Essential New Music: Anna Webber’s “Shimmer Wince”

When musicians who have come up through Western musical systems embrace “just intonation” (the more mathematically consistent system that was replaced by standard “equal temperament” in the 18th century), they may inject an element of cultural and/or moral critique into their work. Composer Lou Harrison, for example, held that equal temperament “destroys everything and is not for the human ear.”

Canadian woodwinds player/composer Anna Webber comes at JI from a more integrative angle. The tuning system’s simple ratios offer a solution to a compositional problem: How might one unite polyrhythms and pitch? Webber’s investigations of heuristics and mathematics ultimately led her to a fellowship devoted to the study of JI. If this is all starting to sound really nerdy, don’t fret: The music that’s come out of Webber’s deep dive into tuning ratios is anything but. Shimmer Wince presents music whose complexities are never ends in themselves, but means to project an exhilaration that requires no analysis to be appreciated.

There’s so much going on throughout this album, a casual listener might not even notice the different tunings if it weren’t for the mirage-like wooziness of Elias Stemeseder’s synth tones. Nor would they experience this music as a profound break from what Webber has done before; cellist Mariel Roberts’ adroit deployment of extended techniques maintains a through line to the Monk-meets-Varèse sound world laid out on Webber’s last album, 2021’s Idiom.

The unison reeds/brass/string lines on “Fizz” and see-sawing figures on “Wince” may give off a bit of JI’s trademarked tonal radiance, but since they also launch hearty solo turns by trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, it’s tempting to tune in to them with jazz ears and simply follow the solo flights. Likewise, it’s not the intervals that make Webber’s foregrounded tenor sax on the latter number so exquisite, but the grace with which she negotiates their intricacies. Lesley Mok’s drumming is another source of delight, essaying a constant stream of inventive commentary while alternately stating and implying a brisk pulse. Webber has assembled one hell of a band for this project; here’s hoping she keeps it going.

—Bill Meyer