Anna Meredith: 'I love music that does something physical to me'
Part of a short tour that also includes an appearance at Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, it is, she says, “probably one of that last sets of gigs we’re going to be doing for a while, while I’m writing a new album”. The set will focus on her last two albums, Varmints and Fibs, “wrapping up that kind of era”.
The 45-year-old has much sympathy for the predicament that many small venues have found themselves in in the wake of Covid lockdowns and soaring energy bills. “It’s one of the very obvious areas of the industry where it relies on public support and attendance,” she says. “I know plenty of people who now don’t go out so much, and I get it, of course, but it’s been heartbreaking to see venues have shut or can’t keep going. So full respect and credit to any venues and initiatives that are trying to keep afloat and doing interesting stuff.
“It’s tough and it requires all of us to go back to looking for an unusual type of night out or doing something a bit different and being prepared to get off the sofa which, don’t get me wrong, is incredibly tempting.”
Meredith’s visit to York will be something of a return to her musical roots. Back at the turn of the Millennium, she received a first class honours degree in music from the University of York, before going on to study at the Royal College of Music. She says she feels “very loyal” to the place. “There were so many people who did that degree and I meet endless people really high up, older than me and younger than me, (who studied there),” she says. “It’s such a unique course and it fosters a real independence. That’s why you get people doing such a variety of stuff who’ve come through the system, which I think is something we’re all very proud of.
“(York) was the perfect place for me. It’s beautiful and it’s got things architecturally that were great places to play, I got to perform in the Minster, but it’s also just a lovely size to be a student, for those three years you’re there you feel really part of the city. It’s not like being a student in London, which is a very different experience. I’m very fond of York and I’m looking forward to going back because it’s been a good few years since I’ve been.”
Since studying at the Royal College of Music, Meredith’s musical career has led from classical to electronica, and even into the folk and rock worlds with arrangements from the likes of Laura Marling and The Stranglers. She says she has always been open to musical possibilities. “When I was a teenager and I was studying I always liked a variety of music and always went to gigs,” she says. “I was playing drums in bands but my main musical focus was not even on composing at that point. I play clarinet and one of the things I loved about York was being in an orchestra and playing all that big orchestral music.
“I also ran the contemporary music group, so I was doing a lot of contemporary classical music, performing and programming as well, which was really good experience. But I think I kept everything quite separate, and maybe also the landscape was very different at that point. It would’ve been a harder time, I think, to join up all these sides of stuff that I do. I kept one type of music that I listened to quite separate to the type of music I was trying to write.
“I can definitely look at some early experiments and see the seeds of what I was trying to do. I still write a lot of orchestral music, it’s not like I only do pop or electronic stuff now, I still do notated stuff, I just try and approach it all in the same way – which actually is a very kind of classical approach. Even the Fibs and Varmints stuff is all fully notated, I guess essentially using skills I learnt in places like York – that classical technique that I’ve applied to a different context.”
Having once made the point that she was not interested in music where “the craft was more important than the result”, Meredith feels it’s important to leave room for playfulness. “I love music that does something physical to me, that makes me want to get out of my chair or makes me well up, and that’s sort of what I’m looking for,” she says. “I do search for that visceral feeling both through musical play – trying to find the right chords to give a feeling of arrival or surprise, and a lot of it is about setting up a progression, a development, that goes either somewhere unexpected or fulfils in a satisfying way.
“I really enjoy playing with those ideas of expectation and a musical pathway – it’s like storytelling, basically, we all do it all the time, we set things up and we pace our stories with jokes and shocks. If I know I’m writing a five-minute piece I’ll sit for five minutes in silence and imagine what that five minutes sounds like, at what point you want to hear something swerve unexpectedly. It’s playing with the experience, really.”
Meredith’s most recent piece was Bumps Per Minute, composed for dodgem cars. She says the commission, for Somerset House in London, was one of “a few installations which I’ve really enjoyed because you get that physical feeling, people get to interact with stuff in the moment personally, rather than just on headphones, you’re there experiencing it through your body”. Other installations that have “also been quite immediate” include a four-part chorale for shopping centre lifts for Manchester International Festival and another for an ice rink at Somerset House “where the ice clearing machine controls the music”.
The dodgems idea came about during lockdown when Somerset House was unable to host an ice rink for Christmas because of social distancing. “I pitched to them the idea of ‘could you do dodgems, you could wipe them down, everyone would be distanced and if you do dodgems, could I write some music for them, each bang of the dodgem gives you a new track’. That’s how I very jammily managed to sell it to them.”
Meredith has also composed for the BBC Proms, most recently the piece Five Telegrams which incorporated visual projections around the Royal Albert Hall by 59 Productions. Commissioned by 14-18 Now to mark the centenary of the First World War, it focused on messages sent home by soldiers on the frontline. “They encouraged me to find a way in that felt appropriate to me,” she says. “It was so huge and daunting (a topic) to research and try to find a hook. I definitely always find it easier to find something small and examine it from every angle or explode it out rather than try and say something huge. So my approach for that piece was to find five small, almost technical details, how communication was used, and write five little movements exploring those little practical aspects.
“I didn’t want to write a sort of sepia-tinged, lone bugle type piece; for me, I could write more powerful stuff by just focusing on these tiny aspects.”
Her 2018 work Anno, for the Scottish Ensemble, reimagined Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Their artistic director Jon Morton got in touch saying that he could hear some of these similarities between some of Vivaldi’s writing and mine,” Meredith says. “Initially I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ But I can hear it now, these very short, characterful, rhythmically driven cells or simple harmonies, they’re almost mini tracks in themselves. So we had this idea of rather than me reworking Vivaldi a bit like how Max Richter has, this piece Anno is more as if Vivaldi and I did a collaboration. The piece runs for an hour and it’s a piece of Vivaldi and a piece of mine alternately but with the shape of an overall hour through the music with visuals that my sister did and surround sound. I think the idea was to give it its own identity. It’s not meant to be a reowrking of the Four Seasons, I think it’s meant to be a year of music that happens to have music by these two composers in this quite immersive experience. You sit inches form the players and you’re surrounded by all these screens. My intention was never really to set out to reinterpret the Four Seasons but rather to see what I could rework into this new experience.”
Meredith’s plan for this year is to work on her new album, she has also been working on soundtracks for two films. Progress on the album, she says, has been stop-start, but she’s now trying to “isolate” herself for a time to complete it. “It’s just me in the bunker,” she says. “I’ll work with my band further down the line, but at this point I’m mostly just writing away at my desk.”
Anna Meredith plays at The Crescent, York on Friday February 3. The show is part of Independent Venue Week. www.annameredith.com/live