The beauty of living in a time when genre boundaries have mostly dissolved is discovering the infinite possibilities left in the void they left behind. These liminal spaces have been Liquid Music’s bread and butter since its conception — and for good reason: when genre is stripped away audiences are empowered to listen in new ways and have the chance to really take the time to discover themselves in something unfamiliar. Performers are given permission to fully self-actualize, to test the boundaries, and take risks. This genreless world also brings up some interesting and less than obvious questions. For example: what is “pop” music?
Is it a catchy tune?
Is it “popular?”
Is it an arbitrary list of 40 songs?
Does it have to have words?
Do you have to remember the words?
Does it have to have a beat?
Do I have to dance to it?
Would my mom like it???
The aforementioned beauty is: we don’t have to answer! Better yet, we can listen, see, and hear artists explore these questions with unparalleled nuance. Regarding “pop,” composer/performer/multi-instrumentalist Anna Meredith complicates the question. Meredith is in many ways the ideal Liquid Music artist — a trained, acclaimed and oft commissioned composer that dove headfirst into the world of electronic indie band-dom.
In preparation for her Liquid Music/Walker Art Center Midwest premiere, we wanted to find out more about how Meredith has so fluidly navigated her incredibly prolific and diverse career. To do so we asked local collage/art-pop duo Har-di-har (Julie and Andrew Thoreen), whose music similarly utilizes intricate instrumentation with incisive chamber aesthetics, to find out more about Meredith’s practice.
- Patrick Marschke, LM Blog Contributor
[portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity]
Andrew Thoreen: Was there a specific thing that led you into pop, electronic and IDM music, in addition to doing traditional composition alongside that?
Anna Meredith: I wasn’t someone who was composing as a kid. I didn’t understand that composition was even a career I could do so I was actually performing and playing in bands and choirs, playing clarinet and drums and stuff way before I wrote any music. I went on to eventually study composition, it was a much more singular and kind of focused thing. Traditionally composition is a very isolated activity where you write on your own and you are expected to be a sort of genius who doesn’t interact with other people that much; you write an exquisite score on paper and you hand it to someone and that's kind of the end of your involvement. Quite often, the piece itself is only played once so it's all about this craftsmanship behind the scenes, and I think even though I was and do really enjoy that side of working, I also missed the performance and I missed some energy — even with a big orchestra, I wasn't getting quite enough power that sometimes I wanted. With electronics I can be in control from start to finish, everything from instrumentation to how its performed to performing a big part of the performance myself means that I'm not relying on anybody else. It’s kind of a control freak thing. I just had a desire to have a bit more control, have a bit more fun, to be able to really get into music that I was repeating and performing over and over again, rather than making brand new things for each show.
Andrew: Another thing you mentioned was the tragedy of putting so much time into one piece and only having it performed once.
Right. Traditionally I’ve spent six months, or even longer, writing a piece that's performed once and has no recordings — and that’s the idea. A lot of composers I know are really happy with that kind of equation: that the effort put in is equal to a single occasion. I just couldn’t live with it. Sometimes it felt that I was giving so much and then quite often the piece was being played to an audience of people who were just waiting to get to the Dvorak in the second half of the concert and get through your piece. That felt wrong, whereas there is a development and evolution to the electronic music I’m doing with the band but broadly, a lot of them are playing the same tracks in slightly different ways that we work on. It's a really lovely thing performing for people and watching them know the songs and sing along. That was a bit an eye-opener for me. Suddenly thinking: Oh, this is about familiarity and this is about making bits of music that you really love and believe in and then putting them out in the world to really exist. Classical music often doesn't “exist.” If you write the score on paper and if there’s no recording all it is is one experience, this single moment in time, whereas here there is this physical object, this album, you can hold this thing and pick it up and you can listen to it day or night… being able to make something that exists in the world, it’s quite cool.
Andrew: Right, the “Album as a form” is wonderful and really not that different from the idea of a Concerto or Symphony especially in its development in pop music. It has infinite possibilities within, it's just a constraint of time.
And we don’t even need that constraint! We could easily have an album that is 100 hours long streamed online.
