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.
“My composer mates go, ‘oh I see you’re doing some electronics, you’re selling out’,” she says with a smile, “and they have no idea – my contemporary art music funds my electronic pop.” In Meredith’s world, things don’t always operate as expected.
But Anna Meredith’s appeal isn’t about her imminent debut being punted into the record-buying public with crossed fingers, lots of goodwill and even more debt – that story gets told every week. Nor is it about an eccentric musician established in one area chancing her arm at something different out of restlessness or curiosity – that’s been the preserve of highfalutin rock stars since the ’70s. Instead, Meredith’s appeal lies somewhere to the left of all that, not just in her music – screwy and addictive and disconcerting and eye-popping as it is – but in how her approach, her process and her background makes her one of the country’s most topsy-turvy musicians. The intrigue lies less in the musical whiplash inflicted by her woozy polyrhythms, or her apparently unique ability to turn a drumbeat into an earworm, and more in how she found the belief to commission herself for the first time: ‘Varmints’, it turns out, is not just a knotty vine of intricate electronics, acoustics and animalistic beats, but also a record borne of enviable conviction, confidence and self-imposed accountability developed over a career of being told what to write. It’s a story about what happens when a master architect decides to design her own house – and how she lives in it afterwards.
Five miles outside the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, among the open fenland of East Anglia’s Sunshine Coast, sits a set of imposing Victorian barley-malting houses. When the malting business dried up there in the late sixties, Benjamin Britten spearheaded a project to convert the largest of the disused buildings into a concert hall to house his then-burgeoning annual Aldeburgh Music Festival. Fifty years on, with several of the other buildings on the site now converted into rehearsal rooms, studios and performance spaces, the entire Snape Maltings complex is home to Aldeburgh Music, an international creative centre for contemporary music that hosts concerts all year round and offers residencies to composers and enables them to develop new work.
In the context of Austerity Britain and, more generally, the culture industry’s financial contraction over the past two decades, it feels like a minor miracle that a place like Aldeburgh Music exists at all. Bucolically flanked by the river Alde to one side and rolling barley fields to the other, with giant sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth dotting the grounds, the entire site is inspiringly tranquil. Curious noises emanate from the practice rooms within the complex’s various buildings, amplifying the stirring, other-wordly feel, and the overall effect is one of seductive dissociation: there’s a sense that the creativity-sapping drudgery of real life just doesn’t happen here, that this place is a greenhouse for those exotic musical plants that would struggle to thrive anywhere else.
Anna Meredith has been in and out of Aldeburgh Music in one capacity or another since graduating, be it teaching, studying, performing or writing. She’s currently in residence there to complete work on her re-imagining of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, a commission from Glasgow string orchestra The Scottish Ensemble – not that she’s too familiar with Vivaldi’s original. “When I got the score, I was like, ‘I know the Four Seasons!’, and then I realised I only know about half of it, and some of it I don’t ever remember hearing,” she admits, with a smile, as we sit in her long, attic-room studio. At one end is a grand piano, a MIDI keyboard, some manuscript paper covered in cryptic scribbles, and Meredith’s MacBook on which the composition program Sibelius idles patiently. At the other, almost laughably in contrast, are two antique harpsichords and a small library of multi-volume composer biographies and musical encyclopaedias that look like they were last read shortly after the Suez Crisis.
Meredith’s Vivaldi confession is made breezily enough – there’s no sense of her rabble-rousing or attempting to be edgy. Indeed, given the style of her writing, there’s no reason that she should be any more au fait with a 17th-century baroque composer than Taylor Swift should be with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Nonetheless, it’s a real-life confirmation of another facet of Meredith’s unusual composer personality: she doesn’t really listen to other people’s music.
“Music was more of a social thing to me, to be honest,” she remembers, of her formative musical experiences. “I wasn’t the kind of kid who was like, ‘I must check out the other bits of Beethoven’ – I had little interest beyond the repertoire I was doing. I loved the pieces I was playing, and I would listen to those obsessively on my Walkman, but beyond that I wouldn’t go out of my way.”
That initial ambivalence stuck: once she started composing more regularly, Meredith discovered that listening to a lot of current music was actually counterproductive to her own creative process. “I found that if I heard something that I thought was good, I’d end up emulating it and making a shit version of it,” she explains. “Like, when I first started messing around in electronics, I wrote some stuff that was basically ‘shit James Blake’, but really I’m not someone who’s trying to make a genre. I’m not trying to make a pastiche of this or that, or a bit of hip-hop or whatever. I’m just trying to do my own thing, which sounds maybe a bit ego-y, but it’s the only way that I can do it.”
“But it’s also about accountability,” she continues. “People say to me, ‘oh you must’ve heard this’, but I’ve never heard any of it, which is actually useful, because I honestly want to say I’ve made this stuff out of my own passion and excitement about the musical dots and material, rather than fashion or trend.”
