Interview: Anna Meredith on finding new life in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Composer Anna Meredith and her visual artist sister Ellie discussing Anno. PIC: Hugh Carswell
Composer Anna Meredith and her visual artist sister Ellie discussing Anno. PIC: Hugh Carswell
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Anna Meredith is a composer who shuns boundaries. She has serious classical form, with music degrees from York University and the Royal College of Music, a stint as composer-in-residence of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and a string of significant classical commissions behind her, notably one for the Last Night of the Proms.

But she has also crossed the great musical divide, having collaborated with beatboxer Schlomo in her Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra, and more recently embraced electronic and pop influences with her debut album Varmints, which won the 2016 Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award, and in which, according to one enthusiastic reviewer, “she makes those 8-bit quests and battles feel completely visceral and real, as if you’re strapped in her spaceship’s sidecar as she goes rampaging around the universe”.

No matter what genre she leans towards, Meredith’s music is genuinely exciting and highly individual, whether the audience is Glastonbury or the Royal Albert Hall. Remember the body percussion piece she wrote for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, another genre-bending wow moment at the Proms, where the young musicians dispensed with instruments to issue a symphony of vocalisations, clapping and stamping?

Ask the Edinburgh-raised 38-year-old where she stands as a composer, and the answer is healthily eclectic. “I’m really up for unusual and exciting things I haven’t done before. Everything this year, from mixes and adverts to radio and straight Wigmore Hall commissions [she’s writing a new string quartet for the Kronos Quartet] excites me. I love dipping into all these things.”

Now we have Anno, a work commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble which is built around Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, features her own new electronic musical excursions, and is embraced by projected images created by her visual artist sister, Eleanor Meredith. The Scottish premiere (Anno was originally premiered in London earlier this year) takes place in Glasgow’s Tramway on 10 November, with further performances at Tramway on 11 November and at The Hub in Edinburgh on 13 November.

So what has she done to Vivaldi’s baroque lollipop that the likes of Nigel Kennedy or Astor Piazzolla haven’t already meted out? “I haven’t tried to rework Vivaldi’s music, or take his themes into my own,” Meredith explains. “I drew a big shape, identifying where the various Vivaldi movements would go and what kinds of shapes of pieces would work around those existing bits.”

When she showed her emerging work to Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton, his reaction wasn’t quite what she was expecting. “He noted stylistic similarities between my bits of the music and the Vivaldi. I thought ‘Oh no’, but actually began to see what he meant. There were these little Baroque-like figurations I used as starting points, and they do produce a kind of clarity and directness that sits well with the original.”

The entire performance lasts an hour. So what can audiences expect from from the visual perspective? Have Meredith and her sister turned this into a piece of theatre? That wasn’t really the intention and it’s not what happens, she says. “I wanted it to be immersive in terms of the performance space. In particular I don’t want people to come and be asking themselves, is this bit Vivaldi or Anna? So the aim was to create a visual environment which helped synergise the musical experience.

“It’s sort of theatrical; everything kind of surrounds you. It’s not about actors telling a story; we just wanted to make sure we’d thought about every aspect, the lighting, staging, the energy, ultimately that this big map relating the course of a year could be reflected beyond just the music.”

This Scottish tour is just another exciting stop on Meredith’s musical journey. Besides the scope of commissions that keep her constantly creative, she lives a busy life as touring performer (she plays clarinet) with her ensemble and album. When we spoke she was about to hit Bristol, then on to Liverpool, Iceland, Leeds, France and Germany.

“I’d no idea it would be so exhausting but it’s been a real eye-opener. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re playing gigs and people know the words and join in.” You don’t get much if that in the classical world, but there’s every chance this week’s audiences might inadvertently hum along to Anno, especially those familiar Vivaldi bits. ■

The Scottish Ensemble perform Anna Meredith’s Anno at Tramway, Glasgow on 10 and 11 November, and at The Hub, Edinburgh, on 13 November,