Following the recent release of ‘Hoarse Songs’ (out on Field Radio), we had an interesting conversation with Andrew Poppy. The multifaceted English artist signed a unique body of work mixing acoustic and electronic sounds with language, visual images and performance disciplines. But let’s get deeper into his experience, his knowledge and his last record through his own words.
Chain DLK: Hi, Andrew! How are you?
Andrew Poppy: I’m ok, and thanks for inviting me onto the Chain. I love that book called ‘The Elizabethan Chain of Being.’ Some of those old cosmological ideas are coming back into fashion, don’t you think?
I’m preparing a new concert program which is music from the new record Hoarse Songs and some things from the back catalog: Matters of Theory and The Amusement. Someone told me you can’t go on the road without playing the hits. Hahaha!
Chain DLK: Ooh, I know that! I agree with you! Maybe for younger readers and listeners who don’t know you, before focusing on recent times, do you mind going back in time by talking about your (very interesting) formative years? First, what’s the lesson or the teaching that keeps on coming up in your mind?
Andrew Poppy: Ooh, that’s tricky; it seems so long ago and so many things float up. I wasn’t a very good piano student as a kid. Looking back, I valued learning some basics of notation and keyboard skills. But reading music was always difficult and I preferred to improvise. But then I heard things on the radio: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, and Cream – Jack Bruce was an early hero – that really got me hooked. So I taught myself the guitar and bass guitar. The physical structure of those instruments is so different from the piano. I mean, how you get from one note to another, it takes you on a different path, and exploring these things for myself was an invaluable lesson. Formal teaching is only ever half the story at most. As a child, we sang hymns in the church; that was a lesson. I listened to music on the radio and bought records. That was another couple of lessons. Sometime in the late 60s, I realized there was a whole load of experimental music out there. It was hearing records of Stockhausen and Terry Riley who opened my mind to things. Then, in the 70s, I started getting into playing notated piano music and had some brilliant teachers and played Bartok and Debussy on the piano, which taught me something else. As a music student at Goldsmiths, I organized performances of Riley In C and gave some amplified solo piano performances of Music in Fifths by Philip Glass. That taught me so much about how time and repetition work both in composition and performance. I feel I’ve come full circle somehow. When you study music and want to explore it as a composer, it’s easy to think that this is a different thing from being a songwriter. That it’s mutually exclusive. In some ways it is, and in others, it isn’t. But for me now, Schubert and Purcell have become models, inspirations, some kind of lesson. They both wrote instrumental music and fantastic songs. The new album Hoarse Songs is about the way that one thing moves into the other. That they can co-exist.
Chain DLK: I read you also wrote the awesome orchestral parts for Force
The Hand of Chance, the debut release of Psychic TV. What can you tell us about that collaborative experience?
Andrew Poppy: It’s a funny thing, but when the phone rang and someone said ‘I’m Genesis P. Orridge,’ I knew who he was. Not from Throbbing Gristle music but because I’d seen some of his collages in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London a few years before and knew he was making performance art of some kind. When I was at Goldsmiths, I’d been very interested in how visual collage moves into performance art and how John Cage (who I met later) used those ideas in music. This is way before sampling, of course. Collage and repetitive patterns meet inside poetic processes. I think about collage as connected to variation forms in music. It makes a formal element out of the texture. Have you seen those great photographs from the 60s of the British painter Bridget Riley in her studio? Even though the painting will eventually be repetitive shapes and paint, she is prepping the work with bits of colored paper. Minimalism can seem reductive, cool and formal sometimes, but it also has a strong relationship to the color, the fun and immediacy of Pop. That’s much clearer in visual art than music, perhaps. Warhol, Gilbert, and George; it’s sampling and repetition. Gen and Sleazy had just started to work on the first Psychic TV project. We met at Trident studios in Soho, London which also happened to be where Some Bizarre Records was based (Soft Cell and Matt Johnson’s The The were also on the label). They’d just been having a conversation about guilt and were working on one of the tracks which became Guiltless – which Marc eventually sang on. They gave me a cassette of rough versions of things. I think they had heard some of my music ‘Matters of Theory’ perhaps or ‘The Object is A Hungry Wolf,’ which are both quite orchestral in a way. And Wolf is a kind of cut-up and collaged set of variations on Reich’s pattern-making ideas. What was great was that they talked to me as a creative artist about the concept of the project and were very open to what I might come up with. We talked about Morricone film scores and TV theme music. I suppose my starting point was the orchestral pop of John Barry and Spector productions but in a more punky, messed up way, more Charles Ives.
