TIME TRAVEL [Andrew Poppy on Zang Tuum Tumb]
It's 2005. There's a beautiful blue and grey box set in a jiffy bag delivered to my door. It's a ZTT box set, featuring most of composer Andrew Poppy's recordings for the company; albums and singles, including an unreleased album. I've been looking forward to this for some time.
It's 1981, the beginning of the music decade we are told we love to hate. Somewhere and somehow rhythm, minimalism, krautrock and post-punk collide and Regular Music and Lost Jockey are born, two ensembles who specialise in energetic contemporary classical music. Andrew Poppy, co-founder of Lost Jockey, gives music critic John Gill a call at Time Out magazine, and also contacts weekly music newspaper Melody Maker.
Andrew, what did John Gill make of your music? I knew him more as someone championing jazz-rock, progrock, krautrock and experimental post-punk music. Did he have a clue about contemporary classical music? Was he surprised to hear from you? Did he like the music these ensembles were making?
John was very knowledgeable and open minded. He lives with the composer Graham Collier who does a kind of improvisation meets composition thing coming out of Mingus/Gill Evans. One of my best friends at University was the Flautist saxophonist Geoff Warren and he played in Graham's band. Then in 1980 Graham wrote a musical called A Kind of Game and I was roped in to play bass guitar in the small on stage band. John was really into Kraftwerk and the way that repetition works in the early minimal music was similar I think. It seemed obvious when Lost Jockey got going to contact him. He came and heard us and then give us a feature in Time Out. This led to John Leckie coming to one of our concerts at the Air Gallery and the ensemble going into Abbey Road.
It seems very obvious now, to use marketing and media in this way to attract new audiences, but I suspect it was quite unusual at this time, especially in the classical world. Did you feel ahead of the game? Did it do you any good in the short or long term?
Looking back I suppose I intuitively understood something about presentation. If you want an audience at all there has to be some kind of communication strategy. I suppose some University composers, from the security of tenure, and the fact that the student body is a captive audience, might think that trying to create a popular platform for so called serious music damages the work. But historically this fracture between what is of serious value and what can have popular appeal is very recent. I mean Shakespeare was popular by all accounts. So there has to be a way of letting people know that something exists. We're not in a village situation where everyone knows what's going on. Catching peoples attention becomes a very important job in the cycle of creating something and an audience experiencing it. Marketing is a necessary part of culture in mass society, you may as well deal with it creatively.
It's 1985 and Andrew Poppy is signed to ZTT, where Paul Morley and Trevor Horn hold court. Frankie Goes to Hollywood have put money in the coffers, and everything looks good.
Many people say the ZTT bands were simply used by Morley [media and hype] and Horn [production and session musicians] for their own ends, and eventually said bands, realising they were merely pawns in a musical marketing game, went belly up. But Poppy alone seems to have retained control - he was the only ZTT artist to produce his own records. And what records they were!
The Beating of Wings, his debut, is a beast of two parts. The first two tracks are pure orchestral energy, layers and layers of slowly changing lines pulsing and shimmering out of the speakers. Think Philip Glass and Terry Riley, think light sparkling hypnotically on a fast-moving river. Then 'Listening In' arrives, a work more concerned with rhythm than melody, and one assembled in the studio.
Andrew, I have to be honest and say that, for me, 'Listening In' sounds of its time - more like Peter Gabriel meets Jon Hassell and jams with 23 Skidoo than what we'd expect from Andrew Poppy. [Actually that meeting of musicians sounds quite good!] Those awful rotatom and drum sounds are pure 80s. What do you think?
'I have to disagree with you on your police work there pete'
It sound like you're not into 'Listening In', which is fine. But all the percussion sounds are custom made samples put into the AMS and triggered from a sequencer. There's no synthetic drums. There's the Linn drum snare and bass drums which yes I can see now that does place it very much in the 80s. But all of the other percussion pattern are original sounds. I'm hitting the drum.
Obviously technology has moved on, and you were working with Fairlights and early drum machines. Would you make this track differently now?
It's got a unique sound that comes from the way it was put together. Impossible to reproduce.