I wonder if it will change because now, certainly people don't like symphonies in quite the same way. I wonder if our idea of a 12 track album will be gone in 20 years. It's a reflection of what we expect. But for now, it feels nice. It feels like you're sort of saying, okay, I've got 40 minutes to an hour to play with and create an amazing shape or journey through this time. I’m in control of this experience... Well, you say you are in control but obviously with streaming people are jumping around tracks and playing the favorite ones and skipping the ones they don't like but you at least can try.
Julie: I was actually watching the BBC Proms piece, “Hands Free,” and I was just thinking the whole time how it was written and how it was directed and then conducted in the moment. It made me just think about “play.” It was like a big playground.
It was a commission for a big Youth Orchestra, 160 kids, massive, they’re amazing, they're the sort of best youth orchestra in the UK. The commission was initially about trying to celebrate or highlight skills that you have as a musician that aren't about playing your instrument — communication and rhythm and precision and intricacy and performance ability — but that aren't about picking up your cello. They asked me initially to write a clapping piece, but I eventually realized that just clapping is pretty painful and, to me, not that interesting to listen to — so that's why I started to bring in all the beatboxing and body percussion and I worked with a choreographer to kind of highlight it all. It was a really interesting experience — some of the kids were quite reluctant at first. Classical players like to have something to look at even if it’s not telling them anything, even if their paper is just saying “TACET,” don't play this movement, it’s a security thing about projecting and performing to the audience.
I really wanted to make sure there was no sheet music. I have a graphic score for reference but I don't give it to the performers because I thought they would clutch onto this paper as if it was the Holy Grail. To a certain degree it's about just saying: “This is what material is.” You wouldn't question it if I asked you to turn your bow over and tap it with the wood or stick this whatever in your trumpet. You just say, “This is what the piece is: put down your instrument, turn away your music stand, stand up. Do this sequence and these movements and.” To have them make the connection that getting the movement quality right, getting your arm straight or your elbows high is as important for that piece as getting the right phrasing or notes for playing your solo violin piece. It was a big challenge for them to work on. It’s developed a lot since it was first premiered because each new group can check out previous performances.
I really like it because there's a certain self-sufficiency to the piece. You don't need any special training, you don't even need to own any instruments. And there is an equality to that — typically in an orchestra, there is a lot of hierarchy: the lead violin is “more important” and so on. With this piece everyone has to work equally otherwise it fails.
Andrew: I am curious about your experience as a multi-instrumentalist: How do you balance all that goes into being a touring/performing instrumentalist and singer with your compositional practice?
My instrumental skills are so much worse than everybody else's in the band! So everything that I do I’ve designed around my own limits. I play the clarinet but I’m nowhere near the band skill-wise, they are all total professionals. I’m not an amazing singer but I love singing so the songs I sing on are ones that work around where my little squeaky five-year-old voice can work. The idea is sort of “warts and all” — this is who I am and what I do. I would feel weird to have an amazing singer or a brilliant clarinet player. I wanted to sing, I want to play my clarinet, I wanted to smash the shit out of some drums. Keeping up technique is not something I do as much as I should, partly because I have the others making me look good. But the balance thing I do find quite difficult because I’m trying to juggle this balance of touring and big new commissions and a film soundtrack — it's very difficult to do.
In the past I would write a bit of music for months and that would be all I would do. Now I have to keep breaking it up to go on tour. I’ve definitely been at points where taken far too much on and I've ended up in the tour bus frantically trying to write, laptop bumping over the road as I try and get through it, so it's a tough balance and I'm kind of I'm kind of working on it.
Julie: Do you typically compose at the computer?
I do. For me, the most important thing is the pacing and the shape and the drama. I'm not a very good pianist and I don’t think improvising helps me make strong decisive music that has a really good shape. So the first thing I do is get a blank paper and I draw timeline across it and then I draw these very graphic shapes which are the kind of drama of the music.
Julie: Before you have even written a note?
Yeah! It’s like pacing a story, controlling the shape of the thing. It’s quite often these big angular build-ups. It helps me really control the narrative. And then I work backward from these timelines.