Chain DLK: Interesting! Any words about that brief, but intense project named after Magritte’s painting, The Lost Jockey? Why did that experience have such a short life?
Andrew Poppy: That was before the PTV project. When we started in 1980, it was great. When we played, all five of us were connected to the pulse. The first concert was at the Air Gallery, and we played music by Glass and Reich and Cadenza for piano and electric piano, a piece I’d written the year before and had performed a few times with Helen Ottaway and Jeremy Peyton Jones in Regular Music. It was important to me that the music connected to the spirit of what those Americans were doing. That meant keeping away from the academy and the precious rituals of classical music that are about deference and playing with amplification: mixing electronic instruments with acoustic instruments from classical and jazz textures. It meant directly engaging with the general public. Rainbow in Curved Air was on CBS Records and got played in people’s living rooms next to records by Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. I sent info and cassettes to Time Out and Melody Maker, and they wrote stuff. It started something, but not everyone in TLJ wanted that. It became too big and chaotic. So I left before it broke up and people went on to different things. I’m still friends with some people from back then. Both Schaun Tozer and David Owen played on live versions of 45 Is and The Amusement when I had the 9-piece band in 86/7. And I recorded Cadenza for piano and electric piano with Glyn Perrin for The Beating of Wings.
Chain DLK: How would you describe your relation with ZTT Records? Do you think they made some mistakes?
Andrew Poppy: I remember it being a great time of creative energy and enthusiasm. It wasn’t always a breeze, but you work through those times. The record company, the recording artist, the composer, the musical performer and the audience all have different expectations of what music or an album has to offer. I was experienced, self-contained and very motivated, and no one really expected me to have a hit. So I probably had an easier ride than some of the other artists. Maybe ZTT’s regret was that I didn’t write an O Superman. I was signed for five albums but only got to release two. Things would be different if I’d been able to see it through. The company went into meltdown for a while in 87/88. But I saw Trevor recently, and he told me he still listens to The Amusement, the single from Alphabed! That’s some kind of endorsement. If you listen to The Beating of Wings and then Alphabed, something happens. I am still getting very positive reaction about those records, and a couple of years ago a theatre in Liverpool asked me to make a live show of The Beating of Wings. (By the way, the remastered box set of my ZTT work includes the unreleased 3rd album. And I put a long gap between the original tracks and the extras so you can get the idea of where each album ends. Of course, all that goes out of the window if you’re listening on iTunes or Spotify.) When I signed to the label, I already had more than 2 albums’ worth of material demo’d. Things were starting to develop. I had a track on the Touch cassette label, tracks on both Lost Jockey releases and contributions to 2 PTV albums and the Strawberry Switchblade album and a few other things. I’d been making pieces with my own 8 track tape machine for experimental theatre projects with Impact Theatre Co and the ICA theatre, plus a couple of contemporary dance scores including Netherland Dans Theatre. EG and Cherry Red Records were interested in what I was doing. So it was a busy period. Mistakes? The short answer is: I stand by the work. Looking back, it seems I wanted to make records as some kind of hybrid of the composer and record producer, and ZTT was the perfect context. Trevor, Paul and Jill trusted me to get on with it, so all the creative decisions on the records were mine. One of the first conversations I had with Trevor was about what Tomita had done with Debussy. And Steve Lipson encouraged me to buy a computer and a sampler so that I could do what I wanted to do with the Fairlight but in a ‘hands on’ kind of way. I was lucky to have amazing engineers and great studios to work in, and I tried to do something with it.
Chain DLK: Have you ever thought after re-listening to something by yourself, ‘I should have done better?’