The original album finishes with 'Cadenza for Piano and Electric Piano', an interesting piece where the electric piano slowly gains control of the piece, subverting both the sound of the acoustic instrument and the listener's expectations, since the piece begins as a gentle lilting tune yet moves toward repetition and echo. In fact, by the time it ends on a single note endlessly repeated it verges on being bloody annoying!
On CD1 of the box set, however, we move on to the first of several different versions/edits of pieces featured on the box set, the most importany - and lengthy - of which is 'The Impossible Net', which revisits and reinvents '32 Frames', adding a new piano solo, playing with tempo, and generally working in the studio to collage and dub mix the music.
Andrew, you've talked about your idea of 'The Impossible Net' being a frame [or grid; a net even!] to hang sounds on, but one that starts to break down. Can you expand on that idea?
It's very simple variation form. (See Goldberg or Diabelli.) The chord sequence stays the same whilst the style and character of the music changes. The repetition of the sequence sets up expectation. One of the things about making repetitive music is that it has to have some internal tension to really work. So that you want to hear whatever it is repeated again. You cant just repeat anything. With '32 Frames/The Impossible Net' it's a classic device of the augmented 4th interval in the bass which means after just 4 chords you're sort of on the edge of a precipice. (It's the way the flute solo and the structure of Debussy's 'L'Apres Midi Du Une Faun' works.) Although this was reached in an intuitive way. I didn't sit down and say I'll have a tritone in the base. I'm sure with poetry you don't say I'll just invert this iambic foot. That's an analytic tool that comes later. Although I think that cooler reflecting has an important part to play in the process of making something.
Anyway 'The Impossible Net' tries to break down the inevitability of the repetition. It does this in two ways through the chance of tempo and the shift in the key. So after being lulled into the hypnotic state there are a couple of lurches which rip a big hole in the momentum. Like a curtain opening the machine makes way for the completely improvised fantasy on F minor. And a collaged one at that. I didn't make the piano solo to go there originally but I recognised that it was absolutely the right thing once I started working on 'The Impossible Net'.
In retrospect, it seems that you were just one of several individuals or groups of musicians becoming aware of the idea of the studio as instrument. Brian Eno and This Heat spring to mind, perhaps Peter Gabriel again. I mean Lee Perry and dub plates had been around a while but no-one seemed to have taken any notice. Then suddenly the intellectuals are lecturing on 'the studio', and every pop band has a 12-inch single out with at least one different remix on, preferably on coloured vinyl!
It's about the creative object losing it's certainty under pressure from mechanical reproduction. Which is the real film Apocalypse Now or Apocalypse Now - the Directors cut? If it's the former what does this situation say about authorship? I know film's a bit different but even so.
Trevor Horn was obviously well ahead of the game in production terms. How much of an influence did he have on the way you worked?
He has high standards so you have to make it work. But he wasn't standing over my shoulder, just really encouraging. I wasn't new to making records or working with technology. We had a long conversation just after I was signed to the label where he started to talk to me about Tomita, a 70s Japanese musician who did versions of Debussy on synths. A kind of Wendy Carlos for 20th century music. I was a bit shocked because I wanted to make something more edgy and with musicians as well. 'Kink Konk Adagio' couldn't get further away really it sound so tribal.
I suppose because Trevor productions were always chasing the latest technology I was able to see what was going on first hand. But the Fairlight wasn't new to me, I'd already done a big theatre project with it. But the Fairlight was very expensive and a big machine more like a Hammond organ. I can't remember exactly but probably sometime in 87 Steve Lipson got a Compaq portable computer running an early voyetra sequencer. He could take it home. Immediately I wanted one. I'd always worked with programmers, like doing dictation, putting in the notes etc. I just wanted to be able to get hands on.
And Paul Morley? Were you happy to work with him on advertising and image? For me he is such a great mixture of bullshit, intelligence and wit! He was, probably still is, a big fan of Andrew Poppy?
I bumped into Paul again in about 98 at a party. He said something like 'If I'd been running ZTT you'd be on your 16 album by now.' But actually that period of the label was so strong because of the cohesion of a classic team, Jill Sinclair doing the business, Trevor having the musical visions and expertise and Paul working on the presentation and images. And given that I was a kind of law unto my self if any of them had not been really interested in what I was contributing to the label then I'd have been out on my ear. If you read Ian Peel's article for Record Collector on ZTT you see how many acts were signed that never made a record. I feel very luck to have made two or three.
