Composer, producer and performer Anna Meredith is considered one of the most innovative voices in contemporary British music. Her work travels seamlessly across genres, from contemporary classical to art pop, electronica and experimental rock. “She is somebody who has rewritten the rulebook” said Helen Wallace, Programme Director at Kings Place, whose new season focuses on women composers and has Meredith as one of their cover stars. A former Composer in Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the RPS/PRS Composer in the House with Sinfonia ViVA, Meredith is one of the first Somerset House Studios Residents, has released an award-winning electronic album, Varmints - that she also arranged to be performed with an orchestra - and when she is not writing opera, body-percussion pieces for youth orchestras or a concerto for beatbox, she is performing with her band while wearing a superhero-like silver cape.

Bachtrack had spoken to her in 2013, but so many things have happened since: a large-scale Proms commission, a film soundtrack, sound installations around the world (even one inspired by a MRI scanning machine) and an album revisiting Vivaldi - just to scratch the surface. I catch up with her over the phone, on a clear, cold London afternoon.

Anna Meredith
© Kate Bones

Composing was not something she always wanted to do, she tells me: it came into her life in a more organic, natural way. “I didn’t do any composing until I had to, for my school exams, when I was 15," she recounts. "I was playing music – I started violin when I was young and then clarinet when I was 11 – but I hadn’t really thought about composition as a thing to do. It took a very long time, getting more and more into doing music of all kinds as a teenager, and then gradually deciding to study composition later on.”

Five Telegrams autograph score
© Anna Meredith
This organic process also translates in the way Meredith creates, by drawing the graphic structure that she wants her score to take. “I always felt music quite instinctively,” she explains, “and I always liked music that has a very clear shape to it, a clear identity. It took me a long time to figure out that [drawing] was a helpful way to plan composing. It wasn’t until I was doing my postgrad that someone suggested drawing a sort-of map for the piece, and I have done that ever since. I have the shape that I am trying to make work, and I try to audition my own ideas to fit into that shape."

In Meredith's recently released album Anno, created with the Scottish Ensemble, that shape took the pattern of a year, in what she calls “a collaboration” with Italian composer Vivaldi. “I deliberately did not want to do what Max Richter has done, a reworking of Four Seasons,” she explains. “I like Richter’s music very much, but I didn’t want to know how he had approached it so I haven’t actually heard his pieces, on purpose. Instead, I saw it more like we worked together, Vivaldi and I, to find the shape for the whole year. I haven’t used the entire pieces, just some of the movements, and the ones I picked I could place in certain points, in a timeline for an hour, which stands for a year, and then I could make little shapes for the music I wanted to do, either side of it. There is some flow, and there are some ideas that carry on from my pieces into his, with some underground, subtle electronics. Mostly it is one at a time, though, to create this overall year shape.”

The way this album is performed is also part of the experience. The audience sits in the middle of the orchestra, large screens are all around, projecting overwhelming visuals, the players move and it is all designed to give the listener a sense of immediacy. Several of Meredith's compositions have a visual or physical aspect to it, but it all has to make sense. “It has to be true to whatever the individual piece is. Some of the pieces I have done have really lent themselves to thinking really creatively about how it is lit, how is staged, what the audience does... but others I think work best when in a normal concert set-up. I try to work out what’s going to be the best creative idea for each piece,” she says.

Among her several commissions for the BBC Proms, her latest might be one of her most spectacular projects to date. The 2018 First Night of the Proms saw Meredith's Five Telegrams performed both inside and outside London's Royal Albert Hall, the orchestral score paired with gigantic abstract visual effects by Olivier and Tony award-winning design studio 59Productions. Her experience composing for it was one that started with research. “I had to think about World War 1 and find a way into the piece. I am always trying to make it work in my own terms,” Meredith says, “and I have figured out, over the years, the conditions that I need to be able to work. Quite often if I am given a commission with any kind of theme, I spend a lot of time at the beginning just trying to find the right way in, and that’s normally to find quite a controlled angle, because if I am trying to take in the whole of World War 1, for example, it’s too much, it’s overwhelming. So I am trying to focus in on something more containable. I also don’t listen to other music when I am trying to write. I know the things I need to do: I need to get the shapes right, I need to find the right way in, I need to have quite a clear head, and just get on with it.”

A British field service postcard
© Imperial War Museum London | IWM (MH 34058)
The second movement of Five Telegrams was also used as a soundtrack to award-winning Nothing to be Written, a 6-minute virtual reality experience. “This movement is all about the multiple-choice field postcards that soldiers sent back from the front, where nothing additional could be added: it’s just prescribed phrases. I had never seen these postcards before, but looking into them, a huge amount were sent back every day, as a way to check in with someone. Initially I thought, that’s awful, that’s censorship! But actually I see now, that process, those prescribed phrases were so that they did not have to be censored and they could get back quicker. I now actually find them very moving: they are very humble, small pieces of paper that offered a moment of reassurance to your family at home, or a nudge to remind them to send you a letter. I actually have one in front of me, they are lovely objects.”

Meredith worked on several sound installations around the world. Among her favourites is one she made as part of Music for a Busy City, a project for the Manchester International Festival. Set in a shopping centre, it used two glass lifts as a medium to make music: electronic tones changed according to their movements, and choosing floors created different harmonies, in what Meredith described as a "chorale for lifts". “I really liked doing the installation work that I have done, because you have to distill an idea down to something very focused, and if it’s very site specific," she says. "If you are trying to make a particular area, I like to be in that area and think how I could enhance or change or subvert the experience of being there. I think it is a nice way to let people dip in and out of something musical. I loved the lift piece, because it was playful and you could just chance across it, and I think that combination of people intentionally visiting and people simply doing their shopping is a really nice one.”

Moving from a soundtrack for everyday life to a real one seemed the natural next step. Meredith recently composed her first film soundtrack, all electronic, for Bo Burnham's film Eight Grade. “It was a really good experience and I am definitely looking forward to do more film work. The challenges are in the amount of revisions: it’s a much more collaborative process. It was a bit like composing for an opera, as you are thinking of the bigger story and what you are trying to say.”

But for now, it's back on the road for Meredith and her band. “I am in the middle of working on my second album. I am really looking forward to performing again. I have performed slightly less in 2018, so it will be nice to be getting back to touring. It’s quite interesting going from contemporary classical music, where quite often there are things that I played once, to now touring a show."

Five Telegrams
© Justin Sutcliffe
As part of her busy schedule, Meredith's music will be performed during Venus Unwrapped, at London's Kings Place, in a season which focuses on women composers. “The Venus Unwrapped programme is showing the breadth of music written today but also it is showing forgotten composers from the past,” says Meredith ”and hopefully showing all the quality of this music. On the 2nd February the Aurora Orchestra are playing my piece Origami Songs together with Life Cycle, by one of my best friends, Emily Hall. Later that night, we are doing a smaller, more electronic, a bit louder gig where some Aurora players are playing a couple of pieces, but I am playing other things with my regular drummer, doing a piece for two drum kits and surround sound and a piece for dance mat and electronics, and it is going to have some live drawing that my sister will do, so it’s a bit more eclectic.”

So if such a creative mind could invent something new, what would it be? “As a composer, notation is such a frustrating process to go through, to get ideas down. I know what the ideas are, I know what I want but actually processing that through notation takes a long time, and so a new software that isn’t just recording a sound you make but somehow gets into your brain and work it all out for you would be great, thank you very much!”

Click here to find all of Anna Meredith's future performances.