10 Apr 2010
Anna Weesner: An interview by Tom Moore
Anna Weesner is an American composer who grew up in rocky New Hampshire, and now teaches in historic Philadelphia.
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Anna Weesner is an American composer who grew up in rocky New Hampshire, and now teaches in historic Philadelphia.
She is a recovering flutist, and has produced works for ensembles such as Network for New Music, Music at the Anthology and the Cypress Quartet, and artists including vocalists Judith Kellock and Dawn Upshaw. We talked by Skype on February 9, 2010.
TM: Do you come from a musical family? Were your parents, or uncles or aunts musical?
AW: I sometimes think of composition as being a combination of my mother and my father. My mother was a piano teacher, and taught music in the junior high school, in the public schools. My father is a fiction writer - a novelist. There’s creative energy on both sides.
TM: You were born in Iowa, but grew up in New Hampshire. Do you identify more with Iowa or New Hampshire?
AW: New Hampshire [laughs]. I like the idea of Iowa — I have driven through Iowa. It’s very beautiful, and there’s a certain romance in it for me. I was born there because my father was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The childhood I remember was in New Hampshire.
TM: Were you in the northern or southern part?
AW: The southern part, near the coast. Durham — my father taught at UNH, and I grew up in Durham.
TM: How was the musical environment while you were growing up?
AW: We had a piano in the house, but my first instrument was the violin. It’s a bit of a regret of mine that I stopped playing the violin. I did Suzuki violin starting at about five years old, and my mother took me to all of those lessons. In about third grade I started to take some piano lessons, and played both instruments for a little while, and then stopped playing the violin. I went to a music camp as a pianist in the summer, when I was ten or eleven. I saw a girl playing the flute, and I thought she was fantastic…. and beautiful, and that the instrument was beautiful, and I wanted to play the flute. In the seventh grade I started to play the flute, and became quite serious about flute-playing. All through high school and into college, I was practicing a lot. The flute took over. I continued to play piano in a practical way, and to take some piano lessons, but the flute was my main focus and interest.
TM: Those three instruments have radically different cultures of teaching — you have Suzuki violin, which is highly regimented — you must do everything exactly like everyone else — you have piano, which produces people who practice seven or eight hours a day by themselves, and you have flute, which tends to be more associated with women than men (or girls than boys, at the primary school level). Did you find that those were different social experiences for you?
AW: Yes. One strong memory of Suzuki violin is my teacher trying to teach me to read music. Everything is learned by ear, initially, and in some ways that was quite free, and I found it daunting to have these notes in front of me suddenly. It felt imposing and difficult. As for the culture of flute-playing, I wish I had been able to think of it as a larger place to be - I wish I had had a different perspective on it. I really wanted to be an orchestral flutist. That culture is a rather narrow one in terms of practicing, in terms of lifestyle. I remember being at the Aspen summer festival as a flutist, working on the excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream , and walking down through the woods past the practice rooms, and hearing flutist after flutist after flutist practicing the same twelve bars of music, and starting to feel that this was a rather strange energy vortex. All this energy being poured into these few excerpts — there were hundreds of us. That culture turned out, in the end, to be one that was quite regimented, and which I couldn’t quite find my way out of, and finally I decided that it wasn’t for me. I think it is possible to be more creative about how you approach it. Lots of musicians are able to do the strict regimented routine, branch out and do other things, and not succumb to that narrow vision. I wasn’t sure how to do that at that point in my life. It was very competitive. The flute is beautiful — I loved playing, I had some great experiences, I loved playing in the orchestra — that was just magical.
Piano was always more of a general instrument for me. I never spent numerous hours practicing piano alone. It was more a practical, fun thing. I played four-hand music with my mother, which is a great memory — one of the most fun things I have ever done — I used to play Mozart with her.
TM: It seems bizarre that the flute subculture should have this nerdy/athletic edge to it, given that the repertoire for the instrument is larger than that for almost anything but the piano, but flute pedagogy ends up being limited to a tiny repertoire.
AW: When I talked earlier about regretting putting down the violin, it has to do with repertoire, because I think that if I had spent half the hours that I put into the flute into the violin, I could sit down and play quartets, and for flute there just isn’t the chamber music. To be able to play in a string quartet, that incredible repertoire, to be able to play loud and low…one of my neighbor’s kids plays the violin, and has been talking about wanting to play the flute, and I want to say “No! stick with the violin!”