CD2 of the box set contains the Andrew Poppy album I treasure most, Alphabed – except it doesn't. Disappointingly, for me, it contains the 7-inch and 12-inch edits of 'The Amusement' instead of the Complete Version originally on the album. Never mind it's still stunning stuff, and the two single versions make good aural bookends to this box-set version of the album.
'45 is' is a fast-moving 20-minute trance piece with slowly shifting repetitions and patterns with overlaid ensemble voices. Think minimalism, think loops, think high-energy systems music. Think masterpiece. Even better still is 'Goodbye Mr G', a moody low-tempo piece featuring Annette Peacock on sultry vocals and lots of rhythmic and percussive detail.
Dear Mr Poppy, whatever has happened to the complete/original album version of 'The Amusement'? Come on, defend yourself! I like it a lot; it should be on the box set. Yours sincerely, Mr. Grumpy of Exeter.
Dear Mr Grumpy I'm really sorry. I thought that it worked much better with the two other versions enveloping '45 is' and 'Goodbye Mr G'. When we were making Alphabed originally it was primarily for vinyl. CD was only just catching on. It's hard if you're making long pieces to deal with 25 minutes a side. There is actually an end section of '45 is' that we did live which I cut because it didn't make the record work. But I'm happy with that. It's interesting how Feldman has really flourished in the context of CD because it suits his long endless soft music. But he died before CD took off. PS Life's too short!
The final three tracks on CD2 are more revisits to 'Listening In', a kind of mini-[editing?]-suite. You were unhappy with the original by that time, yes?
It's partly that I was making a b side for the Amusement 12 inch. Also the way that the percussion was set up on the multi-track, there was an infinite number of mixes. In a way there always are. I was exploring something.
Are you happy with the work now? Which version is the final one of 'Listening In'? Or are they variations on a theme?
Never really completely happy but occasionally I have fun. I played 'Kink Konk Adagio' for people recently at a party and really enjoyed it. Yes, variations on a theme.
It's 1988. Paul Morley and Trevor Horn's version of ZTT is falling apart and Andrew Poppy's third album, Under the Son is recorded but never released. The new box set contains, we are told, 'the majority' – 38 minutes; three tracks – from that album. The three tracks continue the trajectory of the first two: rock dynamics and minimalism combine to stunning effect. 'The Sequence' is not a million miles from 'Goodbye Mr G', but is much more uptempo; 'The Passage' seems to me a more successful take on ideas first found on 'Listening In'. But here much of the percussion is real, not sampled or electronic; the elastic web of rhythm stretched and pulled, compressed and deformed, before bouncing back to its original shape. Sounds appear and disappear - the sleeve notes highlight a cello sound replaced by a pneumatic drill, which is then slowed to become a kind of drum roll. This may sound tricksy, but this is Poppy, or compiler & commentator Ian Peel, telling us something that isn't actually what we hear. Well, it is, but we don't note it as such. I hadn't noticed any drill samples, simply the intriguing musical changes, with constant returns to a sung chorus, which occasionally itself becomes transformed into breathing or grunts. It's definitely another studio composition!
The album, and indeed the box set, finishes with 'Sometimes It Rains', a lumbering, almost progrock finale. Apparently built from samples, it clatters and honks & hoots its way along like King Crimson at their very best, before the drums drop out of the mix and leave the other samples to run, a faint piano somewhere low in the mix. It's a fantastic if brief piece of music, that I wish had gone on for a lot longer.
Under the Son is an unusual title. Can you tell us where that came from?