Andrew Poppy: Always at the end of a project I want to just never hear it again. If you are thinking this in the middle of working on something, then it’s about not hearing what it is that’s actually happening. It’s a disappointment or frustration that the thing that is emerging is not what you want it to be. It’s resisting you. But that can be destructive. You can end up unraveling the whole thing you just made or started to make. Or you rebuild the piece and end up with two pieces from the same starting point. That often happens. Revolution by the Beatles, ok, it’s the same lyrics and tune, but it’s a different piece. Track 6 on Hoarse Songs is ‘What Is This Place.’ There was an earlier version. Completely different music. But something about it didn’t feel comfortable, not in an interesting way at least. So I started again. But the lyric developed by working on the first piece. So maybe I had to write it twice to write it once. There’s a kind of entropy involved in the creative process. The initial, often euphoric pleasure of discovery or invention fades and you are left wondering if it’s rubbish or not. Dylan talks about this. He says that once you are inside writing something, you have to get out. Otherwise, it will drag you down. But do you have a specific track in mind? What is ‘better’? In what way? For sure, I’m always editing, but that’s part of making anything: intuition and reflection bounce off each other. Pieces get fixed if they are completely notated like 32 Frames for amplified orchestra. But I can make a dub version like The Impossible Net in the studio and unfix it. For me, there is always the composition and performance. The composition can be written and fixed in one way or it may be fixed in performance if I’m working in the studio in another way. The life of the moment also controls so much composition; when it’s getting written, it doesn’t really belong to the composer. It has a life of its own that has to be given its head.
Chain DLK:Would you say that improvisation played some role in your musical research?
Andrew Poppy: Absolutely. It does for everyone! But improvisation in a composition is more like the intuition working something out and in performance, it’s a convention within a style or genre. A composition is more than a written-out improvisation. The playfulness of improvisation moves into an analytical phase and then back to playfulness again. Although writing things down or recording something can be analytical in some ways. Track 9, XY Song, started from a percussion improvisation, but not in a soloistic way. It was about establishing a simple pulse, just with handheld percussion, a textured pulse. Other things developed out of that. The throbbing synth was a different kind of textured pulse; the filter is always changing. The melodic music emerges out of the pulse. The bass guitar is also texturing the pulse. It’s what happens in so-called minimal music: Glass, Riley, Reich, Disco, Techno. It’s a way of thinking about repetition. Pulse.
Chain DLK: Compared to – let’s say – 30 years ago, how did your approach to composition change?
Andrew Poppy: It’s not linear. In recent years, I’ve gone back to pencil and paper and working without any technology. Only the piano and my voice. I’ve written a lot for other people’s voices but only recently decided the performing voice was my own. When I was making the Alphabed album at ZTT, in ’86, I worked much more with technology and the studio, using notation to work out and control structural things and all the patterns but leaving room for the orchestration to develop in the studio. And I wrote parts for the voices of Annette Peacock, Ashley Slater, Udo Schupflug and Shelia Smith. By contrast, almost all the pieces on The Beating of Wings are fully notated concert works written at the piano and the desk. The orchestration decisions are made as part of the writing process. I would sit at the desk and imagine/hear what the brass might do at a particular point and write it down. The exception is Listening In. It’s a kind of passageway into Alphabed, that piece. The demo was made with a Dr Rhythm drum machine, Space Echo delay, Sequential Circuits Pro One monophonic synth and a Wurlitzer electric piano and my voice. The demo became a kind of sketch, and for the album I completely reworked the Dr Rhythm patterns with my own percussion samples triggered via Linn drum machine. A rhythmic part that originally had one sound now had 6 sounds and became melodic somehow. But after the ZTT time, in the early 90s, I no longer had access to studios and budgets, so I went back to writing with pencil and paper and wrote things like the Poems and Toccatas for violin and piano. Released on the Recordings album.
I think those ZTT albums set that pattern of to and fro. With Hoarse Songs, the new record, there are different processes for each of the 10 pieces. Some more acoustic and others with keyboards and synths and more textural than composed. But things are fluid. Practicalities mean that a piece like ‘What Alice Said’ is unlikely to get performed in its album form. It has a string orchestra plus 2 Flügelhorns and bass guitar in addition to the voice and piano. But I’ve made and performed a version of it which is just voice and piano. That might be a different piece, then? The album is framed by piano pieces but I’m fascinated by color and texture, so synths and saxophones, samplers and string orchestras are equally provocative. Orchestration is a sensibility as well as a skill. I try to get the balance right and have a taste for it, I think. There are different instrumental combinations that I’m drawn to. Track 6, Riderless, has five different synth/keyboard parts plus the voice and two trumpets and two Flügelhorns. I don’t know where that came from; it’s not very generic but I think it works.
