Ahead of our Edinburgh Fringe collaboration, acclaimed electronic-classical crossover composer, producer and performer Anna Meredith tells us about the role of music in her life, from discovering that composition was a living thing, to playing imaginary trumpets in her bedroom…
Music is alive
I wasn’t one of those children who was massively gifted at a young age – I didn’t really have any concept of composition until later in my life, at secondary school and then university. But the thing is, I don’t remember having any idea that writing music was a thing. We were taught about composers at school, but the idea that it was a living thing that people were still doing… I somehow didn’t make the connection at all. It’s all about history, isn’t it; composition felt like a historical occurrence that you only learnt about. I certainly didn’t make the connection that it was a living profession that people were still doing.
I was into pop music, so I was probably more aware of people writing pop songs, but you weren’t taught to think that all types of music were part of the same spectrum.
Music is work
In writing my own music, I’m ultimately trying to create something that gives me the same sense of pleasure and satisfaction that I’m looking for in other people’s, just written to my own precise criteria.
A huge factor in what made me start composing in the first place is that I would hear other people’s music and start to rewrite it in my head. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but there was this innate, instinctive feel of what I felt should happen next in a piece of music. Sometimes I’d feel frustrated – like, ‘why’s this piece still going on, it should have ended by now!’ or, ‘why’s this chorus here, it’s way too early’. That sort of thing.
To find myself in a career that allows me to write music that fits the exact criteria of what I want to listen to… it’s just amazing.
A teaser track from Anna Meredith and Scottish Ensemble’s recording of Anno
Music is energy
I feel like I have quite a complicated relationship with music (she says, grandly). I don’t think there’s any other art form that gives me as much energy as music. Of course, part of that is physical, because you can physically dance or move to it. But music can energise me, move me, and – actually I’m doing it now – make my fingers wiggle, in a way that nothing else does.
That doesn’t mean I saturate myself with it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I have to be careful. I love music that can give me a really intense reaction, that it can blow me away with its energy, but I’m quite respectful of not doing that to myself too often.
When I’m trying to write music, I find that if I listen to other people’s music, especially other people’s good music, I think ‘ah, that’s amazing, I should try and do something like that’ and I’ll end up doing a sort of watered down, weaker version of their thing. Or, worse, I won’t get anywhere close to it, and that’s even more depressing.
It’s great to have this reaction to it, because it gives me so much, but it’s undoubtedly also quite tiring. This sounds a bit melodramatic, but actually, it can be quite exhausting listening to music for this reason. It’s difficult, trying not to look at things critically and just experiencing them as the person who wrote it or made it wanted you to experience it.
So, over the years, I’ve learnt that for me, it’s important not to listen to that much music because it simply doesn’t help make me a better composer. I need to be in quite a robust mental place to make music – I have to be feeling confident in my ideas on my own terms, rather than how they relate to other bits of music, to what’s going on in the outside world.
I tend to switch off and unwind with things like audio books, podcasts, that kind of thing, and save save listening to music for either stuff I come across by chance – going to friends’ gigs, for example – or, music I already know and like for other reasons than it being new to me.
Thankfully I’m not someone who watches a film critically – it has to be pretty bad for me to think it’s bad. I prefer just being in there, in the world of the film. I’m certainly not thinking ‘oh, those special effects are terrible’. If it’s a cartoon, I’m not analysing the animation, just enjoying the story. I do try and really immerse myself with these kind of things.
Music is confidence
I was going through a tough time once, and I remember someone saying to me, ‘why don’t you put that into your music?’
The problem is, I’ve got no idea how to do that. I need to be in quite a robust mental place to make music – confident in my ideas on my own terms, rather than how they relate to other bits of music, or to what’s going on in the outside world. If I’m feeling anxious, I struggle to write; it’s impossible to make any decisions or trust your opinions about which ideas are good or bad when you’re feeling indecisive or uncertain. For me, writing music is definitely connected to feeling strong.
Music is humour
Sometimes I’ve come up with ideas that sound ridiculous or funny, and just the sheer silliness of them really tickles me. Making an instrument do something it wouldn’t usually do and produce some ridiculous sound…that kind of thing. My personality and sense of humour definitely guides the way I make music in a way I can’t seem to get away from.
In fact, a lot of people have said that when they come to see my band, there’s this weird juxtaposition between these intense, full-on bits of music and then someone blethering away and dithering about in between… To be honest, I’m happy with that. I wouldn’t want to take away either side.
Music is a teacher
I’ve been taught a lesson by a piece of music. When I was studying in York, you had to go to a certain number of concerts, so you’d end up going to things you wouldn’t necessarily choose to. At this concert in question, they were performing Messaein’s Quartet Pour Le Fin Du Temps, and I suppose I turned up with a pre-conception that I’d told myself, that bits in the piece are a bit gnarly in certain movements. And, you know, I was probably just in a bit of a bad mood, feeling like I couldn’t be bothered, maybe I was hoping to just sit there and be able to drift off and think about my dinner…
But something managed to break through all of that and completely change my expectations and my experience. What broke through was this idea – and it’s an idea which seems really simple – of contextualising. As I listened, I realised that the more challenging, difficult bits were being used in contrast to the beautiful, still parts. It sounds so obvious, but if you put something soft next to something aggressive, it’s going to change the way it feels, and it’s going to feel even more still, even more calm, even more peaceful.
I think because of the sort of negative, pre-judging kind of mood I was in, this fairly simple realisation had a more powerful effect on me. I felt really humbled by it. When something manages to break through your indifference or your stupor or your grumpy mood like that, it’s quite amazing.
Music is context
It’s strange, because, if I’m on my own listening to a classical piece that I love, I’ll be stomping about, bellowing, singing along, being very physical. When you do then go and listen to the piece in a still, silent environment, it naturally creates a very different experience. And whilst I absolutely don’t think the answer is to start playing symphonies in night clubs, it does mean you have to stifle any kind of physical reaction, as even small movements can be very off-putting in that kind of setting. It’s not like I want to be dancing; I just mean, I’m having to fight being so excited by the music. If I was listening to the same thing in my bedroom, I’d be strutting around, playing an imaginary trumpet.
But the thing is, it does give you the best chance to hear the music clearly. A lot of this music is designed to be heard somewhere still and quiet. You need the silence to be able to grasp this idea of what the composer is trying to do; you need that environment to appreciate its complexity.
I suppose what I want is to feel immersed. The word’s so overused now, I know, but if I’m going to sit in a seat and watch a symphony being performed, I want to be as close to the front as possible. It’s a live performance – I don’t want to feel like I’m watching it on TV. I want to be overwhelmed.
For me, it’s about how to represent each piece in the right environment. That’s one of the things I love about Anno. When we were thinking about what sort of space to perform it in, it was always about how to create the best experience, rather than thinking about music as classical, or electronic, and the standard expectations which arise from each. This way of labelling music and then dividing it up in terms of which one goes in which venue can often do more harm than good – it should always be about listening to the music and deciding on the environment and experience it needs to be appreciated at its absolute best, which space will let its original intentions and purpose come through.
What’s lovely about Anno is that whether you’re watching it and performing it, you’re in the middle of its world. I loved that feeling of being in the middle of the sound. I suppose I always have; as a clarinettist I loved sitting in the middle of the orchestra, with all that sound going on around me – and I suppose I still do.
Scottish Ensemble perform Anno with Anna Meredith at the Edinburgh Fringe on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 August 2018. Read more and book tickets here.