Anna Webber’s music complexly connects the visceral and the intellectual

The modern creative avant-jazz composer and woodwindist performs with a new ensemble, Shimmer Wince, at Café Coda this Friday, April 7.
Shimmer Wince poses for a group photo (taken by Alice Plati) with a yellow and blue color palette. From L to R: Adam O'Farrill, Elias Stemeseder, Anna Webber, Mariel Roberts, and Lesley Mok.
Shimmer Wince poses for a group photo (taken by Alice Plati) with a yellow and blue color palette. From L to R: Adam O’Farrill, Elias Stemeseder, Anna Webber, Mariel Roberts, and Lesley Mok.

The modern creative avant-jazz composer and woodwindist performs with a new ensemble, Shimmer Wince, at Café Coda this Friday, April 7.

New York-based woodwindist and composer Anna Webber has steadily been making waves in the international avant-jazz and modern creative music scenes since 2010. She’s progressively written music for larger and outsized-sounding ensembles, efforts that culminated in two exquisitely dense records this decade—one a big band collaboration with Angela Morris (Both Are True, on Greenleaf Records in 2020), and the other solo-credited Idiom (on Pi Recordings in 2021), a double album that features a “simple” trio and a duodecet (12-piece).

The sonically thoroughgoing nature of her ambitions evokes comparison to Carla Bley, one of the most celebrated multi-instrumentalists and jazz composers of the late twentieth century, especially on her collaborations Escalator Over The Hill and Tropic Appetites with Paul Haines (in 1971 and 1974), plus Bley’s piano and orchestra split with Michael Mantler in 1975.

However, with a new quintet, Shimmer Wince—featuring Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), Lesley Mok (drums), Mariel Roberts (cello), Elias Stemeseder (synthesizer), and Webber (woodwinds)—she has pared the grand resonance and scope back a bit in favor of deeper complexity and intricacy. The pieces are written in Just Intonation (or JI for short), an ancient tuning system defined as “the tuning of musical intervals as whole number ratios of frequencies,” which Webber has come to favor in her own multifarious composition in recent years.


Ahead of the Shimmer Wince’s show at Café Coda on Friday, April 7, at 8 p.m., Webber talked with Tone Madison over Zoom about a range of subjects relating to the project, including her study and application of Just Intonation tuning, writing music for specific players (including a three-tiered approach to notation), achieving greater complexity with a smaller ensemble, rejecting the dichotomy of cerebral and emotional, learning from other artistic mediums, and writing music for music’s sake (that doesn’t serve a secondary function).

In a slightly bleary portrait against a clear blue sky, Anna Webber looks up to the left and smiles. Photo by Alice Plati.
In a slightly bleary portrait against a clear blue sky, Anna Webber looks up to the left and smiles. Photo by Alice Plati.

Tone Madison: How has your 2023 been going thus far? You can tell me something exciting or interesting that’s happened unrelated to your work in composition and performing.

Anna Webber: It’s been good so far. All the exciting stuff for me is always music-related somehow. I did a couple of tours with this new band of John Hollenbeck’s called GEORGE. We were just in California, and there was a record [Letters To George] that came out at the end of January. I’m currently editing this record for Shimmer Wince that we recorded in December [of 2022]. And I went snowshoeing the other day. [laughs]

Tone Madison: Oh, cool. I’m assuming that was not in California.

Anna Webber: No, no, it was not. Though it could’ve been; it was really cold in California.

Tone Madison: I want to get a grasp on how Shimmer Wince is defined in your sort of repertoire—you have so many different configurations, from a trio, to a couple septets (Percussive Mechanics, Clockwise), to duodecet on Idiom, and then big band (which you do with Angela Morris, and 18 other players in that group). What can you tell us about how Shimmer Wince distinguishes itself as a quintet, especially at the time of this interview when there aren’t any public recordings available?

Anna Webber: Kinda the reason for me putting this band together was that I had been interested, for a long time, in Just Intonation and what its potential applications could be in my music. I had been sort of exploring elements of that with my last record, Idiom, but I really wanted to go a bit deeper. I actually had this residency at the American Academy in Berlin in 2021. While I was there for a few months, I was researching Just Intonation. Not in the sense of trying to unearth new sounds but, for myself, to fill in a lot of the gaps of my knowledge of what it is, what people have done before, how they’ve notated things, and how it can be used with various instruments. So I was doing a lot of score study and listening, and then some sketching of ideas, but nothing major.

