonics into my parts, and I orchestrated the multiphonics across the ensemble, or figured out what made a similar effect to the multiphonic on different instruments. On a stringed instrument, for example, a double-stop sounds like a multiphonic, but the resonance might not totally match that of a saxophone multiphonic unless open strings are used. When I expanded my research to include multiphonics that are possible on other woodwinds, I discovered that alto saxophone multiphonics and bass flute multiphonics actually have a lot of overlap! I also treated the multiphonics as generators of pitch material: I made scales from them, and I created chords. Additionally, by figuring out the frequencies of the pitches in the higher multiphonics in Hz, I figured out the difference tones3Difference tones are psychoacoustic phenomena – you’ve experienced them if you have felt a buzzing in your ears/heard a resultant low pitch when you heard two high-pitched instruments holding notes in their upper register. To find the difference tone of two pitches, you simply subtract the frequency (in Hz) of the lower pitch from that of the higher. created by the multiphonics, and generated more scales and chords from these. I also used the intervals of the multiphonics to generate rhythm: some of the multiphonics created just intervals4I.e., just intonation, as opposed to equal temperament. Just intervals can be expressed as simple integer ratios, such as 3:2, 4:3, 11:8, etc., and so I translated those into rhythm, both on a micro scale (polyrhythms) and also on a macro scale (overall rhythmic grid). I also treated the multiphonics abstractly. I considered a multiphonic conceptually, as two things that combine to make a composite that is more than the sum of its parts. Taken a step further, thinking about a multiphonic as a “naturally occurring sound” on the instrument gave me license to include other naturally occurring sounds/extended techniques, both on my instrument and on the other instruments in the ensemble. This meant worlds opened up wherein I could create mysterious sonic combinations and orchestrations.

While I assume that most people reading this article have not heard Idiom VI, the core ideas here are things that are important to me, and which I think translate whether people are familiar with my work or not. As improvisers, we generate tons of material all the time, and I feel that it’s selling ourselves short if we don’t use the music that comes out of our own heads and hands as a starting place for composition. This doesn’t just have to mean extended techniques – that’s my world, and my language. My journey with this stuff felt like it began when I realized that the sonic worlds I inhabited as an improviser and a composer were pretty different. I feel like this approach has brought my compositional practice to another level, and that I’ve come closer to finding the center of my musical personality. Another advantage of using my improvisational language as compositional material, is that once I’ve written something down, asked other people to play it, and recorded it/sent it out into the world, it’s pretty difficult to use that language as a crutch when improvising! For me, this has meant growth as an improviser, as I’ve had to push forward into new territory past the language that I once relied on.


About the Author:

Anna Webber (b. 1984) is a New York-based flutist, saxophonist, and composer whose interests and work live in the overlap between avant-garde jazz and new classical music. Her most recent album, Clockwise, featuring a septet comprised of several of the most creative musicians working in New York’s avant-garde, was released on Pi Recordings (February 2019).

Webber’s other projects include her Simple Trio, with John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell, and the Webber/Morris Big Band, co-led with saxophonist/composer Angela Morris. This ensemble will release its debut album, Both Are True, on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music in April 2020. She has performed and/or recorded with projects led by artists such as Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Dave Douglas, Matt Mitchell, Ches Smith, John Hollenbeck, and Geof Bradfield, among others.

Webber is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow. She has additionally been awarded grants from the Shifting Foundation (2015) and the New York Foundation for the Arts (2017), and residencies from Exploring the Metropolis (2019), MacDowell Colony (2017 and 2020), the Millay Colony for the Arts (2015), and the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts (2014). In 2014 she won the BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Composition Prize as a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. Webber is originally from British Columbia.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. A broad term meaning any non-traditional way of producing sound on the instrument. For the saxophone, this would include multiphonics, air sounds, buzzes, slap tongue, circular breathing, etc
2. My multiphonic practice comes from research I’ve done on my own, through trial and error and a study of contemporary saxophone repertoire. There are plenty of books out there, but for anyone who’s interested in delving deeply into multiphonics, I highly recommend a personal cataloguing system based on what actually works on your own horn, with your set up. Additionally, I’d recommend that any non-saxophonist composer who is trying to write multiphonics for the saxophone should take all books with a grain of salt. Always ask the saxophonist you are working with if the multiphonic you want to use works on their horn, and, if it works, at what dynamic range, with what sort of attack, etc.
3. Difference tones are psychoacoustic phenomena – you’ve experienced them if you have felt a buzzing in your ears/heard a resultant low pitch when you heard two high-pitched instruments holding notes in their upper register. To find the difference tone of two pitches, you simply subtract the frequency (in Hz) of the lower pitch from that of the higher.
4. I.e., just intonation, as opposed to equal temperament. Just intervals can be expressed as simple integer ratios, such as 3:2, 4:3, 11:8, etc.