Composer, saxophonist, and flutist Anna Webber starts small and thinks big.
On her stellar 2019 release, Clockwise (Pi Recordings), Webber created pieces inspired by iconic percussion works of Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, and Iannis Xenakis. There was one outlier to this process: “Idiom II” was based on an extended technique from Webber’s own improvisational vocabulary. Specifically, the piece was built around venting, where she holds a key open while playing other notes.
On January 29 at National Sawdust, as part of John Zorn’s monthly Stone Commissioning Series, Webber presented Idiom VI, an hour-long work in six parts and four interludes, for a splendid 12-piece ensemble. Like “Idiom II,” this work began from her considerations of saxophone technique. She wrote in an email: “Idiom VI is based on a series of diad multiphonics on tenor sax, all that form small intervals (minor seconds to major thirds essentially). These multiphonics manifest literally throughout the piece in a number of different contexts, and they also form the foundational underpinning for the entire work.”
Webber’s inspirations may seem a tad deep in the weeds for people who aren’t music theory geeks, but the performances vibrate and shimmer, highlighted by urgent energy, remarkable virtuosity, and exceptional textures. Webber’s ensemble often stripped down to sections, the three brass players or four string players, creating fascinating, minute figures. But those figures often grew in intensity, and soon all 12 members, under the baton of Eric Wubbels, lifted the bandstand with a blend of unique rhythms and exquisite harmonies. For instance, the third part began with discreet counterpoint between the trumpet and strings, which gave way to a probing horn feature, which in turn evolved into contrasting short segments between the reeds and horns. This built into a cinematic theme from the entire ensemble, before reducing to features for contra-alto clarinet and cello.
Photograph: Evan Shay
The band featured some of the best up and coming musicians in New York, and this performance was highlighted by features from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, bassist Nick Dunston, trombonist Jacob Garchik, and, of course, the composer herself. Although Idiom VI is built off her own language, it isn’t hard to hear the influences of Varèse and Feldman in her work, in particular their use of timbre.
Webber is from British Columbia, and has been on the New York scene for nearly a decade. She plays in a variety of jazz bands and co-leads a big band with Angela Morris, which will have a recording out in April. At her website, her bio declares that her interests live in the overlap between avant-garde jazz and new classical music. She might have chosen a different verb, as her interests tend to ignite rather than merely live. Idiom VI was a fine example of an emerging composer beginning to assert her voice.
Since 1984, Martin Johnson has written about music, cinema, food and sports for a variety of leading publications and websites. Presently he is a jazz critic for the Wall Street Journal, and he blogs about middle age and gender issues. His archive blog is Rotations, and he can be found on Twitter at @MVJohnson.