composer/musician/ZTT artist

Andrew Poppy - Introduction 

Andrew Poppy, 1985 (Photograph: A.J. Barratt)


Although Andrew Poppy is classified as a minimalist composer and musician, any comparisons with other artists like Glass, Mertens or Nyman are totally out of line. The only thing he has in common with Wim Mertens is probably his young age. The music of Andrew Poppy is totally different. This is a clear change when compared to the start of his musical career. With his group The Lost Jockey he produced two albums containing repetitive minimal sounds avant la lettre. Currently, he produces albums under his own name on the ZTT label. This month his second album Alphabed shows the light of day. For his concert in the Netherlands, Andrew Poppy has prepared a special solo performance on piano.
[from the 'TegenTonen' festival brochure, May '87]


Andrew Poppy, 1987 (Photograph: Jane Brown)

An interview with Andrew Poppy

by Rafa Dorado

© 1997 by Margen

When did you become interested in music and composing? Formal Education? Influences?

My first clear musical memory as a child was through radio, an Elvis Presley track called Wooden Heart. That must have been in the late 50s. I was talking to my father recently about life in the 50s and 60s. We listened to the radio. The saturation of television is very recent. Our family brought a TV so we could watch the 1966 world cup. I did not go to the cinema as a child. I was 12 before I started to watch moving images. Times have changed haven’t they?

So radio was very important. I had piano lessons when I was about 10 but I found it uninspiring. About 13 or 14 I began listening to the pirate radio stations and pop music. I began improvising blues at the piano I can remember the Beatles first big hits I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. I was listening to odd bits of classical which my father had, Beethoven which I liked. The bulk of the classical repertoire stuff didn’t touch me, or rather I didn’t hear it. I started having ad hoc piano lessons with a family friend. I didn’t want to study the piano just learn how to play Beethoven sonatas. I heard Stockhausen on the radio when I was about 14 or 15 that was important and then I got a record from the local library a piece called Kurzwellen. As a response I made my first tape piece with backward sounds and recording noises and doing bits of crude dubbing with the sound on sound facility of my fathers tape recorder. About the same time I wrote my first song. A school friend had a band of sorts and I was desperate to be in it. I bought an acoustic guitar and learned the chords to the Animals The House of the Rising Sun as everybody does. Then the band needed a bass player and I bought a bass guitar and learned that. I became a McCartney fan. I had one of those violin shaped Hoffner basses. Latter, we got more interested in improvisation Jack Bruce of the Cream became something of a model and I listened to lot of Hendrix.

When I was about 17 I became disillusioned with playing in a rock band and I decided I needed a proper musical education. I had left school and started working in an electronics factory. I started to take proper piano lessons, did my piano grade exams, wrote little piano pieces and eventually went to study on a music course in London at Kingsway college. That was 1972. The experience at this college completely changed my life. My tutor there was a young composer called Dave Smith who was connected to Cornelius Cardew and all the very new things that were happening. He was writing a thesis about repetitive music. He knew all the early American Minimalists. Although nobody called it minimalism then. I first heard Reich’s Piano Phase and Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion in 1972 in a concert of about 20 people. Dave was completely immersed in this music and gave many 2 piano concerts with John Lewis. It took me a long time to understand how this music could inform my own attempts at writing. Actually I stopped writing anything, there was so much to absorb. I discovered Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy, I learned to play my Beethoven Piano sonata properly and a bit of Chopin but the standard 19th century classical repertoire still did not appeal to me. After Kingsway I studied music at Goldsmiths College London University and continued to study piano. I was only really interested in 20th century music and mostly the most radical things since the war. Berio, Cage, etc. I organised a number of performances of Riley’s InC and performed Glass’ Music in Fifth in a solo piano version and the piano part in Webern’s Concerto for 9 instruments. With fellow students Helen Ottaway and Jeremy Peyton Jones we made concerts outside college where we played Feldman’s The Viola in My Life and our own things. I started to write pieces around 1978. This time fully notated.

