Anna Meredith on Five Telegrams, Anno and Varmints

Ahead of her various appearances in Edinburgh this August, we catch up with prolific composer Anna Meredith to talk Five Telegrams, Varmints, Vivaldi and bumper cars

Feature by Tallah Brash | 27 Jul 2018

“Once August is out the way, I’ll be like ‘give me my dodgems!’”

Anna Meredith is a very busy woman. So busy in fact that she’s “forgotten how to relax” and when we phone her for a chat just five days after the debut of Five Telegrams, performed as part of the BBC Proms at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall, she’s “sitting about feeling the post-post-show weirdness… post-gig, freaking-out feeling,” while fantasising about “maybe a couple of days in Butlins,” going on to later state that she just wants “to take the band for a few days to Pontins,” so she can “sit on the dodgems or something.” Sounds good!

Before we get to Meredith’s dreams of spending weekends in holiday camps riding around in bumper cars, we reminisce about the time we saw her at Iceland Airwaves just months after she won the Scottish Album of the Year Award for her 2016 debut, Varmints. “I loved that gig!” Meredith says excitedly down the line. “When we talk about our favourite gigs that is one [of them] – they were just so mental at that show, everyone was just screaming, it was a really nice one. It’s been great to be doing so many different gigs.

“I feel like in Edinburgh, in a way you’ve kind of got the three stages: something that I’ve written where I will definitely not be performing, something that I am performing and then something where I’m performing alongside others, so there’s that different mix of what I do.

“I saw some Skinny thing describe Five Telegrams as a collaboration with singer-songwriter [Anna Meredith],” she, embarrassingly, goes on to point out. “I was really baffled by it: those guys know me, I can’t sing!!!” she says as we both burst out laughing. Not at the fact she can’t sing, as that is very much a false claim, but singer-songwriter she ain’t. As the former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and former PRS/RPS Composer in the House with Sinfonia ViVA, one of Meredith’s latest challenges has come in the form of composing the music for Five Telegrams, a free outdoor digital performance featuring whole building projection mapping from the incredible Tony Award-winning 59 Productions team.

“The BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival wanted to do a co-commission – I don’t think they’ve ever done anything [together] before – for both of their first nights... and obviously Edinburgh have been working with 59,” Meredith explains alluding to their recent EIF opening night productions: The Harmonium Project (2015), Deep Time (2016) and last year’s Bloom. “So they started talking about a light and music show and they wanted to commission someone so they got in touch. Then 14-18 NOW (WWI Centenary Art Commissions) came on board as third commissioning partner and they added in the World War One element to it.”

Working closely with Richard Slaney, the Managing Director of 59 Productions and director of Five Telegrams, the pair found inspiration based on material found at the Imperial War Museum: “It’s such a huge, sensitive, complicated, awful subject to try and get your head around,” says Meredith. “Rich Slaney and I were trying to find a way in so we went to the Imperial War Museum a few times to look for starting points. We were paired up with an amazing historian there, Alan Wakefield, who would talk us through, and give us bits of insight and stuff, and eventually, we started looking at these Field Postcards – different kinds of communication. That’s what the whole piece is about, five different kinds of communication that were used during the First World War and the rules and infrastructure behind each of those.”

Five Telegrams will reflect on the centenary of the end of the Great War while celebrating Scotland’s Year of Young People and from what we’ve seen on Meredith’s Instagram feed is not to be missed. “I spent all my time rehearsing in the hall with the orchestra,” she says of the lead-up to the premiere as part of the opening night of the 2018 BBC Proms, “then suddenly it was about 10 o’clock [on the night of the premiere], I just ran outside and watched it, it was crazy it all coming together in that moment… It looks incredible so I can’t wait to see it again in Edinburgh – even more people, bigger audience, apparently you can get the sound to be pretty beefy, so brilliant!”

