After years of only making music when commissioned to work on classical compositions, Anna Meredith has made an experimental electronic album for herself
The first note of music Anna Meredith ever wrote was for her Scottish Standard Grade music coursework. It was a composition for those beige, plastic, single-finger keyboards that were a fixture in every early-90s school music department – the ones where each key produced an entire chord in a variety of synthesised instruments that were selected via a bank of buttons along the top.
Her piece was called ‘Relfections’ (she misspelled ‘Reflections’ on the cover sheet), and the quirk was that the performer was required to change the instrument’s sounds throughout using his or her nose. “So it would be like, ‘Pipe Organ!’,” exclaims Meredith, amused by her own teenage ridiculousness as she dips her nose to the table like a chicken pecking at grain. “Then, ‘Sea Shore!’” she chuckles, diving down again.
“So I wrote this piece,” she continues, “and apparently the examiner was like, ‘what this kid’s got, you should keep an eye on.’” She raises her eyebrows, as if skeptical of her own story. “So my teacher asked me if I’d thought about writing anything else.”
As it happens, Meredith hadn’t. Indeed, she’d only started playing the clarinet a couple of years earlier to make friends, finding kindred spirits in the after-school music groups of Edinburgh. “I wasn’t very popular at school,” she confesses with an apologetic smile. “I was a bit of a weirdo – big scarf, plaits, clarinet badge, that kind of stuff – in an edgy school, so music was where I found people a bit more like me.”
She fell for the engulfing sound of an orchestra at full tilt, but the idea that it might be someone’s job to write the music, or that you were even allowed to do that kind of thing, never occurred to her. “As a teenager, I was just doing what I was told to,” she remembers. “I don’t think I thought I was especially musically talented, and wasn’t taken too seriously, but I enjoyed it.”
In fact, Meredith didn’t think about writing anything else again until she was once more required to for school coursework, this time her Scottish Highers. Another idiosyncratic piece of music received high praise, another writing hiatus followed, and a pattern was formed that she took to the music department at the University of York and through a masters degree at the Royal College of Music: if it’s asked for, Meredith gladly delivers. Otherwise, she keeps herself to herself.
It’s a pattern that endures, in a sense, today: for the last fifteen years or so, Meredith’s full-time day job has been as a composer of music for other people. She makes a living off commissions from international orchestras, operas and cultural institutions, writing symphonies, songs and string quartets for body percussion, beatboxer and boomwhacker. She’s always funded and fully briefed before a single clef has been drawn, these days turning down more approaches than she accepts. In short, everything Meredith writes is requested, by someone, somewhere, all of which makes the latest chapter in her compositional history something of a first: next month, her debut album, ‘Varmints’, will come out, and while it has enough support to be released on a modest indie record label (Moshi Moshi), no one approached her to write it. No one asked her to sing and play on it. No one paid her to do it, either.