When I got back from Berlin, I started writing music and thinking about who I wanted to write music for. [For anyone] unfamiliar with Just Intonation, it’s basically an ancient tuning system that’s based on the overtone series. Equal Temperament, which is what we use these days and sort is the standard, is a compromise [when we’re] playing in a bunch of different keys, to have every single key sound the same way. But there were a lot of years when people were trying to figure out how to modulate easily. There were years when the piano keyboard was set up so a couple keys would sound amazing, and a couple others would sound really bad, and some were in-between. The intervals were originally Just Intonation, and over time, we figured out how to make it so that everything is a little bit out of tune, but we can live with it.

A lot of music that has been written recently using Just Intonation tends to be quite drone-y, or [needing] a lot of time to set up, like, “Here’s the key that we’re in, and here’s all the different types of sounds that can happen above it.” All the changes that happen are seismically slow—very subtle changes happening over a long period of time. I knew I didn’t want to write music like that, but I also knew that I needed to have instruments that were able to be flexible pitch-wise. For instance, my trio [with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck] wasn’t the right configuration for this. I wanted to have more harmonic instruments [and] more potential for different sonorities to occur. But then I also wanted people who were able to be flexible with pitch. And then I wanted people to be in registers where there would be a lot of richness and overlap. And I wanted people who would be down to practice and to rehearse. So, the people were really important. I wanted people who would be excited to rehearse more than most rehearse for gigs in New York.

Trumpet, if you’re not aware—brass instruments are essentially based on a Just Intonation system; they’re playing through the overtone series, and a lot of what they’re doing is correcting for where the overtone series is out of tune with Equal Temperament where it’s technically in tune with Just Intonation. They sort of correct it to be out of tune.

I’ve worked with Adam [O’Farrill] before [on Idiom VI Large Ensemble], and I really wanted to work with him more, especially in a smaller group context. Mariel Roberts is a New Music cello player who’s also a great improviser. She’s also super fluent with Just Intonation, so I knew she would be a great fit. She’s both comfortable playing with rhythm sections, which is not always the case coming from somebody with a classical perspective, but she has a really solid foundation in that. Elias Stemeseder is a piano player, but I knew that he played synthesizers. We’re old friends, and I knew he’d be interested and excited about taking some alternate tunings and putting them into synthesizers. I was able to work with him quite closely in developing the various tuning algorithms that are used in each of these pieces.

Tone Madison: Thank you for going into such detail. I love your description about how everything is just a little bit out of tune. It sounds very appealing to my ear. I mean, I’m a fan of polarity, I guess you’d call it. The tugging between dissonance and melodic phrasing. I don’t know if that’s how you’d define your application of Just Intonation with this quintet, but yeah.


Anna Webber: Yeah, something I’m interested in as well is not just the pure intervals of Just Intonation, but also the interplay between Equal Temperament and Just Intonation. Trying to find those crunchy spots in the middle, for sure.

Tone Madison: This is a subset of my first question in talking about the people in the group. Adam and Mariel were part of your Idiom VI Large Ensemble; Elias was in Percussive Mechanics. But Lesley Mok’s name seems new. Is there a healthy balance of familiarity and novelty at play with not only your collaborators but in the music itself—a difference in or similarity in the ratio between composition [or rehearsal] and structured improvisation?

Anna Webber: You’re right; I hadn’t as long of a history playing with Lesley, but we had played together before. She’s a really good composer, and approaches the drumset very compositionally with an interesting sound palette. She’s the type of drummer who really tries to get inside of the pieces. She’s got a composerly sense, and she’s someone I wanted to work with more and wanted to try writing music for her. For me, it’s always about finding the right people for a given project. I felt all of these people were perfect fits.

Tone Madison: I don’t know how long you’ve been professionally playing and gigging, but it’s probably been for at least 15 years, right?

Anna Webber: [Thinking] Yeah.

Tone Madison: So you have that perspective and intuitive—”This is who I want. This is what I know. Who will serve this? Who will be most enthusiastic about engaging with this material, which is somewhat challenging?”

Anna Webber: Absolutely. I think a lot about the people before I write the music. I don’t just write the music and then find the people to play it. I always want to have the people in mind. I have a hard time writing music for instruments—I want to write music for humans, not for a certain range.

Tone Madison: I don’t have this written here, but I should just ask [laughs]—Have you performed live with Shimmer Wince in many instances?

Anna Webber: Not many. Basically, we rehearsed all of last year, starting in January 2022, and then had regular rehearsals over the course of the year. Because I was dealing with a lot of sounds and timbres that were new for me, I needed time to workshop the pieces as a composer, just as much as I wanted to workshop the pieces with people who would be playing them. Before we recorded in December, we did a few gigs in a row to get ready for it.