Having been introduced to the new American music by Dave Smith my interest was encouraged by the new music critic and writer Keith Potter who was on the staff at Goldsmiths. I was lucky enough to meet both John Cage and Christian Wolff during this period. Christian Wolff gave some lectures and formed an ensemble to play a concert in London and make a radio broadcast. I played percussion and keyboard in this ensemble. We played some pieces called Exercises and Songs. During the 70’s Eno's Obscure label released a number of records which featured Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, John White and Nymans book Cage and Beyond came out. When I left Goldsmiths I started working as an accompanist at the Laban Center of Dance and Movement. This was a dance school set up by Bonnie Bird, an American woman who had worked with Cage and Cunningham back in the 30s-40s. In 1980 Cage and Cunningham ran a music and dance summer school which I attended. Everyone did dance classes with one of Cunningham’s dancers and under Cage’s guidence each composer made a solo piece which were then played together at the same time.

Less than a year after leaving University I met Orlando Gough who has been involved in making concerts of minimal music with Michael Nyman and Ben Mason. We were both interested in playing the new American music and writing our own stuff. This was the beginning of The Lost Jockey. The first concert was at the Air Gallery in London in October 1981 I think. The group consisted of Orlando Gough, Charlie Seward, John Barker, Jeremy Birchill and myself all playing keyboards and Rory Allam playing bass clarinet. The concert consisted of Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths, Reich’s Four Organs my own Cadenza and Gough’s Traditional Values. Cadenza is probably the first piece that seems to be complete somehow. It has been the most performed for any of my pieces to date. It was written before The Lost Jockey came into being and had been performed a few times by Helan Ottaway and myself. Rehearsals for The Lost Jockey were a kind of open house at Orlando’s squat in Warren Street in the centre of London. We had touched a chord somewhere. After every new concert new people turned up wanting to play. At some point there were about 30 people connected with the group. It was mad and chaotic. We made a straight to stereo record for Crepescule with Garath Jones and then we met the EMI producer and engineer John Leckie who took us into Abbey Road to record. Which was an amazing experience because studio 2 still had the old EMI built desk with curved faders. This was a fantastic opportunity that the group squandered by being in a constant state of disorganisation. Sorry I have probably wandered away from the questions.

What are some of your different creative approaches to writing. Are there any usual procedures or does it depend on each project (chamber orchestra, theatre, opera...)?

The main difference in approach is between things that are going to be performed live by musicians and things that will only be recordings. Because recording is a creative medium that is both separate from the compositional work and curiously part of it. If you work directly on tape or with a sequencer you by pass some of the traditional work. I feel ambivalent about this. It is sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Something like Goodbye Mr G has its roots in a piece that is notated. But the notation was only a frame work. The piece was made as the result of committing to the innate nature of recording. It only exists as a recording. Like The Beatles I am the Walrus. Of course the text existed before and that’s the key. The lyrics do the structuring work. It's like songs. My feeling is that songs are really a literary/poetic form rather than a musical one. Making music without language is very different from making it with language. So, the concert pieces have the most thought out musical logic. With Opera or Music Theatre language has such an important gravitational pull on things that purely the musical process often seems irrelevant. In the theatre the dramatic implication of the narrative sometimes pulls against the implication of musical material.

Tell me about your experiences in the group The Lost Jockey, What are the main differences between this group and your solo projects?

Lost Jockey was like a football match in which there are 5 teams playing on the same ground instead of the traditional 2. There was also at least 3 different refs. and one was playing by rugby union rules. There were so many different agendas. In retrospect it was a fascinating time. It really made me think about what I wanted to be part of. What I wanted to do at the beginning of the group was to play a certain type of rhythmic and pulse based chamber music. The sort of music where you are very connected to the other members of the ensemble. Like rock or jazz. All the musicians play almost all of the time. This makes everything very connected. In a lot of classical music some musicians will only play for a very short period of time. If you look down into the pit at the opera house the percussionist will be probably be reading the paper. When the group became very large the connection between players disappeared. So in the Lost Jockey, because all the lines were very simple and double many times so everyone could play, it did not matter if you dropped out or not. You could mime and nobody would know. It was self defeating, especially when the group work idea had a political/ideological edge to it. There was also never adequate time for rehearsing and that was very frustrating.

When I left I decided to concentrate on recording and began looking for a record company. It seemed to me that the recording process gives you the same kind of focus that you have when you are writing a piece. But it’s focused on performance and the construction of a recording. That is what I wanted. Not the endless fudge of badly prepared performances.

Your style is the perfect mix between rock/pop music and elements of minimalism, ambient, electronic and chamber contemporary musics. Are you comfortable with this opinion?

