After hearing the enormous brassy surge of Nautilus, the exhilarating opening track of Anna Meredith’s debut album Varmints, it comes as a surprise how the South London-based composer describes her main source of musical inspiration. Not dramatic mountain landscapes obscured by rolling clouds, not rocket fuel and space exploration, not cataclysmic weather events, but ‘really tiny things’.
‘I’d rather write a piece about paperclips than love,’ she says. ‘It would make me feel horrified to be asked to write a symphony about war. I’d rather take something small and write out from it than take something massive and try and contain it.’ As a result of this creative expansion, Varmints is a kind of imaginative Big Bang, a record bursting at the seams – with ideas, with intrigue, with emotion.
This musical explosion started suitably low to the ground, with Meredith playing the clarinet in youth orchestras, a happy beneficiary of her adopted hometown of Edinburgh’s excellent free schools’ music programme. She was simultaneously a fan of Nirvana and Teenage Fanclub who would also be ‘heading out in my mate’s Fiat Panda to see Kingmaker or whoever at Barrowlands’. After a music degree at York University, she went on to complete an MMus in composition at the Royal College of Music, her decision to become a composer ‘an evolving thing rather than a lightbulb moment. It’s when you play other people’s music and you start to have this strange moment of thinking, “why did they write that chord, why not this?” On a subconscious level you’re composing other people’s stuff instinctively as you play it.’
This dynamic approach continued after she left the Royal College of Music, when she and group of friends set up the Camberwell Composers’ Collective, remixing each other’s material, putting on gigs at a jazz club and writing at high-speed rather than hanging about waiting for commissions. ‘There’s a lot of strength from other people doing the same thing.’ It was at this time, too, her interested in electronic music was ignited. ‘I wrote a piece called Axeman, which was for solo bassoon,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make a bassoon sound like an electric guitar and I had no idea how to do that. The bassoon is very prim and correct and I put it through some electric guitar distortion pedals and an amp and it was very lo-fi and sounded nothing like a bassoon. I like the transformational idea – where what you see isn’t necessarily what you hear.’
Such shape-shifting mutations have been the hallmark of her vibrant career. Aside from sharing bills with Anna Calvi, James Blake and These New Puritans, her dizzying CV includes being Composer in Residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a piece written for MRI scanner, soundtracking PRADA’s Spring/Summer 2015 campaign, symphonies created for nursery children, music for park benches in Hong Kong and sleep-pods in Singapore. On one hand, she collaborated with Laura Marling and The Stranglerson intricate orchestral arrangements for the first 6 Music Prom, on the other, her own Last Night of the Proms composition Froms simultaneously performed by five symphony orchestras across the UK, was broadcast to an audience of 40 million people (including a handful of flag-waving purists who felt compelled to send her hate mail). On even more hands – all 165 of the National Youth Orchestra’s, to be specific – her piece Handsfree, devised around the explosive clatter and thwack of body percussion, received rave reviews from it’s performances at Southbank Centre, Royal Albert Hall, Barbican Centre and even the M6 services.
The follow-up to her two EPs, 2012’s Black Prince Fury, and 2013’s Jet Black Raider, Varmints was recorded with drummer and percussionist Sam Wilson, guitarist Jack Ross and cellist Gemma Kost, at the famous Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk, Hackney Road Studios in London and Meredith’s own flat. The record is called Varmints because these songs represent ideas she could not shake off, a welcome infestation of ‘musical pests’. It’s still a very human creature, however, in touch with its emotions and its physicality. The archaic-sounding titles – The Vapours, Dowager – clash beautifully with the modern sheen of the music. ‘I like that there’s a 80s-video-game, theatrical Victorian feel, almost steampunky,’ she says. ‘Something that might sound like it’s cobwebby and fragile but is actually huge and overwhelming and has got strength. The track Scrimshaw, I wanted a brittle, bone-like quality to the music. ‘Dowager’ is about a power that has been diminished.’