Music interview: Anna Meredith on writing the music for the Edinburgh International Festival’s opening event

Anna Meredith PIC: Victoria Best
Anna Meredith PIC: Victoria Best
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The Edinburgh festivals are not yet under way and already it looks like the award for most ubiquitous artist goes to composer Anna Meredith, who will be seen and heard at three of the most vital, exciting events across both the International Festival and the Fringe.

Meredith is used to spanning divides – between acoustic and electronic instruments, contemporary classical composition and art pop abstraction, the BBC Proms and mainstream festivals. She has presented on Radio 3 and 6 Music, as well as having her music broadcast across all the BBC radio stations (apart from the speech-only 5 Live – but let’s not rule that out yet) and is co-published by the sheet music specialists Faber Music, founded by Benjamin Britten, and the avowedly left-field Warp Publishing. So the complementary worlds of the diligently curated International Festival and the sprawling, freewheeling, open-access Fringe are natural homes for Meredith’s exuberant, accessible music.

Her biggest canvas is this year’s free EIF opening event on Festival Square. Five Telegrams is an audio-visual spectacular starring Meredith’s specially commissioned score against a harmonising backdrop created by the digital graphics team at 59 Productions, which will be projected on to the exterior of the Usher Hall.

Five Telegrams was co-commissioned by the International Festival and the Proms, where it has already debuted both outside and inside the Albert Hall, to mark the centenary of the First World War. Each movement, or “telegram”, is inspired by a different aspect of wartime correspondence, from code to censorship to propaganda.

“We decided quite early on it wasn’t going to be a sepia-tinted, War Horse type thing,” says Meredith, who researched the piece at the Imperial War Museum alongside Richard Stanley of 59 Productions in order to match their material.

“So the music literally redacts as the visuals redact or the music is encoded with other layers of data.”

Meredith is a visual composer anyway, initially mapping out her works, not in traditional musical notation but as notebook diagrams to give her an overall picture of the shape of the piece.

“I don’t know of anyone else that works that way. It’s not like an established technique…”

Her Fringe appearance, performing Anno: Vivaldi with the Scottish Ensemble, is another audio-visual collaboration, this time with her sister Eleanor, an illustrator and animator who has created a sequence of films depicting the passage of time throughout the year to accompany Meredith’s baroque electronica rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

“How do you write music that sits alongside stuff that’s so well known?” muses Meredith. “Mine is more like partner pieces, a bit of me, a bit of Vivaldi. I guess we’re both using small cells of material, use of repetition, clarity of idea. Some of my music’s not very forgiving to play, there’s a lot of scales. It’s a bit like a horrible exam.”

As it happens, Meredith composed her very first piece for her Standard Grade music exam. Although she was born

and is now based in London, she was brought up in Edinburgh, where her affinity for music was nurtured in the after-school network of orchestras, wind bands and choirs. “I absolutely loved that,” she says. “That was where I met my friends or found people who were a bit like me.”

Instinctively, she would form creative ideas about the music she was performing and began to gravitate from playing to composing. Her education was classical but, while a student at the Royal College of Music, she and some of her composer classmates began hosting experimental nights off campus, giving expression to their diverse tastes and delving into the world of electronica.

“I noticed that I was missing performing, missing being in the middle of the sound,” she says, “and the great thing about electronics is that you are in control from start to finish, there’s no handing it on to anybody else. You can make the whole thing on your laptop, which is great for a bit of a control freak like me. So doing that with friends gave me confidence that you don’t have to be sitting waiting for the big commissions, you can make stuff happen on your own.”

About ten years ago, she began purposefully carving out space between commissions in order to work on her own electronic material, producing two EPs, Black Prince Fury and Jet Raider, for indie label Moshi Moshi before the release of her eclectic, playful debut album Varmints, which went on to win the 2016 Scottish Album of the Year Award and which she will perform as part of the EIF’s Light on the Shore programme at Leith Theatre with her five-piece band and the Southbank Sinfonia, a dynamic ensemble comprising recent graduates from around the world.

Meredith has also continued to dazzle with a series of high-profile commissions, including Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra with beatboxer Shlomo, the impactful, energetic HandsFree, an audacious piece of body percussion, vocalisation and choreography for the National Youth Orchestra and, her favourite, a Manchester International Festival installation using four lifts which face each other across the Arndale shopping centre.

“Each of the lifts had its own note so you could make different chords,” she says. “I called it a chorale, thinking of them as soprano, alto, tenor, bass. You could get G minor if someone was on the womenswear floor and someone else was in the food hall.”

In addition to her idiosyncratic elevator muzak, Meredith has also completed her first film soundtrack for comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade and hopes to resume working on her second album “once this crazy summer is all done”.

“I try really hard to find something new for each thing I’m doing,” she says of her healthy disregard for convention. “If you’re put off because there’s not vocals or a clarinet or whatever, that’s not really listening to what the music is, that’s just looking at what the components are. Who cares about that stuff anymore? There are loads of pop musicians adding acoustic instruments into their bands and folk or classical composers adding electronics. The need to say, ‘Yeah, but what is this music?’ is less important than it used to be.”

Five Telegrams, Festival Square, Friday, www.eif.co.uk; Anna Meredith and Southband Sinfonia, Leith Theatre, 11 August; Anno: Vivaldi, Pleasance at EICC, 17/18 August, www.edfringe.com