Of course, as the saying goes, one should never trust a thin chef – and it’s difficult to think of another writer, filmmaker, artist or musician who’s so open, and positive, about their own (relative) isolationism. However, you needn’t spend long in the company of Meredith to realise that her reluctance to devour hours upon hours of music in the way that many other musicians do lies not in snobbery, nor laziness or even being stuck in her ways, but simply because her relationship with music appears to be fundamentally different to most: where the majority of the population might describe their most fulfilling musical experiences as involving some sort of abstract emotion evoked from hearing sound, Meredith’s are far more interactive. Listening to her talk, it seems that for her, music is about the giddy, lightheaded feeling you get when you’re playing, exploring and creating; the addictive element for Meredith is the interactivity she feels and the taking part, the seamless flow and reciprocal synergy, rather than the one-way, insular act of simply paying attention to the music itself.
She describes getting physical sensations when music is working for her. “Especially playing in an orchestra,” she remembers, “when I get to the end of a piece, there’s a specific rush of blood that runs from my head to my toes to my back. When I’m writing,” she goes on, “I can physically tell if the material’s good because I feel it very clearly in my hands.”
This almost synesthetic sensory crossover is her yardstick – a now familiar tool that she uses, instead of comparison to her peers, to assess her work. “I’m always searching for that feeling of something being physically, viscerally right, and I now know how to actively search for it a bit more,” she explains. “So sometimes, when I’m trying to work out a bit of music, I’ll literally audition ideas – singing them out to myself, one by one, and when I’ve got the right one, I’ll know it’s right because I’ll physically latch onto it.” She stops herself, tailing away, suddenly bashful. “It sounds a bit flaky, doesn’t it…”
Her moment of self-doubt is telling: Meredith in full-on writing mode would never call her process flaky. In contrast to more heart-on-sleeve musicians who try to render their compositions as extensions of themselves, Meredith is open about needing to get into a very specific headspace before she writes. “I need to be somewhere like here, away from distractions,” she explains of her preparation, “and, most of all, I need to be feeling quite good about myself – emotionally stable and feeling quite strong.
“I look to get into a mentality where I can respond to the pressure of saying, ‘you will write something good!’,” she continues. “It’s about getting that mind-set, so that when I have an idea that makes me chortle, one that passes my audition, I know I have the balls to deal with it. I need to be feeling quite wired – quite ‘come on, let’s go!’ to make music,” she adds, clenching her fists like a tennis player at break point.
“Quite often, though, it goes the other way around. I might not be feeling very confident or ballsy or energised or angry or anything like that, but the song has its own identity and in some ways, I’m subservient to the thing that gets created.”
That wired sensibility spills onto ‘Varmints’ in gloriously, splatting Technicolor as mazy instrumentals that squirm through impossible crevices and angles like some shape-shifting sea creature, or as superficially dainty songs whose sometimes worrisome lyrics contrast with the unyielding musical boldness that accompanies them. Patterns emerge across the album’s running time but are never duplicated, creating a sense of elegant structure and comfortingly mountainous, widescreen pacing – or “big brush strokes, big graphic shapes, rather than minutiae of production,” as Meredith puts it.
One of Meredith’s calling cards from her classical work, that of almost perpetual rhythmic unpredictability, is present all over ‘Varmints’ too, which adds a real impish joy. “There’s a real delight when you’re listening to a piece of music and it completely pulls the rug from under you,” she agrees. “I really enjoy misleading people, so that you feel like you’re in one feel, and then,” she rocks her head back like a cartoon witch preparing to cackle, “ahahaha! The other beat comes in!”
One track on ‘Varmints’, however, feels different to the rest. The closing piece, ‘Blackfriars’, with its elegiac strings and plaintive rhythm, has none of the chaotic chutzpah of what’s gone before. Indeed, it makes for a somewhat soothing epilogue. However, it’s of note because it’s Meredith’s only example of what she produces when she isn’t in her usual all-conquering headspace. “I had some crap stuff happen last year and I was in a wobblier place, and I wasn’t really able to do the thing I normally do,” she says, detailing the genesis of the track. “I was trying to work that one out while not being able to access the normal skills I needed in order to compose, not being able to tap into the strength that I needed, and that’s what came out.”
Far from disrupting the mood, though, ‘Blackfriars’ is perhaps the key to the whole album. Not only does it complete the running order but it also deepens ‘Varmints’, acting as a cipher that demonstrates how the rest of the record isn’t just the work of some brash, hyper-confident maniac, but of different facets of Meredith’s personality. That’s just as well: “It’s not like I have a Sasha Fierce character to fall back on,” she jokes, referring to Béyonce’s notoriously bombastic alter ego. “Whether it’s this stuff, a piece for kids, a piece with no instruments or whatever it might be, MRI Scanners or a million harmonicas, it all comes from a really honest place. I have to believe in it fully.”
On one hand, Meredith’s reliance on her own internal barometer of quality, coupled with her stated desire to capture music borne of a crack-free, bulletproof self-confidence, might appear a touch bullish, even alienating. On the other, however, that outward display of mega-strength is balanced by an on-going reluctance to acknowledge wider success that would seem pathological if it wasn’t delivered with such affable self-effacement. Again and again during our conversation, she talks in terms of “moving the goalposts as you reach them” so as to avoid complacency, and not allowing herself ever to think that she’s actually successful. “You always have to feel as if there’s work to do or stuff to be done,” she insists, conscientiously. “You have to keep moving forward – I can’t imagine ever going, ‘well, I’ve made it now.’”
