Published on Monday 14 November 2016
Written by David Smythe
The annual Hot 100 cultural contributors from Edinburgh’s magazine The List draws interest from right across the entertainment world in Scotland. Beating Donald Runnicles (80), John Butt (63) and even The Edinburgh Festival (8), emerging smoking hot in the lead this year is composer Anna Meredith. We felt bang on trend as we packed out the performance space at The Hub in Edinburgh sitting on tiny stools surrounded by eight huge screens in a circle for a performance of Anno, first seen at the Spitalfields Festival in the summer.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is everywhere, performed almost nightly in churches in tourist cities in Europe, in lifts, on the radio and even when on hold on the phone. The Scottish Ensemble has performed it many times, often interleaving it with The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Piazzolla in a dialogue between the old and the new. It is a subject fascinating director Jonathan Morton who approached composer Anna Meredith with the idea of developing a piece using acoustic and electronic music depicting a year. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is used as source material with projections from the composer’s sister and illustrator, Eleanor Meredith.
Anna Meredith has said that she keeps composition fresh by using acoustic instruments to write for electronic, and electronic instruments to write for acoustic. Running to 15 short movements, the Vivaldi used was left intact, the amplified strings and harpsichord giving it a new rough edge. A pulsing electronic click track blended into live music with a techno beat from the Ensemble, the players emerging from the darkness between the screens, arranged in a semicircle, sometimes picking up their high tech tablet music stands and shifting position round us. Meredith weaved her own rhythms, sometimes sinuously, at others forcefully jabbing with inventive loops dancing round the Baroque.
Eleanor Meredith’s visuals were playful, nebulous translucent shapes dividing amoeba-like and spreading slowly round us as the year began. Sometimes a line was taken for a walk, squiggling across the screens, a bedtime story bird struggling against a strong wind, and an amorphous jelly-blue figure striding out purposely. A rough line drawing crane lifted blocks of watery colour like the mixing tray of a child’s paint box, and dumped them into a growing pile. Stronger coloured washes of abstract images built layer on layer, before eventually all the shapes slowly folded in on themselves as the year, and the piece ended.
Apart from the start and finish, it was difficult to mark the passing of a year, although electronic birdsong suggested spring and we had the Vivaldi fragments as reference. It was actually easier to stop worrying about whether or not we had reached September and let the abstract immersion of the old and new music wash over us, rather like the moving artwork. With eight projectors, a full surround track on six speakers and all the players miked, was a lot of kit to look after. It was fascinating to see who was actually leading the performance, as the composer sat with her score in full view at a mixing desk, laptop open, controlling the electronic track and occasionally the Ensemble. The players watched each other very carefully, some with headphones giving clear leads to the rest. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying performing this hour-long piece, melding the old and new in a liberating format.
Music with visual accompaniment is certainly flavour of the moment. A new film to accompany Steve Reich’s Different Trains was unveiled in Liverpool, and more recently the Hebrides Ensemble used new footage for The Last Island by Peter Maxwell Davies. Innovative and new, this sort of project is meat and drink to the Scottish Ensemble looking for new ways of presenting music. While sometimes music needs to stand alone, visuals can add a new dimension. It would be interesting to explore this format of live music and projection in the round to produce something more moving, powerful and intense. Playful Anno was more fun-filled and the obvious enjoyment of the performers was infectious.