It's hard to know when to spell things out and when not to. At a general level a title is just a handle to pick something up. To identify it. But I like it when something is a little ambiguous, it makes the mind search for meaning in an interesting way I think. I want there to be a poetic idea. So there's always a number of layers going into titles or lyric. If you want, here is the kind of train of thought for me. It's some kind of pun on 'Nothing new under the sun' (Donne) and 'the sun shone on the nothing new' (Beckett) but with the 'new' wrong spelling on son. The son obviously having a resonance of the son of the father. Of God and of course now G.B. senior. The 'under' for me suggests living in the context of power. And this connects with The Beating of Wings which again perhaps this is only anecdotally interesting, but that is a reference to Herod at the end of Wilde's Salome. Which I later used as the basis of a chamber Opera. Sun and Wings invoke Icarus and perhaps somewhere I'm talking to myself about my ambition and power. Incidentally David Owen told me that The Beating of Wings is classic Freudian dream imagery for sexual anxiety. I always think about wings at the end of 'The Impossible Net', the sound of the reverbs and delays dyeing away. Something has flown the coup. Can I just add a rider to all this. The music isn't expressing any of these things. I think of literary ideas as actually working on a different plane from the musical. Of course they come together in an experience. But that experience is heterogeneous. And we can have this discussion now, in the form of words, about the music, but the music isn't happening. When it is, we're somewhere else. Hopefully in the music.
As we're at this confession thing, 'a mystery dance' is Elvis Costello.
Am I right in my surmising that 'The Passage' uses musical ideas you first worked on with 'Listening In'? Would you agree that it's a more successful track?
Well they are both very sequenced with lots of rhythmic energy. But 'The Passage' is a very different and more ambitious piece. There is a lot more construction in the harmonic and rhythmic things. 'Listening In' is very very simple. Which is fine. I'm really pleased that you like 'The Passage' over 'Listening In' because it's on a much bigger scale and is harder to grasp perhaps. It's been sitting there for 20 years and not many people have heard it. Glyn Perrin was always saying to me what an interesting piece it was and that something should happen to it.
I think 'Sometimes It Rains' is fantastic! Were there other compositions like this at the time? It has a massive presence and 'weight', seems to have come from a different place to most of your music. I love the total shift in the music when the rhythm track drops out. Or do you simply see it as another remix/sampling project?
There are a number of pieces from this time that are still unrecorded. It depends what you mean by 'like this' When I look at any of the pieces I don't see them as being very similar. There are some pieces that have a similar rhythmic energy. 'Sometimes It Rains' is a studio piece. It's all samples accept for a the piano which is played. Perhaps I should do an album like that. In a way Time At rest Devouring Its Secret (released in 2000 on Source Research) is similar in it approach to the studio. But it sounds very different. It's much more lugubrious and melancholy. Actually that piece was part of a larger CD package that I originally put together called Blood Sugar. Hopefully that can see the light of day at some point.
What's it been like hearing all this music again after 15 years or more? How do you feel it works as a body of work?
Well first of all I'm really really grateful to the work that Ian Peel and Pete Garden have put in to get this project out. I really think it's a great package and if you're into the music you can start to see connections and developments now that it's all under one roof.
It's today, June 2005. It would be remiss of me not to point you in the direction of the Andrew Poppy interview published in Stride in 2001, or another recent Andrew Poppy CD: Another Language is a collaboration between Propaganda's Claudia Brücken and Andrew Poppy, a CD of song covers released by There(There) earlier in the year.
Andrew, is Another Language unfinished business between ZTT bands? Or a new project brokered on the back of ZTT's resurrection?
Over the years I've worked with lots of different people. Choreographers, film makers, theatre directors and bands. So collaboration sits next to my own work as it were. But I try not to just be a servant because I think it leads to a blandness. Or that's what I'm afraid of.
And there is a flow of ideas from one thing to the other. Sometimes when I've worked on other peoples records I've lifted things from say my own string quartet when I thought it was appropriate. But there's not hard and fast rule.
I knew Claudia from the days working at Sarm West Studios. I nearly played some piano on the Act single Snobbery and Decay. I've got a very early monitor mix on cassette that Steve Lipson gave me. Beautiful. Claudia and I got chatting again about 5 year ago and although we were both busy on other projects we thought it would be nice to do something together.
Talk us through your choice of covers. Favourites or songs that need better versions that the originals?
They are favourite songs. Or songs that are inspiring for some reason. But in all the arrangements I've tried to follow my own path. And Claudia has a very unique voice and personality in popular music. So its up to you to judge.
Masterpiece or temporary diversion? Major statement or musical aside?
