First published in The Herald on 9 November, 2016
In a rare example of prime London real estate being handed over to creative uses, Somerset House — smack-bang in the centre of things on the banks of the Thames — has converted a former Inland Revenue wing into studio spaces for videographers, fashion designers, gamers, writers, architects and such. New residents include multimedia artist Christian Marclay and composer Jennifer Walshe. And Anna Meredith, whose star has hurtled upward so fast over the past year that she’s now orbiting the kind of giddy galactic iconography that fills her music.
The last time I interviewed the Edinburgh-raised, London-based composer was in spring 2015. She had written her debut electronic dance album Varmints but hadn’t released it yet, and she was still working from home, a tiny flat in Camberwell, spending “99 percent of the time either in the flat or in Morrisons or Superdrug,” she laughs. Then Varmints went public on the Moshi Moshi label and things changed. She got a manager. She’s been gigging like mad. She won the Scottish Album of the Year Award and guest presented shows on BBC 6 Music. She was recently crowned Number One on The List’s Hot 100, not a roll-call usually prone to noticing classical music.
Now I meet her on the terrace outside her swish new studio, and she seems as bemused by all the changes as anybody. Over a cup of tea and a plate of lurid pink Halloween cookies, she talks about the muck and hype of media attention with a healthy sense of bafflement — “I mean, I’ve been referred to as a ‘mature woman’ in dance music,” she grimaces. “Which made me wonder whether anyone would give a shit if I was a guy? Aren’t there loads of gnarly guys in their 40s or 50s doing cool shit and nobody cares?”
I suspect it’s less the age thing (she is a very youthful and not-at-all gnarly 38) and more the fact that she has landed on the pop industry’s radar from what is ostensibly another planet. For nearly two decades Meredith has been very successfully writing music for ‘classical’ contexts, though she typically tests those boundaries by making orchestral musicians thwack out rhythms using body percussions or play bassoon through grotty distortion pedals. Her commissions come in thick and fast from The Proms, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Aldeburgh, the Wigmore Hall, the National Youth Orchestra — name any top tier UK classical institution.
But it was Varmints, her big-energy rumpus through vintage arcade sounds and chunky dance beats, that catapulted Meredith into a different solar system of the industry. Responses have been tremendously positive — “from the classical side of things everyone has been supportive and interested,” she says. “I’m sure there are some who think it’s a hilarious version of selling out, that it’s not got much integrity, and I’ve heard some people saying it’s all head no heart but I know that’s not true because I know I poured myself into it. Anyway, the good guys just want to see fellow composers doing their thing. I still send my old composer pals my demo tracks.”
The pop press have tended to rehearse a neat narrative that Meredith has finally broken loose from the stuffy conventions of the concert hall and claimed her rightful place amongst the hip. One Pitchfork article noted that “it’s important to point out that she’s not abandoning her day job as a composer”, a point that Meredith stresses vehemently. “I haven’t ditched anything! I’m still mostly writing classical music for a living.”
What makes all this genre us-and-themming so completely daft is that although Meredith’s forces and audience demographic might have shifted for Varmints, her aesthetic hasn’t really changed: those catchy loops and big builds, that frantic energy, those primary colours and cute, clunky beats — that’s always been there in her ‘classical’ works. Anyway, the composing isn’t even a ’day job’ any more, she jokes. “Now it’s a ‘whenever I can’ job. This year, while touring the album, I’ve been writing so much. They were big pieces too: a piece for the Kronos Quartet, a piece for the Wigmore, arrangements for The Proms… I’ve had to write important commissions in less than ideal circumstances. On buses, on planes, in the middle of the night. It’s been tough.”
Anno, a piece Meredith wrote for and performs with the Scottish Ensemble, snuck in last winter during a calm few months in residency at Aldeburgh, just before all the mayhem kicked off. The idea came years ago from the Ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Morton, who wanted a companion work to go with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Meredith admits that at first the idea slightly appalled her: “I felt like I had the McDonald’s logo to deal with, that’s how insanely well-known this music is. I told Jon I didn’t want to rework the Vivaldi, that I didn’t even want to touch it.” There was also the fact that Max Richter was working on his Recomposed, another high-profile Four Seasons redux which, incidentally, Meredith still hasn’t allowed herself to listen to.
Instead of mashing up the original baroque concertos or “just bunging in a horrible naff beat” she says she “wanted to find a way for both me and Vivaldi to fit into a space that was bigger than either of us. And,” she adds, though here she’s a bit sheepish, Jonathan said — “well, he claimed that he could hear similarities between Vivaldi’s writing and mine. Repetitions, fragments, building-blocky kind of stuff.” Does she see that? “No! Well, maybe a bit. I mean, I didn’t see it, but when you hear the final thing all together I guess the combination isn’t as jarring as it might be.”
Another nice piece of aesthetic synchronicity behind Anno is the collaboration between Meredith and her younger sister Eleanor, a visual artist whose joyously zany creations (ceramic fish with feet, oddball sheep, galactic adventure scenes) make a fine match for the mix of craft and comic-book romp in Anna’s music. For the Scottish Ensemble, Eleanor has produced animated watercolours to be projected onto large screens around the audience and musicians — one review of the London premiere of Anno described the visuals as “springing with lightness and wit, casting their own spell. Imagine Turner plus Edward Lear.” What’s the musical equivalent? “Maybe fun sounds glib,” says Anna, “but hopefully it’s a joyful, upbeat hour. That’s enough, isn’t it?”
Anno is performed by Anna Meredith and the Scottish Ensemble at Tramway, Glasgow, on Thursday and Friday and at The Hub, Edinburgh, on Sunday