Anita Awbi meets the musical anomaly that is Anna Meredith – a celebrated composer who’s as comfortable in the country’s largest concert halls as she is the grimy techno clubs of East London.
‘As long as it’s not crazy for the sake of it, I’m up for anything,’ says Scottish composer Anna Meredith over the gentle hum of chatter and faraway traffic. We’ve only just met each other in an old stone courtyard off the Thames embankment, London, but she’s keen to unpack her manifesto.
We’re talking about her latest venture, a ruthlessly electronic project for independent label Moshi Moshi Records. It sounds like a massive departure from the contemporary classical work she’s known for, so I’d like her to decode its musical DNA.
‘I love music that feels overwhelming in some capacity – it’s a physical thing for me. I want to feel it in my bones,’ she explains. ‘I also like experiences that are quite physical, like dancing or theme parks; anything immersive and involving.’
What I’m doing now is very strange to me, but it’s great!
Reliable in her eclecticism, the award-winning 36-year-old has spent her early career bulldozing boundaries while always pushing the right buttons. She’s collaborated with the beatboxer Shlomo on the acclaimed Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra and has even written a piece for the bleeps and whirrs of an MRI scanner.
During 2012 the Edinburgh-born, London-based composer scored HandsFree, a PRS for Music Foundation 20×12 commission for the National Youth Orchestra. It was performed at the BBC Proms, Barbican Centre and Symphony Hall as well as by numerous flashmobs around the UK. Later that year she was dubbed one of Britain’s leading composers by the Daily Telegraph and has since been championed by BBC Proms Director Roger Wright for her work with youth orchestras.
But all the accolades haven’t gone to her head: despite being classically trained and conspicuously gifted, Anna’s not in the least bit pompous. Neither is her music lofty or pretentious. Instead, everything she does — from classic orchestral pieces to this new dense electronica — is saturated with giddy excitement and frantic eccentricity. She seems to have boundless energy and her new direction is fuelling the fire.
‘I like high impact, so I think that’s what’s driving my music. I like volume and rhythm and energy. And I’m increasingly learning to trust my own instincts, to strip my music right back,’ she says.
She’s just finished her second EP for the eclectic label that discovered Hot Chip, Florence + the Machine, Bloc Party and Kate Nash. But unlike many acts to grace the label’s roster, Anna’s talent hasn’t been unearthed and nurtured by Moshi Moshi founders Stephen Bass and Michael McClatchey — she arrived fully formed and raring to go.
Anna is obviously extremely hardworking and motivated; year-long stints as composer in residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Society will testify to that. But, despite undertaking a head-spinning array of classical commissions every year, it seems she has been seduced by the liberating world of electronic music. Dazzled by its high contrast computerised sounds, she has immersed herself in its bubbling beats and scraping synths, bringing her own curious take on an over-stimulated corner of popular music.
On the surface, the two worlds seem poles apart, but the more we talk, the more the eighties videogame-inspired electronica of latest EP Jet Black Rider makes sense. Although the vehicle is new, she is a competent driver with years of experience behind the wheel.
‘Having built up skills writing for orchestras makes me feel confident when handling rhythm and pacing,’ Anna explains. ‘What works with electronic pieces is the materials – not necessarily the production. So in that case, it’s still just composing.
This latest offering follows last year’s Black Prince Fury EP – a bewitching slice of authentic electronica that encompasses lead track Nautilus. Stephen Bass recalls hearing it for the first time: ‘It was pretty much the most exciting piece of music I heard last year. I had a very instant love of that particular song and can remember just hoping that no one else had heard it because I wanted to release it.’
I need to have a really clear picture in my head of the shape of the music
‘Anna is mixing classical musical structures and sensibilities with dance music instrumentation. It’s something quite unique sounding — she’s coming from a completely different angle to everyone else with a totally different skillset,’ he adds.
Anna is now preparing for a full album release on the label next spring. I ask her how it’s coming along. ‘The electronic software is still relatively new to me and can be a bit daunting,’ she reveals. ‘But I decided at some point just to go ahead and do it rather than worry too much about whether I actually know what I’m doing! I think my habit of charging head first is what has got me through.’
She still uses the classical notation software Sibelius when constructing electronic tracks and, once she’s happy with the score, she’ll export the midi files into the Ableton sequencing software and DJ tool, which contains an array of instrument simulators, electronic sounds and effects.
‘I wanted to get my hands dirty and see what I could do. There is an immediacy in electronics where I can realise almost everything myself in my bedroom rather than wait for a string quartet to perform my ideas. But my approach to it is very similar to how I approach the classical work – although there’s more volume!’
Before Ableton or Sibelius, Anna will put pen to paper and sketch out a linear representation of the music she wants to make. She uses a series of shapes to plan out the highs and lows of the composition. A fastidious arranger, she explains that the process allows her to visually plan the most effective moments to place that killer melody or chord.
‘The most important thing for me when I’m writing is dramatic pacing and contour. I need to have a really clear picture in my head of the shape of the music. If the music is building up I’ll draw a lot of big triangles and if it swoops down I imagine how the energy is flowing. When the music suddenly cuts down to nothing I’ll draw a really big flat shape. It helps with planning.’
There are few artists who can switch effortlessly between organising a performance of their work at the BBC Proms one week, to supporting James Blake and These New Puritans the next. But Anna has assembled a handful of musicians to help interpret her inventive beats and alien soundscapes in the closest thing she’s ever experienced to a conventional pop band.
The notion of rehearsing a live set over and over must feel a little odd to a modern classical composer: in Anna’s world, commissions are often only publicly performed once; there’s no ‘live set’ and very little touring. I wonder how she is coping with the repetition of rehearsals and the pressure to deliver over and over again.
‘Coming to terms with the fact that a classical piece you’ve spent months on may only be played once is difficult. I admire any composer who’s found a way to reconcile that, because I can imagine it to be quite dispiriting,’ she reflects.
‘You have to find a way to feel confident with what you’ve done, so the repetition of what I’m doing now definitely appeals to me to. I remember when I first started doing a few gigs I said to the folk at Moshi Moshi, “Well I’ll just have to play the same songs each time”, and they were like, “Er, yeah, that’s the point!” I thought I had to play new stuff for everyone each time. What I’m doing now is very strange to me, but it’s great!’
Anna Meredith’s latest EP Jet Black Rider is out now.
Catch the premiere of her Recorder Songs Concerto at Kings Place, London, on 19 October.