The orchestral experience as a wind player is very special, and probably beats a violinist’s experience in the orchestra, generally speaking, but in terms of being able to just go on and play — it’s more violin music, for me.
TM: There are actually hundreds of quartets for flute and strings which are now becoming available from state libraries….but until now it’s been accessible.
To go back to southern New Hampshire, were you taking lessons in the Boston area?
AW: I started flute in the seventh grade, got into the New Hampshire Youth Orchestra when I was in the ninth grade, and when I was a senior in high school started going down to Boston on weekends to study with Lois Schafer, who was in the BSO, and with Kathy Boyd, who was at New England Conservatory. I was in the New England Conservatory Youth Chamber Orchestra, with Ben Zander.
TM: That must have been quite an experience. He is a charismatic guy.
AW: He would stand up and say “This is perhaps the most beautiful moment in all of Western music”. He said that any number of times, in many rehearsals, and he was right every time, I suppose.
TM: How did you decide that music was the thing, and that composition was the direction that you wanted to go in?
AW: I did some composing in high school, was playing a lot of flute, and focused on practicing. I also really loved my English classes, loved reading and writing. I had some exposure to composition in high school - there was a high school composer’s weekend festival at Boston University. You could submit a piece, and they would play it. I wrote a song, to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, called The Fawn, and sent it in to that. I got to hear it, and that got me going, a bit. In the middle of sophomore year of high school I started going to Philips Exeter Academy, as a day student, and Martin Amlin, who is a pianist and composer, was teaching at Philips Exeter. I took some piano lessons and some composition lessons with him.
In terms of taking composition seriously, it wasn’t until quite a bit later, after I had graduated from college, and had realized that being a flutist wasn’t exactly the life that I was looking for [laughs]….
TM: Were you already interested in contemporary music as a high school student?
AW: My flute teacher in high school, Doug Worthen, a terrific flutist and flute teacher, had me play the Berio Sequenza — that kind of thing was a big deal. I loved Copland in high school, a far cry from Berio….but still, fairly recent music. When I think about composing taking root for me, it was not so much connected to any particular composers as it was to being excited about being able to write something down and hear it played.
TM: Were there genres that spoke to you outside classical music?
AW: Sure. I always listened to popular music. My mother had a big record collection that included a lot of classical, but also a lot of popular music. I heard all kinds of music all the time, and loved it. I loved rock and roll, I loved all kinds of pop music that was happening at that time. I never wanted to be in a band, or be some kind of pop star myself. That was never something that crossed my mind — but I did love and enjoy the music.
TM: How did you decide where to go to college?
AW: I thought about trying to go to a conservatory, and applied to conservatories as well as liberal arts colleges. I went to Yale in part because it was a great school, but also because I wanted to study with Thomas Nyfenger, who was teaching flute at the school of music. It seemed like the best of both worlds.
TM: As an undergraduate, studying flute would have been additional to the curriculum.
AW: As a matter of fact, they made a big deal about telling me that you did not take lessons for credit. There was a special situation where you could take one or two semesters, if they were deemed to be at a certain level. I loved the classes at Yale. I considered a double major in English and Music, but that turned out to be too much. The playing was great — great musicians, great chances to play chamber music — it wasn’t for credit, but that didn’t really matter.
TM: What year did you arrive at Yale?
TM: Were you studying composition as a music major?
AW: I took a composition seminar during my sophomore year, as well as the music theory and music history sequence, and the other courses for the music major. I was playing a lot, and started to do some composing. It took a while for it to really take off — I didn’t write a lot. I loved the model compositions that we had to do for theory class, where you had to write a little piece in the style of Debussy, or in the style of Chopin, or Schubert — it seemed like that really got you inside the music, and there were clear boundaries. Working within them was great fun.
TM: What, when and where would you say would be your opus one as a composer?
AW: I went to graduate school as such a beginner in a way — bless them for taking me. [Laughs]. I had written a couple of pieces before graduate school — a movement for string quartet, a short piece for orchestra. I had been at the Aspen Festival, and had gotten these pieces played, but those pieces are long ago and far away. It was in grad school that I dove into composing. I just had a solo cello piece performed and recorded — called Possible Stories. The cellist Caroline Stinson recorded it for her solo CD. That piece I wrote towards the end of graduate school — 1994, 1995 — it’s a long time ago, I made a few revisions, but that’s a piece I can point to and live with. I also wrote a big piece that ended up being my dissertation for graduate school, a sort of chamber opera — a thirty-minute piece for one singer and chamber orchestra, that was an adaptation of a short story. That piece was a big landmark for me. It hasn’t been played again, but I think of it and know it, and it marks a time and a place for me.
