10 May 2017

Interview: PRSF composer Anna Meredith

We chat to the avant-garde pop composer, electronic beat-making powerhouse and celebrated UK producer behind a new concerto for beatboxer and orchestra.

This summer, the PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial will see Hull play host to a celebration of new music, from an awesome array of talented UK creatives, artists and composers. The Biennial is free to attend and places Hull at the heart of this national festival of new music, with a weekend festival from Friday 30 June to Sunday 2 July in Hull, before the festival heads to Southbank Centre the following weekend.

In venues from Hull City Hall to Zebedee’s Yard, Princes Quay Shopping Centre to Holy Trinity Church, artists including James McVinnie and Darkstar, GoGo Penguin and Ray Lee will play new compositions, including several pieces composed in and inspired by Hull.

Anna Meredith’s groundbreaking contribution, Concerto For Beatboxer And Orchestra, will be performed at 5.30pm on Friday 30 June in the Albemarle Music Centre. Anna’s performance has already sold out once, although luckily more tickets will be released very soon. We caught up with Anna before the New Music Biennial weekend to find out how she creates new work, and why the composers of the future should learn to be themselves.

Anna has done some incredible things with her career so far. A former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and PRS/RPS Composer In The House with Sinfonia ViVA, Anna also won the 2010 Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Composers and was the brains behind HandsFree, composed for the BBC Proms in 2012 and premiered by The National Youth Orchestra.

I’m always hoping that there are new adventures ahead of me.

Fresh from a trip to Los Angeles to work with legendary post-rock band Sigur Ros and the LA Philharmonic, and despite a lack of sleep (Anna tells me that she tries to pretend that “sleep isn’t a necessity”), she remains relaxed about her achievements. “I think that goals for people change over time,” she says. “I look back at performances that were really important at one time, that then became part of my journey, and I’m always hoping that there are new adventures ahead of me.”

Anna looks back on the success of her Ten Pieces scheme for the BBC as a highlight however, that saw her piece Connect It collaborated on by about half of the UK’s primary school children in 2014. “Every new bit of work helps me figure out what I’m going to pursue as I go on to the next,” she says.

In 2010, Southbank Centre commissioned Anna, (alongside acclaimed beatbox artist Shlomo) to write Concerto For Beatboxer And Orchestra. Heralded as a huge step forward in inspiring the world to consider the human voicebox as an instrument to create with, Anna is reflective when it comes to reinvigorating the piece for Hull 2017: “For me with that piece, it was about finding a common language between the instrumental, real sounds and the vocal percussion stuff.”

You can’t make music that you think a label, a radio station, or even your audience, is going to like.

The piece represents some important professional growth for Anna, who went on to produce successful work around body percussion that was directly inspired by her beatboxing collaboration. She explains: “When I started out as a student creating music, I wrote one way and then expanded from there afterwards, usually working with a friend and collaborating on different styles. Every new experience I have had as a musician has helped to shape and change what I’m doing.”

With inspiring and championing new artists such an important focus of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture, Anna is keen to offer some tips for any aspiring composers in the area (and beyond). “I think it’s very important for any new artist to focus on being themselves. You can’t make music that you think a label, a radio station, or even your audience, is going to like,” Anna says. “I really like it when an artist is clearly very passionate about the sounds that they make.”

It’s not always easy for young musicians coming out of cities like Hull, Anna acknowledges, sometimes without access to the mainstream music press or major help from the industry, but “even if it takes me longer to discover that person,” she says, “I’d rather be able to hear what’s original and distinctive about that character and the way that they write.”

Today, Anna tours the world as a musician and composer – but it wasn’t always plain sailing. Making the move from orchestral and classical compositions to electronic music, and carving out the time, money and self-belief to dedicate to a new sonic path , didn’t come without its challenges. “Changing styles was a massive risk for me at the time, because nobody was asking for it,” she says. Clearly, it’s a risk that’s paying off.

I find that having a lot of rules and challenges is a useful way to focus.

Every artist feels anxious about creating new work at times, but Anna asserts that for her it’s about finding a headspace where she can be confident within her writing. “Some days I may not be able to write, because I can’t think that way,” she says. “For me, I find I get the best results if I create the right conditions to work in.”

When developing her own pieces, Anna tries not to focus too much on other people’s work. Instead, she looks at setting self-imposed challenges for writing that are usually supported (on a practical level) by close friends and family. “If there’s a bit of music I’m stuck on, I have friends who are composers that can give feedback, which is really useful.”

Clearly Anna thrives when there are some restrictions in place, giving her the opportunity to focus her energy in the right areas. “Often the pieces of music that I’ve done have come about because somebody else has given me a challenge that has quite a lot of conditions or factors, including writing for a beatboxer, for example. I personally find that having a lot of restrictive rules and challenges, with regards to length, or rhythm for example, is a useful way to focus and get writing”.

We need to wrap up – Anna’s schedule is hectic, at best. But as I ask her to consider the impact that her work will have as part of this year’s festivities in Hull, Anna pauses and reflects on the city itself. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s going to be like. I’m excited to see how the local community reacts to what looks to be a really diverse programme. I know people are going to hear a lot of new things that they haven’t before, and that can only be a really positive thing.”

The PRSF New Music Biennial line-up includes everything from electro to classical to folk music, and will take over venues across Hull from Friday 30 June to Sunday 2 July. Each piece will be performed twice, with a quick question-and-answer session with the composer between the performances. Some shows are sold out (including Anna’s) but fear not – more tickets will be available very soon. Find out more about PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial and book your free tickets.

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