Wail of the Voice: Weesner

I suppose “unique” is an extremely tired word, but I really don’t know another composer whose music sounds like that of my Penn colleague, Anna Weesner. She subscribes to no “-ism”, and there is no ready label for her music. The elements that make up her language – some of which include hints of pop, or Stravinsky, or Lutoslawski, for example – are thoroughly digested. When she engages aspects of popular idioms, with a reliance on motoric pulsation or ostinato technique, she does so in a thoughtful way – the ostinati are balanced with carefully crafted harmonic motion; the rhythmic “hooks” are subtly varied and integrated.

Anna’s sense of timing and pacing is exquisite – she can effect gradual changes, or make jump cuts that startle before revealing their logic a moment later. Anna does not use tonal elements in a neo-classical manner, nor for the sake of nostalgia or for surrealist effects. Rather, these elements, as straightforward as a major chord, are activated by an unexpected context, freshened by a foreign element or revealed as a secret underpinning for a more complex surface. Hers is a direct yet subtle art – the surface is full of vivid gestures, wonderfully wide-ranging and imaginative but placed with pinpoint timing, and cunningly varied. A figure may repeat in what seems like will be an obvious manner, but the repetition is quickly subverted, or, under pressure, expands to ecstatic layering of varied iterations. Her pieces are generally not long in clock time, yet are understood by the listener as eventful – satisfyingly “long” in experiential time. Formal patterning in Anna’s work is uniquely fresh. There are rarely straightforward recapitulations, and ready-made formal schemes do not interest her. The music has its own mind as to how to unfold, varying both from piece to piece, and within individual pieces with respect to rate of change, in method of making transitions, in dramatic arc. She manages to achieve that difficult balance of the unexpected and the inevitable.

The piece of Anna’s that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert (Friday, January 11, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus) is a string quartet to be played by the Daedalus Quartet. Here is her program note:

The Space Between has traveled a long and unusual compositional path.  It began with a commission from the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet in 2001.  Excited about this project and wanting to take full advantage of the chance to write for a terrific group, and for multiple performances, I wrote a piece that was compositionally ambitious, which is to say, awfully long and awfully challenging to play.  The Cypress did a bang-up job with the piece, though I’m not sure any of us were entirely sure we wanted to promote its continued existence.  Some years went by and I found that I didn’t want to let the piece go as a lost, youthful effort, but that I also didn’t want to keep it as it was.  So I tried revising it.  Several times.  Does too much labor mean a piece that sounds labored?  In the first instance, with the original quartet I wrote for the dear Cypress, I think the answer was yes.  With The Space Between I hope that the answer is no.  (I think wishfully of the drafts of sentences by E.B. White, where the eventual version—the one born of many attempts and apparently requiring no small amount of labor—is the one with expressive elegance and lightness and spontaneity.)

The Space Between is made largely of material salvaged from the first movement of what was originally a two-movement piece.  Not much of it is precisely as it was before, though some material is certainly recognizable.  There is also new material.  Overall, it is different enough to warrant a new title.

Musically, the piece is preoccupied with texture, that is, with the business of how many voices, or parts, are in play at a given time and with whether what those parts are doing is primary or supportive, melody or accompaniment, or neither.  It may have something to do with wanting to explore the sound of the one and the many (and the space between them), or with what it means to write a melodic line and to let it stand alone, on the one hand, and then also give it musical context.  It is easy in music to think about loud and soft as “players” in an unfolding score.  I would like to think that in addition to loud and soft, one might hear near and far, the solitary and the group, and also private and public, as additional, complicit forces at work.

Working with string quartets is incredibly gratifying and fun, especially when the players are highly skilled, deeply thoughtful and good-humored.  In this vein, I’d like to affectionately dedicate this piece to three quartets who’ve helped my music along in ways too numerous to mention: the Cypress Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, and the Daedalus Quartet.

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