TM: What’s the title?
AW: Ordinary Mysteries.
TM: Did you write the libretto?
AW: I adapted, on my own, a short story by Kate Chopin, called The Story of an Hour. I was very taken with this one, and made it into a little opera. There is one singer, who acts as a narrator, and also sings in the voices of characters.
TM: What was it that spoke to you in this particular story?
AW: It’s an incredibly melodramatic story. A woman’s husband is out working on a railroad, and she gets the news that he has been killed in an accident. What I was taken with is what the story describes as her reaction upon hearing the news. At the end of the story, one learns that there has been a mistake — that it was someone else — that her husband is alive. There’s a whole emotional trajectory she has — being struck by grief, but then realizing that she is free, and that her life has changed completely, and that it is hers to live. I was very interested in exploring that mindset, that emotional terrain. It seemed like a really fun thing to write music about.
TM: Does she feel liberated by this experience?
AW: Yes, she does [laughs].
TM: The guilty secret about married people.
AW: I suppose. I suppose there was a kind of feminist thing too — this was a story taking place in modern times, but some time ago. This was about an old-fashioned marriage, and a woman who clearly had a mind of her own, and was expected to do certain things inside her marriage. That mindset was interesting to me.
TM: I would be interested to hear how you approach writing for voice. Voice is one of those things that can be off-putting from the outset for the naïve listener. They hear an operatic soprano and think “Oh my God! I don’t want to listen to that!” To write something that is psychologically naturalistic, but for the artificial instrument that is the operatic voice is a difficult task.
AW: That’s true, and it’s something that I wonder about all the time, still. I am not at all resolved about the fact that the operatic voice is so foreign-sounding. It’s also so personal — each voice is so different. If you love a voice, there’s nothing better. Once you get into that world, it’s fantastic. But it is true that for most people the sound of an operatic voice is very strange, and artificial. A big influence for me in writing that piece came from Judith Weir — hearing her piece The Consolations of Scholarship. Judith Weir has an amazing ability to work with a certain degree of rigor and complexity, but at the same time to keep things very natural, very simple-sounding, straightforward — she strikes a great balance in that respect, so when I heard that piece, it opened a lot of doors for me. A big part of working with voice is working with words. There is a lot of fun to be had in finding rhythm in words. It is incredibly interesting to notice the rhythm of speech and then bring that to the world of a piece. Spoken words in some way carry more significance rhythmically than sung words. More and more my vocal writing has been pulling into smaller registers. It’s lower than it’s used to be, and that has to do with the fact that the extremes emphasize that foreignness of the operatic voice, and that’s troubling to me. I am not sure what to do with that.
TM: Where women choose to speak, whether over or beneath the break, is connected with gender roles. Women who choose a more modern role may tend to speak in a lower register, so when we hear women speak in a high voice, it connotes women who have chosen a more old-fashioned role gender-wise.
AW: I haven’t thought about it in exactly that way. I am often taken with lower-sounding voices.
TM: Think of Julia Child –that’s an operatic soprano.
AW: Singers are very different from each other. I had a great opportunity to write something for Dawn Upshaw, someone who has an amazing voice and amazing technique, but at the same time an earthy quality and the ability to sound “natural”.
I think that’s my ideal….
TM: Would you say that your mini-opera has had progeny in terms of more recent vocal works?
AW: Yes — I have always loved writing for voice. I have written some songs, and pieces where I have set poetry in a traditional way. I have also written a couple of songs where I wrote my own words, and I finished a piece this fall that combined poetry and my own words, and have been thinking dramatically again about voice. I have been thinking about writing for voice all along since I wrote that little opera, but recently I have had an urge to go back to telling a story, having characters and being more explicit about that. There is always a voice, always the sense of character — any good singer brings that to the setting of a poem in an art song. Yet I have been wanting to write pieces in which there is a more explicit sense of character and voice, and to play more with words.
TM: To follow up what you said about the blank slate and model compositions — at the moment there is an immense blank slate for the composer, who can draw on any idiom from any time period, and write for any type of ensemble — no one believes in the arrow of history anymore. You are free to write anything you like — but with that possibility how do you choose what style to write in?
