Friday, 25 November 2016

a love letter to Anna Meredith

Here are some things that the Anna Meredith gig at the Scala reminded me of:

I'm aged about 20 and I'm watching Tortoise play live in a drab room above a pub in the wastelands of Camden. I feel like I'm on ecstasy because I want to kiss everyone in the room, because they're playing Cornpone Brunch – a song that sounds so tempered on record, so constrained – and it's exploding, propelling, the four arms of the two drummers blurring, the rhythm taut but expanding, swelling, the melody so joyful, beaming, and I know, I know that it's impossible for my body to feel happier, more full and flushed with the sheer fucking rapture of being alive, than it does right now in this room. It is one of four times I see Tortoise play in the space of barely a week, and every single one of those shows triggers the same rush of euphoria.

It's 1996: another day, same era. The needle falls on Squarepusher's Port Rhombus EP. There's a bubble of melody like the glint of tropical fish just out of reach of the sun, and the febrile click of an electronic drum pattern that gets faster and faster until it jitters uncontrolled, multiplying, erupting, splintering, contracting into order then accelerating again. My heartbeat, seduced by the melancholy of the chords, responds to the drumbeat in kind; muscles glitch in rhythm. It's only three songs but the speed of it, the concentration of it, the sheer fucking energy of it, leave me winded.

Aphex Twin. I mean, there was a moment back there when it felt like Aphex Twin was basically god, right?

It's some time in 2008, and I'm working on a column called Readers Recommend for the Guardian. Each week I choose a topic and readers suggest songs related to it, and I choose two playlists, a top 10 which gets published in the paper, and a b-list, like a runners-up prize, for the following week's blog. By this point I know a few things about my taste in music that aren't going to change. I know, for instance, that although I loved Robert Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, Led Zeppelin are repellent. I know that death metal makes me nauseous. And I know prog rock – a phrase I use fairly loosely to describe any ponderous music, probably made in the 1970s, involving flutes and interminable guitar solos – is awful. I cannot abide guitar solos. Not even when Jimi is playing them.

I can't remember any more why it came up, but one week on Readers Recommend someone suggested the song In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. I listen to it. And I'm... transported. It's utterly compelling. Dramatic, rousing, delicate, taking all the time it needs to develop, to tell its story not just narratively but melodically. I'm listening to it again now for the first time in a few years, and sure, part of me wants to claim that I was under the influence of Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, but another part of me is also thinking: swoon.

The thing about Tortoise, Sqaurepusher, Aphex and King Crimson (King fucking Crimson though), in case it's not already obvious, is: they're all men. And so the intoxication, the sheer fucking elation of the Anna Meredith gig has, somewhere in the mix, a profound gratitude and satisfaction at seeing a woman – a woman in her late-30s at that – in control of those rapid-fire drumbeats, those arcs of sound, those reins of contain and release. I felt a little sad that the song at the Scala that met with the quietest cheer was Last Rose, sung by Meredith in a voice high and light as a helium balloon: for sure it was restrained, a fragile tempered thing, but that's part of Meredith's skill, the complexity and integrity with which she balances turbulence and composure.

I first saw her in March this year, by accident really: I was looking for gig reviews to pitch to the Guardian, her name had come up when I was working on texts for the new website of the National Youth Orchestra, where she's much admired for her composition Body Parts – no instruments, music made from the slap of hands against faces, torsos, legs, hands, the click and thump of skin against muscle, flab, fabric, skin – and I figured it'd be interesting to see what a contemporary classical composer might be doing in a pop framework. At the ICA, Meredith and her band all wore black with gold accents – best was drummer Sam Wilson, with a huge gold-mirror dinosaur skeleton necklace from Tatty Divine – and played like they'd found the key to harnessing the electricity of the skies. Frantic, screeching riffs that I'd assumed were constructed on synthesisers turned out to be played on live cello, fingers swarming across strings like a colony of cockroaches confronted by lamplight. Wilson might have been both drummers from Tortoise synthesised into one. There was a tuba – a fucking tuba! sorry, I know, too much swearing – strident, resplendent, absurd in its enormity. And over at the side, behind a bank of keyboards dressed in tacky gold velvet, with drums and glockenspiel and occasionally wielding a clarinet, was Meredith, giggling with the fun of it all, thanking us profusely – I'm acting like it's a wedding, she said – bouncing about in a way I'll wager she never gets to do in the concert halls where her other compositions are performed. That was it for me: absolute, undying love. I went and bought the album from her at the merch stall and could barely even speak.