Well in some ways it's a very different from writing original music or texts. On Andrew Poppy on Zang Tumb Tumb there are some tracks which are like
deconstracted songs: 'The Sequence, perhaps 'Listening In' and 'The Amusement'. My chamber opera Baby Boll has more song moments than say Ophelia/Ophelia which is for one voice. But I've been dealing with the voice since the beginning. Of course it connects to those arranging project in the 80s but it's also a way of trying to talk musically about how what I do connects with songs, and with the recent (last 30 years) pop music. Or maybe it's me trying to find out something about that. The opening of 'Running up that Hill' seems to echo something like Glass's 'Music in Similar Motion'. But again it was an intuitive thing. And works with the image of running. It was also recent songs this might connect with other traditions like German Lieder of Schubert. In a way for me the Schubert song was a starting point. I was playing through the Winterisse cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano, every day as part of my practise and realising how amazing they were. Actually 'Die Nebben Sonnen' (which is song 23 in Schubert cycle which I arranged for guitar on Another Language) was a very late addition to the set. But it really completes the package. I hope there are some thought's that are provoked by the project as well as the sensual pleasure of hearing the songs.
Since your ZTT days there has been lots more music composed and played by Andrew Poppy, though not all of it has made it onto CD. Much of it has been for films and performance; other pieces have been commissioned by both prestigious and unknown ensembles or orchestras.
Andrew, a quick run through, if you please, of your most important post-ZTT releases and performances - or some of them!
The best thing is to visit the web site. In the early 90s I made a CD called Recordings that is a straight to stereo recording at Abbey Road of all acoustic music. Piano, piano and violin, string quartet. It was a way to get back to performance and composition. But you live an die by it. The Poems and Toccatas for piano and violin are wonderful performed by Liz Perry and Andrew Ball. But the string quartet performance really needed more work and a better balance. I couldn't afford to do that.
Writing Horn Horn (no relation) for Liverpool Philharmonic was a great pleasure. There are 6 movements and a couple that didn't quite make it to the first and only performance. So there's an album there one day! Jacopo Benci an Italian video maker has made a video using the slow movement and that's gone down well at film festivals
I've been developing projects with director/designer/visual artist Julia Bardsley over the years. Avalanche Thoughts in New York.
It seems to me that the music world is more fragmented than ever, with a hundred different genres each in its own box. How are you going to overcome that this time round?
I don't think I was ever trying to overcome something. I am interested in how things change and being part of that.
The fragmentation mirrors globalisation don't you think. It's a kind of antidote. Making records is now more like a pre-industrial cottage industry than anything. People doing their own thing and setting up in their own way. I'm not romantic or idealistic about the internet though. But it's some kind of change in the way the world works.
The real problem is the failure of the powers that be to understand how culture works. The political left is in some ways worse than the right. Government and big business cream off, trade on what is successful. But it takes the whole network of input to make a rich culture. That's a net work that works inside a culture and through time. Stretching back. As you know I used to be interested in Opera. But it's a dead duck in terms of being a place to be creative. It's absurd the way these 19th century works, the poplar culture of a particular time and place should be funded in advance of contemporary musical culture. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. It's a vain and pompous flattering of a particular class.
What are you writing and recording at the moment? What can we expect next?
There are always more projects in the cupboard than ever get out in the fresh air. There are two projects that are in go mode. One with a wonderful, Portuguese singer Bernado Devlin. Provisionally called Let the Handkerchief Fly. We're hoping to present that in a very original way. It still in development although most of the music is written, I'm also writing something called Levitation and Fall a kind of oratorio for the Estonian National Male Voice Choir conductor Kaspar Putnins. 52 Male voices, mezzo solo, spoken male voice, two percussionists and electronics. The piece will be presented with live sound mix by myself and live vision mix by Julia Bardsley. It's scheduled to premier in Tallin in February 2006. Keep an eye on the web site for more details
It's 2005. There's a beautiful blue and grey box set in a jiffy bag delivered to my door. It's a ZTT box set, featuring most of composer Andrew Poppy's recordings for the company, albums and singles, including an unreleased album. I've been looking forward to this for some time.
Rupert Loydell: Andrew, I wondered if you'd care to do another interview for Stride to tie in with the release of the Andrew Poppy on Zang Tuum Tumb box set? Is this release due to 80s nostalgia or long overdue recognition?
Andrew Poppy: It's pure nostalgia.
Are you going to be a pop star again?
Again? Are you doing something tricksy with the structure here.
© Rupert Loydell & Andrew Poppy 2005