AW: I think there is a basic urge to make a sound that is new. This doesn’t necessarily require coming up with a new system or a new language or even a new style that hasn’t existed before. The sort of classical music world in which I am interested is one in which there is a desire to say something striking and new—interestingly enough this is something that great performers do with interpretation of old pieces all the time. I think it is important and inevitable that a composer has an identifiable voice. To a large extent we must simply follow our ears, trust them, and push ourselves to respond to that desire to be expressive, to say something both new and true. There is a taste for the adventurous, for a sense of pushing limits a little bit, and this may be the result of how musical ideas are combined as much as what they are in the first place. Lately I have been interested in using very simple materials, very basic kinds of tunes and at the same time make use of some of the more systematic, process-oriented approaches that I studied in school in the music of other composers. I am interested in the close proximity of simplicity with complexity. I like to think of it all as being available. The guiding force, the thing that gives coherence, is the ear. In the end maybe there is some sort of test of honesty, with oneself, as a composer.
TM: To move to a different tangent — do you still play flute?
AW: No — about twice a year. I play Happy Birthday now and then for my family.
TM: So the flute does not have a particular place in your oeuvre.
AW: It doesn’t. In fact I have written very little for flute — it is almost as if I have avoided it. I think I prefer writing for other instruments, actually.
TM: Which ones, for example?
AW: I love writing for strings, for voice. I love the clarinet. For flute, because I spent so much time playing it, it’s hard to go there. There’s something sort of personal there.
TM: How would you characterize your style, if you were looking at it from the outside?
AW: I think that my music makes free use of tonal materials, without being tonal. When we talk about style, we prioritize harmony, but I think that rhythm is an easier, more obvious, and maybe more important thing to talk about. I love pulse, I love periodic music. The music tends not to be free-floating or suspended, but to have a big beat, quite often. It is melodic, and there are certain kinds of complexity. Somebody once said something about me using simple materials to make complex sounds, and that sounds on the mark to me.
TM: Perhaps you could talk about a recent piece that made an impact.
AW: I have just been hearing a piano trio that I wrote a couple of years ago for a group called Open End, played recently in Philadelphia by Counter)Induction. It’s different. It’s been an exciting piece for me, because there seems to be some degree of agreement about the idea that this piece works, about what’s exciting about it, and that’s gratifying. It’s about ten minutes long, it’s a little tighter structurally, perhaps, than usual. I tried to be very disciplined about keeping structure pretty tight. It has complexity of the kind I like and find exciting, alongside very plain harmonic language. There are sequences with triads that might have come out of a Radiohead song — they probably did come out of a Radiohead song. I love Radiohead, and have written some pieces that I can tell are connected to that. In this piano trio, the density and complexity on the one hand, and the simplicity, the freedom just to sit on a tenth in the cello, or have a very basic chord progression — those things are able to coexist in a way that is working for me.
TM: Could you talk about compositional process? Do you begin with a structure, like an architect, or develop a narrative from the details?
AW: My first impulse is to say that I work like the architect. I don’t start at the beginning and go, and see where it takes me. Generally I have some plan. The process of composing often revolves around having an idea for a moment, or maybe several moments, of arrival. The process is about making the piece that will allow those moments to speak. Those moments get created by working with some material. And here it is more like the novelist — the material is like characters who start out one way, and turn out to have other qualities, have something happen to them, and change — that kind of thinking is very important to me. I want there to be some surprise, but I also want there to be coherence, where there is a sense of arrival that comes from the presence of a coherent structure. And materials reappearing throughout. I suppose I am old-fashioned in that sense, that tunes might start one way, and return later in a different guise, and that that can be meaningful and beautiful and powerful. That’s important to me.
TM: Does it matter to your music, in terms of style, or in terms of what you want to express, that you are from Durham, New Hampshire?
AW: What is a girl from Durham, New Hampshire doing writing classical music? [Laughs].
TM: New Hampshire in general, or if you want to make it broader, Red Sox Nation, or New England?
AW: I do love sports. I tried to write a piece about hockey once. My brother played high school hockey, and I went to a lot of hockey games. I love being at a rink — it’s cold, and I love the sound of ice, and the sticks….I have a very sentimental thing about that. My brother played in a high school championship game, and later in life I asked him how often he thought about that moment, since he was a younger member of the team, was not a senior yet, was in the first line, and I asked him “How often do you think about that game?” And he said “Every day.” And I thought, “That is what I would like to write a piece of music about.” Those moments, where there are all those perspectives on time — the single collapsed moment that lives on forever, and has all of this space around it. Real time, made time, and the moment itself, with its infinite depth. And in the context of sports, there is a lot of rhythm in that.