Tone Madison: Just in New York?

Anna Webber: Yep, exactly.

Tone Madison: I noticed you’re playing at University Of Wisconsin—Parkside in Kenosha at noon on the same day you’re scheduled to play here in the evening. So, naturally I wondered how those two performances would overlap or diverge, especially since they’re just a few hours apart in essence. Have you crossed paths or collaborated with trumpeter Russ Johnson (who teaches there); and was that one of the reasons for your visit to the university?

Anna Webber: Yeah, Russ is someone I’ve known for a long time. I can’t remember exactly when we first played together. It might’ve been in a project of Ken Thompson’s—a sextet of his. But we also played together in Geof Bradfield’s nonet and Ohad Talmor’s big band. And there are other random gigs here and there, so Russ and I have played a fair amount together. Well, for this tour, actually, the first concert we booked was in St. Louis at New Music Circle at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, so I knew I had a gig in the Midwest. And I wanted to build something around that, so I called Russ up.

We’ll be playing the same music at both concerts [in Wisconsin]. There’s a lot of notated stuff like in most of my music, but there’s also a lot of room for improvisation. So, the two shows will diverge in that there’s just different places the music can go when you have five interesting improvisers all playing together.

Tone Madison: Do you know the sort of room you’ll be performing in?

Anna Webber: Yeah, I’ve played there before.

Tone Madison: Oh, okay.

Anna Webber: It’s like a school concert hall.

Tone Madison: So a little more formal, perhaps.

Anna Webber: Yeah, less of a club.

Tone Madison: You partially answered this question in describing how Shimmer Wince came to be, but if it’s fine, I’ll just—[laughs] read this as I wrote it here, and maybe something surprising will emerge.

Thanks to Roulette in Brooklyn and their live streams, I’ve really been able to take in the scope of your performances in the last several years, having never seen you in person. The most recent one you did with the Webber/Morris Big Band is just stunning all around. And it introduced me to your study of Just Intonation, which you said is connected to your time at American Academy in Berlin. And it’s something most of us Western laymen don’t have complete understanding of. But in listening to the striking etudes you wrote for that big band (“Pulse,” “Timbre,” “Metaphor”), it seems to serve the resonance of woodwinds and brass more than Equal Temperament.

So, since you’re continuing to write and improvise in Just Intonation with Shimmer Wince, how has that translated into this more “scaled down” context versus the big band? Or is your aim to still have this music sound immense and complex?

Anna Webber: With a big band, you have a lot of room for different sonorities. But it’s also a pretty blunt tool in that you never have enough rehearsal time to really fine-tune things. I have great players who I trust in the big band. Adam O’Farrill is in that; and in the trumpet section, Kenny Warren, who’s really into microtonality and has done a lot of work with it. Jen Baker, in our trombone section, is a New Music player who’s explored a lot of extended technique on the trombone. She’s definitely done a lot of Just Intonation work.

We have a few people scattered around who are kind of experts in that, but that’s only three people out of 19. With big band, you almost never have the same band two gigs in a row. You almost always have subs on some instrument. When I was writing music for big band, I knew I had to simplify it a lot. I have a three-tiered approach to notation for the big band. One is just, “OK, if you’re just trying to read this, and you just need to get the information to play it as quickly as possible, here’s sort of how you do it.” And then the next step is, “Here’s how you actually do it, if you really want to get into the details.” Then I explain how to read the different symbols that I’m using for accidentals and how you’d go about practicing it. And then I sort of have a third step that would be on-your-own study, like, “Here’s how you go further by yourself.” I don’t know if anybody has gotten to that third tier, necessarily. But basically, I knew that I was writing for limited rehearsal time, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible to get it together quickly. We’ve played that music a few times now, and I’m quite happy with how it turned out with all the tuning stuff.

With a small group, I was actually able to get a lot more complexity and detail, because we had way more rehearsal time. I knew that I would have the same personnel for every gig. So, it’s much less of a—no pun intended—roulette [laughs] with who you’re getting to play the music. It’s always going to be those four [in addition to me]. They all know what I’m talking about. Because I was able to use retuned synthesizer, there’s actually a really good reference point for a lot of the more intricate tuning details. Elias can just play a key, and we can tune to that really specifically. But of course a quintet sounds like a quintet and not like a big band. You don’t get all of the hugeness that you do with eight brass playing a resonant JI chord, but you do get more complexity [in the] tuning details with a small band.

Tone Madison: When you say “retuned synthesizer,” you mean retune for JI?

Anna Webber: Yeah, each piece has a slightly different tuning system that it’s using.

