Anna Brake is a multifaceted composer who approaches her creative work from a variety of angles. She is an author whose ideas explore the intersections of digitization, music and musical literacy and whose own work as a composer examines moods and emotions in ways that are both playful and visceral. We're proud to share an interview with Brake about her work.
Please introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Hello! I’m Anna. Although I primarily describe myself as a composer, musicologist, and author, essentially, I’m a creative. My primary medium is music, as it comes most naturally to me, but I love writing poetry and nonfiction. (I wrote a book, Music Trends of the 21st Century: Technology Influencing Culture, about how developments in music technology has influenced musical literacy for better and for worse.) I also feel refreshed by creating things just for the sake of making them, whether that is crafting stationary, making jewelry, working on sewing projects, sketching pictures, or designing webpages. I’m deeply inspired by art, speech, poetry, nature, history, other music, and my surroundings. Although I’ve lived elsewhere, I am a Kansas City Area native and currently live in Northtown. I’m an advocate of holistic wellness and regularly do yoga, practice meditation, and spend time in nature. I love going on walks in Parkville Nature Sanctuary to find revelations. They often take the form of finding patterns, questioning how I can mimic sounds, or dreaming up large scale concepts for my works.
My music uses instruments and techniques from classical art music but is emotionally accessible regardless of the listener’s background. My purpose is to spark a feeling—whatever that may be—to create empathy. While I enjoy hiding patterns and structures in my music for expert listeners, I love to make the surface level of my compositions easy to interpret. I do so with a variety of textures, timbres (unique sound combinations), articulations, and dynamics. I tend to ground my music with concrete art forms such as with an image or text; these provide me with inspiration and give the audience another thing to grasp onto.
My Moment Miniatures project is a prime example of how I try to connect with my audience on a visceral level. Each piece is based on a specific mood, and the goal is for the audience to feel the piece’s emotion by the time the piece concludes. Similar to the ancient Greek’s doctrine of ethos and the Baroque’s doctrine of the affections, these small works are meant to rouse a distinct, shared emotion within the audience through contemporary art music. Their titles explain the emotion—Anger, Anticipation, Apprehensive, At Wit’s End, Intrigued, Nonchalant, Regret, Sorrow, Thoughtful, Wanderlust, and Yearning are some examples.
What was the main challenge in composing the fifty short pieces for your Moment Miniatures project?
I prescribed this project to myself when I was feeling a bit unfocused in my compositions. I told myself that I needed to put something down on the page for each of the fifty days. These sketches were based in how I actually felt that particular day. Although some of the days were difficult either to find a specific emotion that I hadn’t written about before or to find out how I could make music out of what I was feeling, the most difficult challenge was the editing process. After I had so many sketches, how could they be made into brief, coherent pieces? I had to be very conscious about reigning in my ideas.
When did you start composing music? Who were some of your earliest influences and what did you like about them?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved music. I begged my family to give me piano lessons, and when I finally got them at age twelve, I began composing, too. It was completely natural to me. I liked putting patterns together in structured ways.
My early influences were composers such as John Adams, Danny Elfman, and Philip Glass. I loved the patterns in their music. I loved how I could be put into a trance with their music and then be abruptly pulled out of it with a slight change in rhythm or harmony.
Describe your writing process. What tools do you use?
I do a lot of pre-composing work. I tend to start with an idea, and then I make lists. I list concepts, words, feelings, sounds, pictures, colors, musical techniques, and instruments. Sometimes I write a text or find one to work with. For some works, I diagram or map my plan for the piece.
If I am writing a vocal piece, I will sit at the piano speaking and singing the text. I use a pencil and manuscript paper to write down the vocal line(s). The words need to fit the music naturally, and without trying it out myself, the pacing and emphasis don’t work correctly.
Even if I’m not writing for voice, I will sing or play motives or melodies that I write down by hand. I tend to write more horizontally than vertically, although I do still experiment with different voicings and chords in this stage.
After I have a fair amount written down on paper, I move to my computer. I use Sibelius, a software for transcribing music. I have a keyboard connected to my computer, so I play what I have written down and edit it from there. The software has playback technology, so I can listen to what I have so far. I will often reach out to the performers at this point to ask them questions or see if they can play what I’m thinking. Then, I flesh out the structure and make sure the overall shaping of the piece is right. I add in the details including the articulations, dynamics, and any other specific information for the performers. I listen to the playback over and over focusing on a certain element at a time. I make the score look pretty and extract parts for individual instrumentalists if needed.
Then, I pass my baby on to the performer! I love working with performers and encourage them to give me feedback. The performer knows their own ability of their instrument or voice better than any composer could. If I’m going for a certain effect and the performer has an idea for making it sound more natural or genuine, I will go back an edit my work. This may even come after the first performance of the work. Hopefully, my works continue to live and breathe after I’m mostly done with them!
What music are you currently listening to? Who really inspires you?
Ah, I’m listening to a lot of opera right now, as my next project is a chamber opera based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Nightingale and the Rose. I’ve been listening to 20th century classics such as Salome and Bluebeard’s Castle but also works by Osnat Netzer, Kaija Saariaho, Pauline Oliveros, and Meredith Monk.
I listen to a lot more than just classical art music though. I am inspired by Joanna Newsom, The Builders and the Butchers, CocoRosie, The Huntress, Chris Thile, Ella Fitzgerald, The Devil Makes Three, Brown Bird, Led Zeppelin, Florence and the Machine, Laura Marling, Miles Davis, and Neko Case.
What inspires you about new classical music in Kansas City?
Every time I go to one of the concerts put on by NewEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble I’m blown away with inspiration! They do an amazing job of putting on varied programs that are truly an experience! If you don’t like one of the pieces on the program, you’re sure to like another. They perform works by local and international composers. (Jennifer Higdon attended the previous one!) The performers are extremely talented and dedicated to bringing new music to the people of Kansas City!
Anna Braker's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
Private Gardens by Kaija Saariaho
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók (DVD)
Newport Jazz Festival Live at Carnegie Hall, July 5, 1973 by Ella Fitzgerald
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau by Chris Thile
I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling
Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom
Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath
The Wellspring by Sharon Olds