Meredith will also be performing a new arrangement of Varmints at EIF on 11 August as part of their expansive Light on the Shore series at Leith Theatre. For this, Meredith will be performing with her band and London’s Southbank Sinfonia. “I didn’t actually do the arrangement for it ‘cause I was writing the Five Telegrams piece...” Meredith enthusiastically confesses. “The guys in my band, who are all amazing composers too, did the arrangement so I sort of just rocked up to the gig and heard these arrangements and they’re incredible – it’s so exciting! We’ve done it very much so it’s not band in the front, orchestra in the back, we’ve tried to really make it more like a giant band. The orchestra is a really important musical part that’s not just [playing] long soaring lines in the back, they do all the hard stuff… I think it’s going to be a really good show.

“We’re doing the whole album,” Meredith continues. “When we’ve been doing the band show last year we’ve never ever performed Blackfriars, which is the last track on the album so there’s new stuff that we’ve never done from the album for this show... but we do finish on Blackfriars which is a total downer,” she says laughing.

And topping off her trio of shows in Edinburgh this August is Anno, a collaborative piece between Meredith and the Scottish Ensemble whereby new pieces of electronic work have been written and woven around Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Having upset classical purists in the past, who actually sent her physical hate mail for composing a body percussion piece entitled HandsFree which was performed at the 2012 BBC Proms, what is it actually like taking on something as big as The Four Seasons? “I mean it was pretty daunting at first,” begins Meredith, “I couldn’t figure out a way to write music that could sit alongside something so well-known and so famous, so I sort of had to treat it a bit like as if Vivaldi and I were working on a piece together. So there’s bits of Vivaldi, there’s bits of me, there’s partner pieces.

“I’ve not actually interpreted Vivaldi so it’s different to say what Max Richter does/has done. It’s bits of Vivaldi sort of alone with music either side of it, so of course if you’re coming to hear The Four Seasons in its original state it’s gonna probably feel quite different to you because it’s got other bits of music in it – it’s not like a totally different version of The Four Seasons, most of that material is still in there, it’s just got other bits of music alongside it.”

Anno is also being released as an album in August via Moshi Moshi with stunning artwork courtesy of Meredith’s sister Eleanor, and when performed live the players will be surrounded by screens featuring Eleanor’s animations creating a fully immersive and unique experience. “It’s a really lovely performance, the players are utterly, utterly brilliant, the Scottish Ensemble are such good players so even if you’ve never seen a string orchestra before you get to be so close to this amazing virtuosic playing and that’s really, really exciting, and the visuals my sister has done for it are fantastic!”

As we delve a little deeper, Meredith gets excitedly lost in a world of “geeky” and “techy” musical jargon, excitedly telling us about harmonics played during the performance by solo violinist Jonathan Morton’s “not normal violin fingering,” going on to conclude that “he manages to make it look utterly, utterly effortless. Can you come and see the show? ‘Cause you’ve honestly got to come and see this guy do this!”

As our chat winds down, we point out that Meredith has also just released a film soundtrack for Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade; “Yes, I know, what I am doing!?” she interjects, seemingly in disbelief herself. “Everything I’ve been offered or asked to do is all cool and so exciting that I can’t say no – I’m absolutely exhausted and thinking never never again and then someone says, ‘can you just do this?’ and it’s ‘aw crap, that’s incredible’ so I’ll pull some all-nighters. But yeah, the film’s brilliant, I loved writing that.

“I’m trying to keep the rest of the year clear to get on with the second album – I’ve started it and I’ve got some stuff done but I had to kind of put it to one side to get Five Telegrams done. So yeah the plan is to get back on with that, maybe have some kind of holiday but I seem to have forgotten how to relax, I just don’t know how to do it anymore… wired at all times.”

Five Telegrams takes place at Festival Square, Edinburgh, 3 Aug; Anna Meredith performs Varmints with the Southbank Sinfonia at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, 11 Aug; Anna Meredith performs ANNO with the Scottish Ensemble at EICC, Edinburgh, 17-18 Aug