That gig was great: the Scala gig was even better. I stood almost at the front, hairs on both arms fizzing, ribcage ruptured by the weight of the bass, beaming and basking. Six months of playing together has made the band harder, faster, stronger: Meredith composes tight, so every track stays true to the recording, just with the voltage emphatically cranked. What's startling about the arrangements in the instrumentals – that is, the more vigorous and invigorating music – is how rhythmically unstable it is: she'll start in one tempo but will surreptitiously slip in another, forcing the rest of the instruments to adjust to the shift, and then she'll do it again, each time creating a lurch, a dissonance, but also the pleasure of pattern slipping into place, of a Rubik's cube suddenly resolving. And while in a, let's say, prog-ish setting her instruments might be given individual spotlight attention, here they are embedded in the unit; there's a lot of fiddly business on the guitar but it's always integral to the texture, the warp to the cellos' weft.

If I were trying really hard to be critical (ha!) I'd wonder if the exactitude of the playing might have a downside, a lack of improvisatory spontaneity, but Meredith is smarter than that, too: she knows just how to transform each each gig into a unique event. Her Scala show began with her and Wilson on stage, all but shrouded in darkness, and a second drummer similarly concealed ON THE BALCONY ABOVE THE AUDIENCE and I'm using capitals because in what, 25 years of dedication to live music I don't recall seeing the like: Meredith extracted a ticklish, skitterish drum track from her computer, which Wilson intermittently interrupted with a clatter on his drums, the light momentarily illuminating him then instantly flicking over to the second drummer (Chris Brice) who gave a clatter on his. And so it continued for a good five minutes, the three of them playing with dynamics, with anticipation and surprise, the whole thing fiendishly intricate, the flash and lunge of a sword fight translated into light and sound. (I discover later that this is one of Meredith's “contemporary classical” works, Brisk Widow: as if we didn't already know that the distinctions are arbitrary and pointless.) In the middle, Meredith did the same little advertisement for the merch stall that she gave at the ICA, only this time the band performed a faintly sleazy, 1970s cocktail lounge soundtrack behind it, gloopy as an orange lava lamp. And then at the end, they stomped their way through a raucous version of the Proclaimer's 500 Miles and it was like that moment late in a wedding party when the DJ drops something stupendously, ridiculously obvious and everyone loses their shit on the dancefloor, the Scala crowd yelling along with the chorus in a vocal equivalent of dads pogoing to Parklife.

At the ICA the ludicrous cover was a scuzzed mutation of Jennifer Rush's shoulder-padded time capsule The Power of Love. And this is the other genius thing about Meredith: how liberal she is in her love of music, the evident absence of snobbery in her tastes. She will flirt with bombast, embrace bad taste, risk embarrassment, because she knows that's all nonsense: what matters is how a song sounds and so makes a body feel. If it sounds bewilderingly like Queen, Dizzee Rascal, Metallica and the Field Mice all playing their way at once, but makes the heart pump undiluted bliss, where's the bad in that?

I'm doing it again, framing her within references to men. And at the risk of repetition, although fuck it, this one bears repeating: it means so, so much (to me, but also generally) that Meredith is a woman, in her late-30s, the time when women conventionally are being told to listen out for their biological clocks and get on with the business of making babies, casting off every possible shackle of expectation, labelling, convention, to play. That's what she's doing, not just playing music but playfulling music, so that it's as light and silly and borderline pompous as it is fierce, rigorous, punctilious. There's an interview with her in the Quietus where she talks sidelong about that spirit of play; I'm going to quote it in full because it's gorgeous:
[S]inging was a bit scary, and it's definitely a step on from anything I've ever done before. But there's a real accountability thing with this album. I wanted it to tie in with it feeling like I've done everything on it, and I also always want to push myself. I can't think of anything – in a musical sense – where I've ever said: "Oh no, that's too much for me." Or, "I can't do that, it's too scary." So even though I definitely do not have the best voice, it is my voice, and that's what this whole thing is about. It's honest. It's not very polished. But that's how I sing – like a squeaky five-year-old boy [laughs]. I've made that work for me. I've got loads of amazing singer mates that I could have used, but I wanted not to make it seem like anyone else. I really wanted to make it clear that there was no one else behind the record. There's not some dude behind the scenes who's actually doing all the stuff. This has, from start to finish, been my thing.

And when I've done everything, start to finish, I think it's important to point that out. Hopefully it's also a good role model for younger girls, to feel that they can do it. Whenever I'm teaching teenage girl composers, the one thing I always say is don't be too daunted by stuff you don't know how to do. Because, having dipped my toe into this whole world, I've realised that there are as many factions and preconceptions and problems and rules [in pop] as there are in classical music. Someone, somewhere will always tell you what they think you should be doing. But all you should really be doing is working out what you want to do, and what you can do for yourself.
You couldn't ask for a better guide to living than that.