Given the circumstances of ‘Varmints’, too, this aspect of perfectionism looms larger than ever: “When I’m writing a commission,” she explains, “there’s a deadline: players are going to be waiting, a concert’s been booked so you’ve got to get your parts written and there’s an element of just going ‘ah, fuck it’. But with ‘Varmints’, I’ve done a bit less ‘fuck it’ than usual because this is my thing, so I’m accountable – for me, doing a self-starting thing to this scale is quite big in terms of the time and the commitment that you put towards something that nobody’s asked for and nobody’s paid for.
“Everything else I do is people coming to me and paying me to write stuff, so then to have to make the time, and ask my band members to give up months and months of time, is a massive effort, so it has to be good enough to justify me asking so much of them, and of myself too.”
“And yes,” she acknowledges, “I’m putting myself under quite a lot of pressure, but I sort of have to: if I want to do it, this is the way you do it. I mean, I’ve been chucking in so much time and money to try and get this album made, but I could never have lived with myself if I hadn’t made it. I feel like all my electronic stuff has been riding up to here. If I’d been too casual about it – ‘ah, yeah, let’s just do this electronic pop’ – I don’t think I could’ve justified it to myself, let alone to other people giving up their time.”
“Anyway,” she adds, with a furrowed brow, “a bit of self-doubt can be quite healthy…”
In the course of our day together, Meredith describes herself, variously, as not brilliant, vain, lazy, flaky, egotistical, frumpy, ridiculous, pretentious, ancient, uncool, narcissistic and dickish. None of it is true. In fact, such proclamations belie a self-awareness and sense of empathy that makes her such a warm personality.
More than that, though, it also serves as oblique proof of what it is that Meredith actually uses music for: confidence. For Meredith, it seems that making music acts foremost as a psychological shield against the grittier, less comfortable things that life throws at her, giving her both a defence against the bad and the endorphin rush to enjoy the good; the more traditional reasons – expression of emotion, desire to move people, intellectual exploration – come afterwards.
What’s more, that shield effect becomes a virtuous circle – when she listens back to her own music, it directly empowers her to write more: “I can get quite psyched up listening to something of my own,” she says. “Or if I’m trying to write something new I can listen back and go ‘hey look! You managed to do this – look what you can do when you put your mind to it! Get on with it!’”
Frequently, she contrasts that version of herself with her normal, resting-state personality: “music writing brings out the most confident, no-fucks-given version of myself, and the normal, nicer, slightly more anxious me will be a bit, ‘argh, maybe we shouldn’t… hang on!’,” she tells me at one point. At another, she says, “I think composing brings out the best in me. On the spectrum of my personality, the bit that provides the right energy to compose is the most confident, the most ‘fuck yeah!’, the most energised. But like everyone else I worry and I procrastinate and I feel insecure and I faff – I do all that business too.”
In that context, listening to ‘Varmints’ becomes not just a sensory day at the zoo, but also a rather cathartic experience: it becomes a literal record of Meredith’s best moments, her ultimate best-foot-forward, her at her happiest and at her most courageous, and that realisation helps mutate an album of enjoyably furtive, propulsive but frequently abstract music into that rare thing in the world of intelligent electronica – a relatable, three-dimensional, honest experience.
“As you get into your 30s, you realise you’re not really on the same path as some of your friends, not married, no kids, doing your own thing,” she responds, when asked about that unusual candidacy. “And as you peel away from that security that you got from doing the same stuff as everyone else, you have to really believe in your own trajectory and values. You have to just keep on going. The stuff that I don’t know about is all the surface kind of stuff, life stuff that I shouldn’t be worrying about anyway. But the music-writing me seems to know what I want.”
There’s a sense of steely groundedness to Meredith as she says this – she’s not in her ultra-fearless writer mode now, but some of that still lingers. Perhaps her foray into self-commissioning, rather than simply being told what to write, has been more empowering than anticipated.
“Well, I’ve definitely left this year a bit more open than usual, to do more with ‘Varmints’,” she says, optimistically. “I’ve turned down quite a lot of work, which feels like quite, er… I’m not sure.” She falters for a moment, smiling apologetically once more. “It feels like there’s a lot of space this year now to make things happen. And maybe they won’t. Maybe I’ll just be sat about. Worrying about stuff. On my own.” She pauses again. “Or I could be touring the world with an animatronic dragon!” she laughs, confidence flowing back through her. “Either way, I feel proud of this thing, no matter what happens to it.”
Earlier in the day, Meredith confessed that if ‘Varmints’ doesn’t come to much commercially, then she’d have to reconsider what role this kind of work has in her professional life, because it takes up so much time. But if this kind of purity, satisfaction and musical accomplishment is what she achieves when she’s left to her own devices, a more apt question might be whether she can afford to stop.
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