Chain DLK: I really enjoyed listening to Hoarse Songs… Can you introduce it in your own words? How does it connect to your previous outputs as Andrew Poppy?
Andrew Poppy: It’s very connected to the previous two records: …and The Shuffle of Things and Shiny Floor Shiny Ceiling and, in a more subterranean way, to opera projects from the 90s like Ophelia/Ophelia, Uranium Miners Radio orchestra Play Scenes From Salomes Revenge and Baby Doll. Why did I want to make an opera in the 90s? I think experimental theatre and performance art is the opera of the modern world. It has come out of how performance reacts to film and recording technology. Making and listening to records puts the performance in a strange position. It’s uncanny. The whole period of 80s/90s I was trying to understand how records and recording and live performance related. Something in me wants to queer the classical music ritual, the concert hall, and the opera house. But I don’t want to try and rehash the performing image and mythologies of ‘the band’ as an alternative. Making a recording is a form with multiple performer-less playback existences: on wax/radio/digital streaming/CD/whatever. An infinite number of individual stagings by whoever happens to be listening intentionally or not. But if a recording is not a representation of a band, ensemble or orchestra playing, then something else has to happen in the space of performance. The problem is how to design a performance that is appropriate. For me, this has been the point where ‘a theatre of musical performance’ needs to be conceptualized and designed. A theatre in a performance art/ John Cage sense, some kind of intermedia composite of music, poetry, visual art and drama. It’s best summed up by Cage when he says something like: ‘Music – the imaginary separation of hearing from other senses – does not exist.’ Which sets up the idea that everything is connected to the theatre of the moment. For me, it’s connected to the way poetry messes with words; its something about the way that language forms and music forms overlap. With Shuffle and Shiny, the two previous albums, I’m exploring the idea of being a songwriter as much as a composer and placing my own voice and texts in there. On Shiny, I’m having a dialogue with 6 other voices. In some ways, it’s an opera for seven voices and I’m a narrator suggesting a world from which emerge six ghostly characters. It may be clearer if you see the show or have the physical record and engage with what is suggested on the sleeve. But the new album, Hoarse Songs, is the first time that I’m singing all the songs, and this seems more directly connected with the contemporary world of songwriting. To make a generalization: unless it’s based in 19th century theatrical forms, I think an audience wants the embodiment of a single authorial voice. Even if the singer hasn’t written the songs, the lead singer is an unbreachable role. It’s interesting thinking about the problems of hybrids like the Who’s Tommy.
Is it a band’s album or a musical or opera? In its original form, the overriding image of the band, The Who, contradicts the characters that are necessary to make a traditional drama read. The whole thing seemed cumbersome when I first heard it compared to Dylan’s Isis or The Jack of Hearts. Through the progress of the Hoarse Songs record, the voice becomes more involved with some kind of narrative use of language. So Track 2, Wave Machine, is the most abstract using just two words of the title, then moving gradually to Track 6, What is This Place, which is the most suggestive narratively, and then by Track 9, XY Songs, and Track 10, Hoarse, it dissolves back into exploring the resonance of the single units of language itself. Mike Barnes in The Wire says Hoarse Songs is a song cycle although it’s got three instrumental tracks or rather three tracks without words. I think the idea of ‘the album’ has been very important to my generation. Although it’s there in the 19th Century with Schubert, and Sinatra and Nelson Riddle were consciously making ‘albums’ in the 50s with a sustained mood and thematic. But it really takes off in the 1960’s with Sgt Pepper setting out the operatic possibilities of the 45-minute space in 2 acts. It also has something to do with the two sides of the vinyl record. Turning it over. Managing the mechanism of the vinyl record player was a kind of ritual that initiated us into the musical experience. It created a narrative or quasi-narrative form. Listening to albums as a whole journey is like the way people see a movie. We’ve all got busy lives, but when we commit to the 75-90 minutes in the theatre or film theatre something happens to our attention. Listening to a track on headphones in a noisy bus is great, but it’s not the whole deal. On an album, each track has a specific place. The sequence. Even the tracks you don’t like have a place. After Radiohead’s The Bends, which is a kind of perfect rock album, OK Computer seemed lumpy on first listening. It’s got the musique concrète piece Happy Fitter and the piece they wrote for Baz Lurman’s Romeo and Juliet film, which doesn’t feel like the band somehow. But if you stay with it, everything makes sense. I like this movement: a disruption that folds back into the story (or net or grid) of the album. Everything I’ve done is connected to this idea of moving away and looping back. The track Listening In, it’s very disruptive on The Beating of Wings. But its an essential part of the story that may not be obvious if you’re scrolling through iTunes or Spotify. Having said all that, I’m pleased to say Hoarse Songs is the first album I’ve made where people tell me its great for listening in the car. I love that!