Tone Madison: You mentioned the interplay—well, maybe “interplay” isn’t quite the right word. The duality of Equal Temperament and Just Intonation…something like that?

Anna Webber: Mmhmm, Just Intonation is a pretty broad umbrella term. It means intonation coming from the overtone series, but it doesn’t mean one set of 12 pitches (what a piano usually has). It could mean more—any number of pitches all derived from that basic world with any number of fundamentals that are creating those pitches. So I’m using that with synthesizer right hand, and each piece has a different world that it’s living in. And then the synthesizer left hand is just playing bass in Equal Temperament. So that’s what I’m working with. [laughs]

Tone Madison: Oh, okay. I was thinking—do you know the band Horse Lords?

Anna Webber: Yeah, they’re awesome.

Tone Madison: Do they play in Just Intonation as well? [Anna nods.] I’d wondered if you’d seen them live or maybe a band like that, even though there probably aren’t many bands like Horse Lords, who are dabbling in that—to get an idea of how a quintet or quartet would operate.

Anna Webber: I saw them play recently at Moers Festival in Germany last summer. But I’ve been a fan for a long time. They’re definitely a group I was thinking about when I was writing this music.

Tone Madison: Oh, cool.

Anna Webber: More in terms of “here’s a group who uses Just Intonation, and doesn’t just play drone music.” They do a lot of interesting harmonic stuff with it, and it’s rhythmically active. [They’re] a nice example of how Just Intonation can be used in compositions and also be grooving.

Tone Madison: Yeah, the band probably gets tagged as being “experimental rock” or “math rock” or whatever, but they’re not really fitting into those boxes so precisely.

Next question is a more creative one that looks outside of what you’re performing. Just from listening to you over the years—not too many years, maybe four years or so—but you’re a composer who has such a distinctive presence and sound in the modern creative realm or whatever genre labels writers may throw at you. There’s so much disjunction but appealing melodic repetition in your music, a lot of harshness yet prismatic vibrance. Simply, your music feels larger than can be contained to the medium of music, if that makes sense. I’ve often wondered what inspires your sound that exists outside the realm of other contemporary musicians—maybe it’s a novel, a film soundtrack, a painting, or a painter. Or maybe something not even tangible, like a philosophy or concept?

Anna Webber: Thank you. That’s very nice, and an interesting question. Part of me feels like I’m a musician, and I’m influenced by music. But the ideal goal of music, I think, is to hit something that is bigger than music—that’s spiritual or touches humans on a deeper level. I’m trying to make music that is both visceral as well as intellectually stimulating. Maybe one despite the other or maybe not. I don’t think there’s a disconnect between those two things. I do feel like people say those are opposite sometimes, like cerebral versus emotional. I kind of reject that as the need to be opposites.

Tone Madison: Rejecting the binary, I guess?

Anna Webber: [laughs] Yeah, I guess so. I’m a huge reader. I’m a big fan of the great novel, that kind of thing. Whenever I’m confronted with art or writing about art in any medium, I try to find those resonances between my field and the fields of others, because there’s a lot to learn from hearing people talk about artistic work that is slightly different in a slightly different field than one’s own. You often have your eyes open to something that is a little more universal and can give you a perspective on your work to help open things up.

I wouldn’t list specific places that I’m trying to go—I’m not trying to be novelistic with my music or anything, per se. But I do think a lot about narrative, and a lot about when I have compositional ideas and how to communicate those things in a way that will get them across in the most clear way and give them maximum impact.

Tone Madison: Especially with the Idiom record, the way that album is structured, it’s like a “progressive” album where you have multiple pieces sharing the title of the record, and they’re structured in achronological order. You start with—what’s the first piece, “Idiom III?”

Anna Webber: It’s I [one].

Tone Madison: Oh, right. [laughs]

Anna Webber: But it doesn’t necessarily go in order after that.

Tone Madison: So, yeah, you’re using a narrative structure, but sort of throwing it out of order in an intriguing sense. It’s not like you’re going from point A to point B. Well, there are no lyrics or words, so that’s also—

Anna Webber: Yeah, the order of the pieces, the naming or numbering of them—however you want to look at it—is just the order that I wrote them in. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of them to be played in order: I, II, III, IV, V, VI. It was more like, “Well, that’s part of this Idiom series, so that is number II.” After that, then trying to figure out a way of presenting the material in a way that I felt made a strong set of music, introducing the ideas that had ups and downs so that the music was able to be appreciated in the best possible way. If they had all different titles, you wouldn’t have really thought about it [laughs], but because they’re all “Idiom,” it seems like they’re out of order, but really, they’re in the right order to be heard.