All of those things seems to be in there somewhere. It’s a kind of stew. Something to warm you up in the cold winter. I remember being interviewed by a German radio station and they asked me. Is it fusion music? No, I said, its con-fusion music. But seriously the surface of the music seems to constantly change. Perhaps it’s exploration, perhaps something less noble.

How do you know when a piece is really done? Have you ever looked back on a finished album with regrets about a particular piece?

There are always stages of reworking pieces. For a long time I felt that Listening In was unfinished, or had not reached its ultimate state. That is why I made three versions: the album, the 7 inch and the 12 inch version which is called Kink Konk Presto. Kink Konk Adagio East Fragment. The feeling is not as strong as regret because I did the best I could at the time in the situation. I can see short comings with everything that I have done but I feel you have to put your limitations into perspective. I wish I had done a different vocal or got someone else to do the vocal. But it’s hard to understand the meaning of your own work. I know that many people who I respect really like this piece.

In the last few years as a solo composer how have you changed as a writer? What elements have remained? Do you think your recent music is more accessible than your early music or vice versa?

6 The earlier music is probably more accessible. But I do not consciously wear different hats. Obviously things come out differently because of the materials and methods. Samples and computers and a string quartet sound different what ever you do. What is important is that there is some poetic centre to each piece. That is where the consistency is. I do not feel that I must always have the same sound. In fact exactly the opposite. Once I have explored one area I move on. The last 6 or 7 years I have been working with very traditional classical instrumentation. This is because I spent an enormous amount of time between about 84-89 working in the studio with computers samplers and synthesisers and making record productions and tapes for theatre productions. I felt that the work in the studio denied some aspects of traditional performance. It also moved me away from traditional aspects of composition. In the last 8 years or so I think that I’ve re-addressed some of this. But probably the tide is about to turn again.

I think Ophelia/Ophelia is a turning point in your career. How did you conceive this work?

I would be very interested to know why you think that. There were two seminal theatrical experiences for me in the 1970s, they were discovering Samuel Beckett’s plays Waiting for Godot and End Game and seeing Robert Wilson perform I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating. Since then I’ve wondered about how you could do this musically. It became clear at some point that what I was really thinking about was some kind of Opera but perhaps not the 19th century version. Some years ago I made incidental music for Corilanus and then Macbeth. It got me thinking about Shakespeare again. I had the idea of doing something based on Hamlet soliloquies and then I shifted the idea. Ophelia is Hamlet’s foil. The two equal voices is a very interesting thing that I had explored in Cadenza and I had worked with Margaret Cameron on my opera of Tennessee William’s Baby Boll. So as I wrote the piece we worked together. Ophelia/Ophelia was nominated by the ICSM for performance in Copenhagen as part of the European City of Culture Festival. But I could not raise the money for a production.

Eight Movements for Piano Trio from the CD Rude Bloom is a work in a contemporary classical vein but totally different from a work of pure minimalism like 45 Is from the CD Alphabed. You are a composer of many resources. If some one who does not know your music listens to these pieces, they might not believe they are by the same person because they sound so different. What is the secret of dominating so many musical styles? What is the reason to be so eclectic?

It could be about post modernist relativism or confusion. One day I listen to Pulp’s I Spy and then I listen to Schnitka’s Faust Cantata which I love, or Harrision Birtwistle’s Earth Dances or Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments. I need it all. I’ve recently been listening to Glass' Violin Concerto and The Manic Street Preachers' Design for life. They all have an influence somehow, perhaps, I’m not attempting to copy or to quote and it’s not a technical exercise.

In fact I think that technically there are very similar things going in each of my pieces in terms of the organisation of rhythm and pitch and harmony. The fact that they sound different is something to do with a modernist or post modernist exploration of form and structure. I do not think there is one of my piece that has the same form or structure as another one. This approach has an effect on the surface. The sound of the music. It’s as if the premise is that the sound defines the form. And this is the post modern condition. The surface, the sound, is completely detachable from the rhythmic melodic and harmonic structure. The implication has always been there with transcriptions and arrangements but it has new meaning with digital technology. I understood it clearly when I first worked with the Fairlight Mk1 music computer back in 1984 with Blue Weaver. Digital and computer technology is rooted to the idea of the sample and the collage technique. I could programme a piece on the computer and then almost in an instant make a new piece just by changing the sounds.