I draw these shapes and then I have to make the music work around these shapes to make them the clearest and strongest version of themselves. Strength is something I’m always really looking for in music. I want to strip away things. I don’t want to make music that is just layers of sound, or that the identity is created solely through texture.
Julie: How do you take these pieces/songs constructed in the studio and translate them to a live setting?
Not everything is played live — some stuff is backing tracks and some is sampled. It's all still very electronic.
I’ve taken the album version and made space in the arrangements for the players. It’s a combination of machines and humans. A battle for supremacy. I’m not someone that feels that everything must be made by humans. I get that there is a real purity that comes from that but it would be impossible with this music. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
From the album side, I then create a version that’s the live version that cuts things out so that the space for real instruments to be with electronic instruments and then I make slightly different arrangements to make it fun/practical for the musicians.
Andrew: I’m curious about how you decide where and when to use acoustic instruments vs. live instruments in the live setting.
Production is definitely not my forte. I’m not the type of person that would be excited to find an amazing old analog synth and write a piece for it. In fact, the whole production side of things tends to scare me a bit. So after I do my graphic-y shape I will then go into Sibelius [music notation software], and write most of the music on that, which has terrible sounds, terrible midi…
Andrew: And really bad feel...
...terrible and depressing feel. I find that its a good way to test the bones of the material: if I can make things that sound exciting using shit MIDI sounds then I know that the actual building blocks are good. I try not to jump straight to the production side and to finding the right synth. So when I’m making this mock-up on Sibelius, I’ll have piano sound and a brass sound, it gets some sort of element of color that I like, and then I’ll go into Ableton and I’ll extract all of the MIDI out of Sibelius into Ableton [digital production software]. It's also that I’ve been working in Sibelius much longer than Ableton, so it’s really about making things work for your own skill set.
Andrew: How do you go about finding the digital sounds you end up using?
When initially I started getting into electronics I opened up Ableton and looked at a million different synths and thought, “oh this is amazing!” and started improvising away. It was all really fun but it didn’t sound like me at all, it was all very layer-y and amorphous and lacking direction. I’ve had take a lot of time to evolve this painstaking and (a bit weird) process of graphic score to notated music extracted into the production software. From there, I’m actually not too precise about synth sounds. I have a general idea about color. I generally start with a preset and then muck about with it until I get what I want, but I don’t feel like that’s the strength of the music — the particular sound of the synth, it just sort of gives the right function, the right color.
In terms of where to include acoustic instruments I think I normally have an idea earlier on about where the acoustic instruments will go.
Julie: What do you hope for the future of classical music and music education?
I’m not someone who sees genres at all. I think we’re living in a quite healthy time. It feels like there’s loads of really interesting music that is a bit of this and a bit of that, a bit Classical, a bit pop, a bit jazz, a bit minimal. I think it’s understandable that people want to place things into certain genres and pigeonhole because it’s familiarity: “I get what this music is, it’s this" or "it sounds a lot like this,” or “she’s clearly listened to tons of this.” I really understand that desire to categorize but I don’t find it helpful at all. I don’t think about genre at all when I’m writing.
The way that I write the strongest stuff is almost like a denial — I don’t think about whether something is groundbreaking or different or if anybody has done it before. I just try to make a thing to the best of my ability and in the strongest possible way. If that then happens to be a bit different than what people have done before, great, but it’s not something I’m setting out to do. I’m not trying to break rules or do anything new. I think if I set out to do that, I’d write worse music. It would prioritize the rule-breaking instead of the quality or integrity to myself which is important. To do stuff I am proud of. For that reason, I don’t listen to much music, mostly out of security. If I listen to someone else’s music I think, "Wow that’s great, I should try to do that" and then I write just a crap version of it. I just trained myself to be in this little hermit cave where I’m not thinking too much about what other kinds of music are out there. I’m just doing my own thing.
Julie: It sounds like your main driving force is integrity to yourself as opposed to following the established systems.
Right. Similar to the “warts and all” approach to performing: honesty is the only way I can think to do it. To present yourself — this is how I sing, it’s a bit squeaky and weak, but who cares. This is me and this is my voice. Trying to be honest to myself.