[Note: Before the interview, I had asked about a framed illustration on the wall behind Webber, and she mentioned it was made open source by Brian Henkel for the record The Four Americas by her trio, The Hero Of Warchester. So, I suggested alluding to his work here as someone working in another artistic medium.]

Tone Madison: Maybe there’s some deeper relationship between the visual and aural on that release, but maybe not.

Anna Webber: I can’t remember which came first. I think Brian had given us the art after we’d already created the record. But that band is all improvised, but pretty “narrative.” You can see two small animals walking through a valley, and there’s a castle at the top. It fit the record perfectly.

Tone Madison: There’s a slight element of dark fantasy.

Anna Webber: Brian also did the artwork for my big band record [Both Are True]. The piece we used for that is called “Foggy Valley,” and the one behind me is called “Bog Castle.”

Tone Madison: Do you have anything in the works besides Shimmer Wince that you’re willing to share? Are you working on anything that isn’t strictly related to an album release, like a film score or a piece of writing? John Zorn has that essay series, Arcana, and I saw you had an essay in Volume X of that recently. What was the subject?

Anna Webber: I was talking about various ways of conceiving and using improvisation in more fully notated compositions, and how it doesn’t have to just be featured soloists or playing written parts. There’s a lot of area in-between those two through which you can move.

I wouldn’t say I’m a writer in the written word sense. I do it when my arm is twisted, but it’s not something I really try to spend time on. I’m also not super interested in writing music that has a secondary role. I did a dance piece a few years ago, and I found it kind of frustrating to have the music relegated to the background. Maybe at some point I will be interested in that, but for the time being, I like writing music for music’s sake. I don’t want to have to edit my work to fit somebody else’s artistic vision. I want the music to be the thing.

Tone Madison: Yeah, and it comes across that way, too.

Anna Webber: I don’t know if that’s good or bad. [laughs]

Tone Madison: People might say, “Well, that’s sort of narrow-minded in some sense.” But it’s—

Anna Webber: But is it narrow-minded that somebody would want somebody else to write music that fits their vision, you know? [laughs]

Tone Madison: But that sort of collaborative work has to be done in a lot of instances. It’s just that, you know who you are as composer and performer, and that’s not you right now. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Anna Webber: Yeah, I just read this book by Carolyn Brown, who was a dancer in Merce Cunningham Dance Company for a long time, like 20 years. Merce Cunningham and John Cage were together for a long time, but John Cage was the music coordinator for the company for the first 30 years of its existence or something like that. Maybe longer.

The book is really interesting, and something I was struck by, was that in Cunningham Dance Company—possibly because he was working with Cage—the music and dance were supposed to coexist within the same space. There wasn’t supposed to be a relationship between the music and the dance. It was two artistic things happening together, as equals. To me, that’s interesting. So, never say never. If I was presented with the right artistic collaborator, I can see that working. In my experience, usually when we’re talking about any kind of thing that involves working with another artist, it’s not a true collaboration. It’s “Well, my thing is more important, and your thing needs to serve this.” And that’s what I’m not interested in. If it were truly a collaboration of, “No, really, you do whatever you want. We can talk about stuff, and bounce ideas back and forth, but these are equals,” then that’s a different thing. But I feel like that’s not really what most filmmakers are looking for.

Tone Madison: I feel like there has to be some sort of template or basic concept to work from. But there may be more freedom involved than at first glance or first listen.

Anna Webber: It’s not that people are knocking at my door asking me to write film scores either. [laughs] I think there’s a whole set of skills that I don’t really have, where people who are really into that, are good with computer stuff. I’m not really a computer person.

I would say it’s less about being narrow-minded and more about, “Why would you ask a writer who writes novels to all of a sudden write a sports review or something?” Sure, they could do it, and probably do a good job, but there are people who are really into sports, and who’ve been doing that for a living. That’s the skill set they’ve developed. I write and play acoustic jazz; that’s what I do. I could do other stuff. I have musical training, but why should I have to do everything? I choose to focus in the area I’ve been drawn to that feels really personal and home to me.

Tone Madison: Sorry, didn’t mean to throw you with the “narrow-minded” comment. I’m not saying that’s necessarily my point of view, but that might be criticism that someone might have. Maybe they’re not asking you to do something, but hearing of your perspective on the matter. They would retort by saying (flippantly, comically), “What do you mean, you don’t do that?” [laughs]

Anna Webber: [laughs] Yeah, not everybody does everything, and I think that’s cool. Nobody has to be a jack of all trades. It’s better that we aren’t.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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