Writing music is also a form of listening. What the listener’s gets is the shape and colour of the composer’s listening. For a composer it’s about how extreme you want your variations to be. How big your jumps from moment to moment. Perhaps there is a game of hide and seek going on. Perhaps it is about not wanting to be nailed down. I have always been fascinated by variation technique. In Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations there are 33 versions of the same music. It’s odd. How can there be 33 different pieces that are in some way the same? This balance of repetition and difference has been at the heart of what I do.

In your piece Melody Versus The Brittle Funk, I would say that there is a strong influence of chamber rock groups (Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, Henry Cow, R.I.O.) Are you O.K. with this opinion.

What ever connection you want to make is fine by me. If that is what you hear. That is your creative part of the process. I know the names but I do not know the music of any of the groups that you mention. I was aware of Soft Machine in the 70s.

At this point in your career as a recording artist, you’ve spread your stylistic boundaries further than most would ever have dreamed (electronic, electro-acoustic, classical, minimalism, rock) What other musical realms await a sonic explorer such as yourself?

I would like to make a new record and have a new band that is the next thing. But I don’t think in a self conscious way "OK now I’ll do rock or now I’ll do classical". It’s about going with my feeling of what I want to explore musically.

What does the term 'new music' mean to you? Are you involved in this style or do you prefer the term contemporary classical?

I don’t mind. For some time now I have been thinking that it is important to understand what tradition your working in. I think Steve Reich and particularly Philip Glass are wonderful examples. They rejected the narrowness of the classical concert world and reinvented it and built a bridge with/from popular culture. Yet there is no doubt that they are in the classical tradition. Traditions are defined, amongst other things, by their production processes and ways of thinking. They would probably not like it to be said but what Boulez and Glass are doing is closer to each other than they are to rock music or jazz. Notation is at the heart of western classical tradition and it is far more than an aid to memory. It is a sophisticated conceptual tool. It is also through notation that we have access to the history of classical music. Even though Cage and Glass seem to have rejected a lot of history they do it from the point of view of being within it. Sometimes repetitive dance music gets connected with the so called American Minimalist thing and of course there are many levels of connection. But it’s important to see the musical object in a context. Cultural objects exist in a stream of thought that exists in time and are connected to other times and to specific places. We, especially in the urban centres, in the late 1990’s have access to an enormous amount of music from very different times and places and it gives us the feeling that the world is a supermarket. That everything is interchangeable or cross fertilise-able. It’s an illusion. There are some hybrids perhaps? Kraftwerk and Can perhaps? I’m not making a value judgement here, but trying to understand where we are. Butter and egg yokes are both yellow but cows milk does not have the potential to fly however long its incubated.

Tell me about your concerts. How is your music received by the audience?

The last concert I played was at Nottingham University where I played Movie Momento for solo piano. Poems and Toccatas with Anna Hemmery and Cadenza with Glyn Perrin. The people had a good time I think. When I was at ZTT I occasionally had a 9 piece band with drums. That was a wilder affair. And this is what I hope to do again soon. The main problem is without being connected to a major label or distributor or publisher it is hard to find financial support to start it off. Yes, I would love to come to Spain. Most especially I would love to come to Spain.

How do you view the current new music/electronic music scene and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?

I like all the repetitive dance stuff. Orbital especially I haven’t heard much electro-acoustic music recently.

Tell me about your own label Bitter and Twisted. When did you create it. What was the purpose?

Bitter and Twisted Records and Productions also known as B TRAP was created to make my own production both recorded and live. All recent CDs have been B TRAP productions. It started in 1992.

Anything about your current work you would like to add.

Last year I was commissioned by Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I wrote a piece called Horn Horn. It’s a concerto for 2 alto saxophones. It was premiered in Liverpool on 19th March 1997 and the soloists were John Harle and Simon Haram. My piece was sandwiched between two Russan’s Prokoviev Symphone No 5 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture. It’s hard to be in such well known company but I think it came off very well. It’s such an amazing thing The Orchestra.

For the last two years I have been Head of Music at the National Film and Television School. That has been a lot of fun. Although the aesthetics of main stream film making is very rigid and conceptually and musically formulaic a lot of the time. I have plans for my own projects in this area.