Audeze chats with musician and composer Anna Webber

Anna Webber is a flutist, saxophonist, and composer whose interests and work live in the aesthetic overlap between avant-garde jazz and new classical music. In May 2021 she released Idiom, a double album featuring both a trio and a large ensemble, and a follow-up to her critically-acclaimed release Clockwise. That album, which the Wall Street Journal called "visionary and captivating," was voted #6 Best Album of 2019 in the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, who described it as “heady music [that] appeals to the rest of the body.” Her 2020 release, Both Are True (Greenleaf Music), co-led with saxophonist/composer Angela Morris, was named a top ten best release of 2020 by The New York Times. She was recently named a 2021 Berlin Prize Fellow and was voted the top “Rising Star” flutist in the 2020 Downbeat Critic’s Poll.

 Anna Webber composing with Audeze LCD-2 Classic headphones

"The Audeze headphones are absolutely the best headphones I've ever had... These headphones have helped me to be able to make better decisions as I've listened to records that I'm working on, and have made listening in general more enjoyable!"  - Anna Webber
Here's our talk with Anna:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

My last album, Idiom, is what I consider my best work to date. I put everything I had into it! It's a double album - the first disc is with my Simple Trio (with John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell), and the second is with a 12-piece large ensemble plus conductor. It was also the first album of mine that I edited on my own, I spent a lot of time really fine-tuning all the details on this one.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Tenor saxophonist, flutist, improvisor, music-reader - and, in my own projects, composer and bandleader.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I started playing music when I was in kindergarten or first grade. My mom is a good amateur pianist and I remember listening to her practice when I was very little and deciding I wanted to do that too. So I took piano lessons, which later progressed to cello lessons, which I eventually traded for flute and then saxophone lessons when I was in high school. I can't say I was listening to too much that I'm proud to quote as early influences when I was a teenager - mostly late 90s "alternative" rock. But I found jazz later in high school - John Coltrane and Joe Henderson were my guys. Hard to define in a couple sentences how that has progressed, because basically my musical entire world has been blown wide open several times over since that time (though Coltrane and Henderson are still my guys...). But these days I listen a lot of my friends albums (musicians in the jazz // avant-garde jazz // experimental // new music worlds), lots of trying to "fill in the gaps" - being completist about a certain improvisor or composer's discography for a few weeks at a time. My listening usually falls on the acoustic experimental side of things, but I also enjoy singer-songwriters, hiphop, rock, etc.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I moved to Berlin for a year after going to jazz school and learned that the saxophone could be a creator of sound/timbre and not just pitches. I was always leaning towards the experimental side of things, but I think up until that point, I hadn't actually seen anything live that went farther than a sort of post-Coltrane free jazz aesthetic. That really opened things up for me!

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

When I was mastering one of my first albums, the master came back with these digital artifacts - click-y noises - all over the place. I heard them everywhere, but the mastering engineer kept saying they weren't there. I knew I wasn't crazy, but they kept sending me new masters that were still full of clicks. Finally, I went to the mastering engineer's studio to check things out in person - at last they acknowledged that the problem was real, and we figured out that it was a clock issue. I got the master back without any digital artifacts - but at that point, I realized I didn't even like the sound of the master, which I hadn't even really heard yet because I had been so focused on the clicks! I had to get the engineer to make more tweaks. It was really frustrating, but in the end, being attentive to all the details was worth it. I love the sound of that album.

Having more albums under my belt at this point, as well as a certain amount of experience working with DAWs, makes it so that I know that it's ok to speak up when I think something could be changed in a master or mix. I am better at articulating the changes that I want - so if I were faced with that problem now, I'd have a lot more tools to tell the guy that I'm legitimately hearing a problem!

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

My tenor sax is a Conn New Wonder Series I from 1922 (its 100th birthday is this year!), and my flute is a Yamaha 674 (open-hole model with a B foot-joint). I'm not really a gear-head, or the sort of woodwind player who switches mouthpieces/ligatures/reeds all the time. I find the thing I like and I stick with it. I play the same saxophone mouthpiece I got in college, a Charles Bay 8.

Technology-wise, I am a bit of a luddite, or would like to perceive myself as such, though I've been forced through the creative process to reach a semi-competent level on a lot of different programs/technologies in order to do what I need to do. My favorite tools for composition are a pencil and score-sized manuscript paper. But I've recently been working with a program called Pianoteq, which lets you program various re-tunings onto a midi keyboard. It's been invaluable for a new set of music that I'm currently working on.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Be meticulous with your craft. Writing music takes time, always more time than I (for one) think I need. There simply aren't any shortcuts, and there is no reason why you shouldn't be completely satisfied with every note, every rest, every second of a given composition.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Having lived in cities for most of my adult life, most of that with roommates, working with headphones has been a necessity - for listening to music recreationally, for composition, for practicing/learning music, and for working with a DAW. I have several pairs of headphones, each with a different purpose. I have my practicing headphones, my traveling headphones, and my running headphones, etc.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

The Audeze headphones are absolutely the best headphones I've ever had. The amount of detail that it's possible to hear in recordings is phenomenal, it's a whole new listening experience. These headphones have helped me to be able to make better decisions as I've listened to records that I'm working on, and have made listening in general more enjoyable! I've been using them recently to run de-tuned synthesizers from my laptop through as I compose a set of music for a new quintet, as well as to listen to mixes of a new project.

Anna Webber's Audeze LCD-2 Classic headphones