TM: There’s your next opera.
AW: Your question brings up something that I am being cheeky about, but I really do wonder what it means to be in classical music, and yet to feel like a very ordinary person from Durham, New Hampshire. I want those worlds to meet and co-exist. I think classical music contains the ordinary and it gets thrown up into lofty realms, but where it is most exciting is where it is being connected to ordinary life.
TM: To connect that with another New England composer, the American composer who connects most clearly with everyday life is Charles Ives, particularly, but not only, in the songs — in his instrumental music as well. Do you have a sense of being a New England composer?
AW: That’s a good question. I love Ives. Once a friend told me I sounded like Ives, and I will be forever flattered. I love that association. I don’t know if I am quite so New-Englandy as Charles Ives.
TM: Nobody could be.
AW: My parents are both from the Midwest. In Ives there is that wonderful co-existence of the simple hymn tunes with these complex adventurous sounds that make you experience something that you have never experienced before. That combination of things is very resonant with me. If that’s a New England thing, then maybe I am New Englandy.
TM: To take it a little farther out, does it matter that you are a woman and a composer?
AW: Part of me wants to have a strong answer for that, and part of me wants to ignore it completely. It’s very difficult. There are times when you feel like you just want to write music, and you don’t want it to matter, and yet it seems to. That is, to be identified as a woman composer is to be set apart. I don’t want to be set apart. I just want to write music. I hear and appreciate music by men and women alike.
In terms of my work, I am not a politically oriented person. It doesn’t enter my consciousness as I am composing. I am not thinking about that. Does it matter? Sure. Does it affect my life? Sure. Do I want my work to reflect my whole self, which includes the fact that I am a woman? Absolutely. I think that is undeniable. I think there is a lot to talk about there. I am reluctant to go there when I am in my composing frame of mind, because it feels extraneous. When I am in my composing frame of mind, it’s a given — of course I am a woman. On the other hand, it certainly enters into the way things function out there in the world we live in. When I am asked to participate in something as a woman composer, part of me thinks “That’s great! I am glad you are making that effort”, and part of me sinks a little bit, because I wish we didn’t have to point out that distinction. One wants to feel that the music is valued for what it is, and not because it represents an identity.
TM: And to take it one step farther, what does it mean to be writing music as an American? Is there something about the music that is American? Is it something that comes to mind consciously when you are composing?
AW: That probably comes to mind more often than gender. I have had a couple of chances to do some composing in Europe, and I have loved it, because it has allowed me to have this different perspective on being American, and I find it very rich to be able to reflect on that. I am an American-sounding composer, I identify with a lot of American-sounding composers, I love Copland, I love Ives. That is undeniably part of my sound-world.
TM: Being outside the United States bring into question things day by day about how you speak to somebody, how you interact. Those are things you don’t get a window on until you leave.
Tell me about the big project for 2010.
AW: Lately it is lots of little projects. I am doing a CD of chamber music, getting some recording sessions together for existing pieces. I am finishing a small piece for big orchestra, so part of my upcoming agenda includes getting that finished and out there, trying to get that played. I have been working through this piece that I wrote this fall for Orchestra 2001 which is for three singers, and involved some text I wrote and settings of Emily Dickinson poetry. I have been making a choral version of it.
I am supposed to write a piece for the New York-based group Sequitur, and I am not sure what piece that is yet. I’ve also just been asked to write a new piece for the Lark quartet plus percussion. So there are some practical things on the table, and some looser content that is occupying me, and we’ll see how those things connect. I am on leave this year, or I wouldn’t be talking this way. I wouldn’t be so free!
TM: Feeling relaxed.
AW: A little more than usual.
TM: Are you satisfied with the way you have been writing, or do you see that there might be some way in which you would like to change your language?
AW: I don’t think I am the sort of who makes a big deliberate stylistic change — I just don’t work that way — but that being said, any new piece involves a reengagement with trying to make something that sounds new and cool and exciting and says what you want to say. Things have been changing. I don’t feel like I can make a prediction, but I am always, always trying to be ready and open for some new way of thinking that feels right and natural.