Chain DLK: Starting with the heart-moving piano piece called ‘Song Tide (interrupted)’. How did you arrive at this decision? Why is it specified that it’s interrupted?
Andrew Poppy: It’s an interruption because the record is a song cycle, but Song Tide is not a song. Because the album is mostly pieces with vocals and everything is trying to become a song. The tide is coming in. It’s interrupted because Song Tide is not a song, but it is melodic, so it could be one. Write your own lyrics and sing. Or hum along, perhaps! Song Tide (interrupted) is Track 1. It’s a kind of overture.
Chain DLK: Andrew McNeill described Hoarse Songs as “a kind of cosmic, metaphysical waking up echoing the quest of Solaris.” Do you agree with his words? What would you add or specify?
Andrew Poppy: Andrew is an amazing musician and was very enthusiastic after the first performance of Hoarse Songs. He really got the whole arc of it. He said it’s a journey into space, but not physical space. I really value his enthusiasm and these thoughts. The connection with Tarkovsky is flattering of course, but the poetic melancholic beauty of Stalker is definitely something I can relate to.
Chain DLK:While listening to your album, I had the feeling you put questions to the listener without providing explicit answers. Would you say the same? Will the listener find answers in the music?
Andrew Poppy: Exactly, you could say the same of Stalker. Yes, some of the answers may be in the music. A language question answered musical, sonically, an abstract response, a gesture. Asking questions can open up a space to travel in. I like musical experiences that are immersive but where I’m free to explore the sounds and their movement and meaning. I would like to offer that to people in what I do. A question builds a frame. A question with one answer or only a limited number of answers makes a frame that’s like a trap. But most music and poetry are open; it’s undecided or hidden or unknowable. Track 5, What Alice Said, is a Romance based around the conversation of a number of couples where one or both is an artist of some kind. It’s a trigger or a kind of sampling. You immediately have a character in play, in your head, especially if they are iconic like John and Yoko, or Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein. But you won’t know all of them. And some names you may know, but know nothing about them, like, say Mozart. The listener makes the details of the question for themselves. The reality is that these people were/are private individuals as well as characters in a drama. How can you know what Alice said to Gertrude?
Chain DLK: Track 9, XY Song, is one of my favorite tracks… Someone can imagine those words as ex-wife/ex why! Jokes aside, what’s the idea behind it?
Andrew Poppy: Yes, making your own connection and story, you just proved what I was saying. It can be all the things that pop up into the mind, everything you can possibly imagine it to be. (Which is not the same as ‘any old random thing goes’.) It’s a vibration that travels out from the music and travels out from the listener to meet somewhere. Another way to think it is this. X and Y sit next to each other in the 26 letters of the alphabet. They are numbers 24 and 25 in the sequence. They are framed by the 23rd letter, which is W, on one side and Z, the 26th letter, on the other side. Like the bits of a DNA code, the letters are always bumping up together, repeating and trying to escape the pull of gravity. There are different types of gravity. The gravity of language: word forms and grammar. Another type is the gravity of the alphabet. Jasper Johns might see the way that G falls to F and then E and D and C and then B and then A, which is some kind of beginning of the chain. Harmonic gravity, rhythmic gravity and formal gravity are the things that you work with as a composer. How to move, how to get away, how to get back home. The Elizabethan Chain of Being reappears as a DNA chain. And the lyric of Track 9, XY Song, is connected to Track 8, Cyber Spark, with the idea of bits of cyberspace colliding without breaking, unlike flesh and blood which is always transforming in an organic way, like love. And yet, some of the developments in bio-scientific knowledge have played into the changing ideas about the body and sexuality, don’t you think? What it means to be male or female isn’t what it was. We think differently. When Prince sings, “let a woman be a woman and a man be a man,” it drowns in irony.
