Anna Weesner: An interview by Tom Moore

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

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

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

TM: Were you already interested in contemporary music as a high school

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

TM: As an undergraduate, studying flute would have been additional to the

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?

AW: 1983-1987.

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

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

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 naÔve
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

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?

Weesner-rehearsal2.gifIn rehearsal

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

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?

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.

image_description=Anna Weesner
product_title=Anna Weesner: An interview by Tom Moore
product_by=Above: Anna Weesner