Interview with Anna Weesner


In your musical education, what instruments did you study, and how did you arrive at your current identity as a composer?

My first instrument, at five, was the violin. I studied with the Suzuki method, learning at first by ear, and absolutely recoiled when it came time to learn notation, something that is quite funny to me now. I started piano not long after—my mother was a piano teacher, though not my teacher—and then at twelve, I fell in love with the flute. I spent much of high school and part of college wanting to be a professional flutist. My years in youth orchestra during high school were profoundly important and rich (Thank you to Claude White and Ben Zander). Sitting as a flutist in the midst of an orchestra playing Brahms was unimaginably exciting. My identity as a composer is certainly grounded in those experiences. At the same time, I was a young girl growing up in New Hampshire, listening to Top Forty radio and singing along. So there’s pop music, too. Always.

How would you describe your music to someone who wasn't familiar with it?

My music as oriented to pulse and melody. I like meter and I like line. I’d say that I use tonal—that is, in many cases, familiar—materials in non-tonal ways. I’d say that I am interested in reflection and speculation in sound. I’m interested in using simple materials to make complex and—hopefully—emotionally rich textures. I’d say that my music sounds American. Echoes of Copland, Ives, Rock and Roll.

How did the commission from Winsor Music come about?

Through various connections. I’ve long heard of Peggy Pearson, in part through John Harbison, who was a teacher and remains a significant influence for me as a composer. I have other composer friends who’ve written for Peggy, including Andy Waggoner and my colleague at UPenn, Jim Primosch.

Have you written for oboe before? Was Peggy Pearson a particular inspiration?

I’ve written for oboe infrequently and until recently only in the context of orchestra or chamber orchestra. My recent song cycle for Cygnus Ensemble includes oboe in a group of six. The oboe was certainly a part of that formative experience in youth orchestra—the instrument that first drew my attention when I went to my first rehearsal. I will never forget hearing the Overture to Rossini’s Italian in Algiers, when the girl to my left in the wind section who came from Hanover, NH rolled out that solo with such grace. The oboe is very special. While I haven’t had the chance to work with Peggy before, her playing is long known to me by reputation, which makes this very exciting.

Is your quintet for oboe and strings typical of your compositional style, or a departure? Could you describe the piece?

I suppose the joke on composers is that they like to imagine that their pieces are departures, carving out new territory, when more often than not they are like next chapters in the unfolding book of their work. My piece for Peggy Pearson and Winsor Music is a mix of typical and new, perhaps a more explicit realization of something that’s been lurking in my work for a long time. It has elements that are familiar, including pulse and tune, but it makes more explicit use of a chord progression that I associate with pop music than ever before. I was thinking about how lots of songs are based on the same very few progressions and wondered what it might mean to play around with one myself. From that, the piece grew into an exploration of ideas around that progression which came to constitute a dramatic or narrative sequence that I try to represent in my movement titles.

Do you have a preference for writing for orchestras or for chamber ensembles?

I have mostly written for chamber ensembles, in part because these performances are more available than those for large groups. I do love the intimacy and collaborative spirit of chamber music. It’s like nothing else. That said, I like the big sound of many, too, and was pleased during this past year to hear a performance of a string orchestra piece of mine called Still Things Move, by the Riverside Symphony in New York.

Can you identify certain teachers or composers who were important influences on your development as a composer?

Important teachers (including influence, aesthetic kinship): John Harbison, Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra.

Important influences: Judith Weir, Gyorgy Kurtag, Virginia Woolf, Charles Ives, Stravinsky.

What projects are coming up in the future for you?

Upcoming projects include a clarinet quintet for the Lark Quartet and Todd Palmer, and a new version of My Mother in Love, an album of ten songs.