Chain DLK: Any word about collaborators?
Andrew Poppy: Lots of old and new friends have made generous contributions to the project. There are 10 musicians and 10 video artists involved in Hoarse Songs, and there is a story with each of them. But here’s four of each. Samuel Hallkvist, the Swedish guitarist, plays on a couple of pieces: What is This Place and Cyber Spark. He’s one of those guys who can be wild and noisy and then beautifully controlled and melodic all in the space of a few bars. I meet Cassie Kinoshi a while back, and we’re both Fela fans. She’s a hip young composer and bandleader who has just been nominated for a Mercury. She plays Saxophone on Track 4, Downside Up, and Track 2, Rainy Must Kiss Everybody. I’ve previously worked with Greek Harpist Maria Christina on a kind of music theatre piece that Julia Bardsley and I made called Jason and Medea Go Boating. Maria plays an amplified harp on Track 3, Wave Machine, and Cyber Spark. Then there is Gabriella Swallow, a classical cellist who has been working in the studio with Bryan Ferry by day and playing Scarrino and Julius Eastman by night. She plays an electric cello on XY Song and Track 4, Downside Up. We met a few years ago when she played some of my Poems and Toccatas in a duo with percussionist Gen Wilkes. Near the end of recording the album, I had the idea to commission different artists to make videos for each of the tracks. Julia Bardsley is a constant source of inspiration, and we have worked together in many different ways over the last 30 years. She is an extraordinary maker of performance and installations and made the XY Song video and something for Rainy Must Kiss Everybody. In fact, some of the visual texture for the XY Song comes from a show we did together called Improvements on Nature. Simon Vincenzi is an old friend who makes uncompromising theatre and visually striking performance work. He made the most trippy abstract video for Track 6, Riderless. You’ve got to see it to believe it! I met the fashion designer Julian Roberts in the 90s. Then we lost touch until recently. At first, I asked if he’d make me some kind of garment for XY Song. Then I remembered that he is also a video maker, so I asked if he would do something for Track 7, What Is This Place. He made this enigmatic red ‘gown dress’ and shot a video on Worthing beach with me in it. Julian has a completely original way of designing clothes and has just done a lecture in Australia about how he made that garment.
Chain DLK: The release was premiered at The Barge House performance stage in London. Is it going to reach other stages?
Andrew Poppy: I really hope so. Its performance form can change depending on who is hosting. There have been three different versions so far. The first was with all the videos with inter-titles, live mixing but more like a cinema experience. We did this as a cast and crew type performance at the Hitchcock Theatre, Queen Mary University in London, and then at The Barge House in Haggerston, which was the first public event. The second version at Liverpool Capstone theatre we did with all the vocals and piano live with some playback mixed by Fred de Faye. We’ve also played in Lisbon and Athens. I would like to do it with the 10 musicians as on the record. But I am realistic and practical, so there is a version which is just me and the piano. So I’ve been giving a few concerts for friends: Intimate Salons, completely acoustic! Music without electricity. I didn’t know it was possible. And then there is a quartet version with vox/key, electric guitar, electric cello and harp that’s happening at a festival next year.
Chain DLK: Any other work in progress?
Andrew Poppy: Always so many thoughts for new projects. A new piano piece happened last month, not sure if it’s finished. But Hoarse Songs certainly isn’t finished and I’m excited that it’s getting positive responses in so many places. There is a complete set of videos to air and shows to play. Looking forward to all that.
Hoarse Songs and previous releases available at http://www.andrewpoppy.co.uk/FIELD_RADIO.html